While re-reading the novels for my upcoming grad course this past summer, I suddenly realized I might have inadvertently ruined some of my students’ lives.
Well, not ruined them … I had reread American Gods by Neil Gaiman and Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett, and that was all well and good. Then I moved onto The Winter King, which is the first novel in a trilogy by Bernard Cornwell that reimagines the Arthurian legends from a rigorously historical perspective. That is to say, Cornwell sat down and, starting with the supposition that Arthur actually existed and lived around A.D. 500—which is the generally accepted time frame for Arthur’s supposed existence—posed the question what would Arthur have really been like? And, what would life have been like in Britain? And, what kind of king would he have been?
The answers in his trio of novels—The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur—make for fascinating and engaging reading. I often recommend them: Cornwell, best known for his series of Sharpe novels, is a writer of military historical fiction of the same order as Patrick O’Brian and C.S. Forester. He has, at times, a distressing tendency to be formulaic—unsurprising, perhaps, seeing as how he’s written fifty-one novels in the last thirty-two years (of which the Sharpe series comprises twenty-four), but at his best, no one can write a battle scene or integrate a history lesson into fiction as deftly as he can. And I would say that the Arthur trilogy (which goes by the title “The Warlord Chronicles”) is easily his best work.
The point here is that when I reread The Winter King this summer, it was probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve done so. I know the story, and I know it well. And yet when I came to the end of the novel, there was absolutely nothing else for it but to pick up Enemy of God and carry on with the trilogy. Wait! my mind screamed at me. You’ve read these! You’re only teaching the first one! There is so much else you have to read, why are you doing this?
And that was when I realized I had a problem.
Well, two problems. The primary one is my own narrative addiction. This is a well-documented affliction, and one I have long, and cheerfully, resigned myself to. No NA (Narratives Anonymous) for me. But I worry that I risk passing my addiction on to the younger generation.
Because as I reviewed my reading list for my graduate course, I realized that American Gods and Witches Abroad are the only stand-alone novels I’ve assigned.1 All the rest are parts of series … and except for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, all the rest are the first installments of series: The Winter King, A Game of Thrones, The Magicians, The Steel Remains … The novels by Cornwell, Lev Grossman, and Richard K. Morgan are engaging enough, but they’re the gateway drugs. George R.R. Martin is the crack, the smack, the Heisenberg-quality meth … Like an unscrupulous pusher on a playground, I peddle these wares and it is almost certain I will get a handful of my students hooked.
1. And even then, there are not mere one-offs. Gaiman followed up American Gods with the lesser but still lovely novel Anansi Boys, and Witches Abroad is but one of the nearly forty novels set in Pratchett’s Discworld.