Character Analysis: Derfel Cadarn in The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell
Derfel Cadarn is the protagonist and narrator of The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. At the start of the novels, he is an orphan being raised in Merlin's realm. Merlin took him in, in a way, after a botched sacrifice nearly killed Derfel. Derfel is originally Saxon, but he identifies as British because he was raised as such. Over the course of the series, it becomes clear that Derfel's ties to his homeland are more than meets the eye. In short order, Derfel Cadarn becomes a warrior and friend of Arthur. The novels revolve around the Arthur of legend, but only through his connections to Derfel. Derfel is the true hero of the story.
Initially, it appears that Derfel Cadarn is not much more than a wayward orphan. He is in love with Nimue -- Merlin's favorite. He has no real trade and knows little about the world outside of Merlin's realm. He knows of Arthur and was there at the birth of Mordred -- Arthur's nephew and future king of Dumnonia. That is the extent of his experience. However, he is soon thrust into the middle of a drama upon which the entire country balances. It is through tragedy and necessity that he becomes loyal, brave, intelligent, dependable and much more. There are very few instances in the novels where Derfel Cadarn strays from being, in many ways, a better man than even Arthur. Even in those instances, there are always mitigating circumstances.
The life of Derfel Cadarn, as almost entirely created by Bernard Cornwell, is quite extraordinary. He is there in battle, even when Arthur is not. He is privy to Merlin's actions to a far greater extent than Arthur. He becomes the lover of a witch of sorts and later the life partner of a princess. He sees the rise and fall of Arthur and Arthurian Britain. He lives a life immersed in paganism and then another immersed in Christianity, for the sake of his beloved. He is a fierce and almost unmatched warrior and then he is a peaceful monk. Derfel is witness to Arthur's shame when Guinevere betrays him. He is witness to the corruption and wickedness of Mordred and what appears to have been the mortal wounding of Arthur. Through Derfel, Cromwell weaves a tale that is both new and ancient. He uses elements that are familiar while creating a story that has never been told quite like this.
My opinion is that people who read The Warlord Chronicles will pick it up wanting to read about Arthur and keep reading because they want to find out what happens to Derfel. Only a very good character could take attention away from one of the most popular characters in literary history. Even the oh-so alluring Merlin is overshadowed by Derfel and Guinevere never stands a chance. If Bernard Cornwell decided to write another series about Derfel told through another's eyes as he did with Arthur through Derfel, I would read it.