REVIEW: Stonehenge (1999)

Last year I went on a bit of a Stonehenge kick around the same time I visited a museum exhibition devoted to it, and decided to pick a few books up to add to my “pile of shame”. That is, books that I hope to read but rarely get through – taunting me as they sit there. While I’ve slowed down a bit on this (considering that was a year ago) I have been forgoing my usual endless YouTube rabbit hole every night and have made progress on a few of these books. One of the first I decided to check out was this older novel by Bernard Cornwell called Stonehenge: A Novel, or alternatively Stonehenge 2000 BC as my copy says – I guess they decided to make it slightly more historically plausible as new information about the relic has come to light since this book was written. With Stonehenge being of such immense significance to many Pagans, especially druids, I figured why not branch out a bit on here?

“One summer’s day, a dying stranger carrying great wealth in gold comes to the settlement of Ratharryn. The three sons of Ratharryn’s chief each perceive the great gift in a different way. The eldest, Lengar, the warrior, harnesses his murderous ambition to be a ruler and take great power for his tribe. Camaban becomes a great visionary and feared wise man, and it is his vision that will force the youngest brother, Saban, to create the great temple on the green hill where the gods will appear on earth. Saban’ s love for Aurenna, the sun bride whose destiny is to die for the gods, finally brings the rivalries of the brothers to a head. But it is also his skills that will build the vast temple, a place for the gods, certainly, but also a place that will confirm for ever the supreme power of the tribe that built it.”

Book Description

The story in this book takes place in 2000 B.C./B.C.E. In the British Bronze age. Everything is centered in and around the site where Stonehenge stands today, with fictionalized names of various areas that correspond to real places. Sadly, unlike many of Cornwell’s books, there isn’t a handy map included, so the actual scope of these speculative Chiefdoms is somewhat vague. Hengall, the Chieftain of the Ratharryn tribe has three sons: Saban, the youngest, is perhaps the most level-headed of the three, and rumored to be eyed for the next Chieftain. His eldest brother Lengar is a manipulative hot-head with a passion for being a warlord. Finally, Camaban, the middle son that suffers from a disfigurement that makes him nothing more than refuse to his own people, but perhaps special for his Gods. We follow these three as they shape the story of why Stonehenge was eventually set in stone, so to speak.

Stonehenge Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures
Public Domain

I was initially VERY worried about this book as it begins with Lengar being the primary character – Lengar is, quite an unlikeable character, to say the least. He spends the first few chapters basically bullying everyone around, threatening to rape everyone female, nearly kills both of his brothers at one point, and storms of in a tantrum after not getting his way. I was relieved when he turned out to be one of the primary antagonists. I would not have been surprised if Lengar had a bigger role, as this book does exist as a test to moral relativism; pretty much every single thing that happens is very problematic, if not outright disturbing. I’ve seen people on review sites say that they had to stop reading this for this very reason, due to depictions of frequent child sacrifice, sexual assault, and slavery. it’s tough, but immersing yourself in a plausible idea for what this time period could have been like is interesting.

I will say, this book was hard to get through for me, but for a different reason – the middle draaaaaaaaaaaaaags quite a bit. The beginning and the end are pretty exciting and entertaining, but there is a whole section where Stonehenge is actually being built that just seems to go on forever. There is also a false climax in the middle of the book, that makes the second half feel sort of strange, at least in my opinion. It doesn’t help that this reads like a George R.R. Martin book, in that basically nothing good happens in it – there might be glimpses of happiness to be found – only to have them crushed a few chapters later. The ending is very bittersweet, it is a perfect ending for what comes before, but boy was I hoping for some glimmer of happiness in the book. Most of the characters end up pretty messed up, without going into many spoilers.

That isn’t to say that this was a bad book or anything, it just dropped into being a book that I slowly read over the span of a year due to having to pace out the middle of the story, and the overall bleakness of the whole story. perhaps one of the highlights of the book are the descriptions of the religious practices of the various tribes we see in the story. With this being a Paganism blog, I figured I should touch on it just a tad! Ratharryn, the three boys’ original home originally had a temple to the Moon Goddess Lahanna, which appears to be the prevailing deity of the area, and especially in neighboring village of Cathallo. She has started falling out of favor for her “rival” a sun God named Slaol.

Many people worship the Gods differently in this book, for example Lengar takes to the Sun God, but re-interprets him as a war god based on his life outside of Ratharryn living with barbarians. This is used against him, as he is manipulated into helping build Stonehenge until his usefulness is lapsed. Most of the book discusses the “real” reason for Stonehenge, and that is very simple – Camaban, the middle brother, has deemed himself the true keeper of Slaol’s teachings and demands a new temple worthy of Slaol. If they build what we call Stonehenge, perhaps Slaol will create balance between himself and Lahanna, to eliminate winter and force a change in the circle of life.

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Public Domain

Cornwell takes care to show various rituals, the priest and shaman class for them, and how the everyday man feels about such things. In many books similar to this, especially fantasy books, none of this is ever elaborated on. When reading Conan, for example, you will see people worship the evil snake God Set, but we rarely see a nuanced discussion of the whys and how’s, it’s just there. This is where Cornwell definitely excels, and it’s VERY impressive here because he didn’t have any actual information to go off.

Since this book was written, new information has come to light that paints it somewhat less historically plausible than in 1999. For example, it is now believed that it was largely erected in 3000 B.C.E. rather than 4000 years ago, with parts like the chalk lines being even older. Also, nobody knows for sure, but we now know that the building of Stonehenge took a loooong time, perhaps most of the Neolithic age, in this book it’s presented as if the whole thing went down in one generation, for twenty years. Cornwell seemingly also overstates the level of technological prowess that was at hand during this time, but both of these were obviously done for narrative purposes.

All-in-all, I’m glad I read Bernard Cornwell’s Stonehenge, but it’s not one of his better books that I’ve read. while I felt the book dragged a lot, the descriptions of the everyday life of these people is interesting and takes us back to a period that is very hazy for many people.

“Yet the temple stands to this day, the names of its gods forgotten and the nature of its rituals a mystery, yet still a shrine for whatever aspirations we cannot answer by technology or human effort. Long may it remain.”

Bernard Cornwell



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