The Druid King
by Norman Spinrad
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
The Druid King imagines the life of Vercingetorix, who led the Gauls resisting Julius Caesar's conquest, culminating in the Battle of Alesia in 52 B.C. Relatively little is known about Vercingetorix's life, and most of that comes from Caesar's politically self-serving account of his Gallic Wars. It's fair, then, to exercise imagination in portraying Vercingetorix's personal life, and also, one might argue, to alter some of the details Caesar gives about the major battles.
In the novel, Vercingetorix is taken in by a group of druids after his father's death and taught to become a "man of knowledge." His talent, though, is for warfare. A glorious but ambiguous vision convinces him his destiny is to become king of a united Gaul. Meanwhile, Caesar is coercing the tribes of Gaul to accept Roman domination. A chance meeting between the two men kindles a reluctant admiration in both. "Vercingetorix had never met a man who spoke like Caesar, who in one moment made him feel a barbarian and in the next clarified his understanding in a way that raised him up above himself. He sensed that this man was an accomplished liar, and yet also capable of using the most profound truths to his own ends too." Cynical and ruthless, Caesar is all the more dangerous because of his keen intelligence. His philosophical habit of mind barely makes a dent in his viciousness. The ambitious Vercingetorix almost echoes Caesar, but his glimmering sense of higher purpose has a redemptive quality.
The many battle scenes present an omniscient view of the tactics and strategy of both sides as Vercingetorix and Caesar try to outmaneuver each other. Bodies pile up and gore is plentiful, but the vivid intimacy of a warrior's personal experience often seems absent. The fighting we do see through Vercingetorix's eyes can feel romanticized rather than realistic. But if battle is sometimes glorified, this is tempered by the anti-war theme running through the story. (2003, 413 pages)
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Other novels about Vercingetorix and Caesar's military campaigns in Gaul:
Druids by Morgan Llywelyn (1991), about a fictional druid who is a friend of Vercingetorix from boyhood. More info
Caesar: Let the Dice Fly by Colleen McCullough (1998), #5 in McCullough's Masters of Rome Series. More info
Conquered by Naomi Mitchison (1923), about the conflicted relationship of a fictional Gaul and a Roman military officer during and after Julius Caesar's Gallic War; Vercingetorix appears as a minor character. See review or more info at Powell's Books.
Nonfiction about Vercingetorix and Caesar's Gallic Wars:
The Gallic War by Julius Caesar (about 50 B.C.), Julius Caesar's account of his conquest of Gaul. More info
Caesar's Gallic Wars by Kate Gilliver (2003), a scholarly account of Caesar's Gallic Wars. More info
Caesar Against the Celts by Ramon Jimenez (2001), a popular account of Caesar's Gallic Wars. More info
At the Movies:
Druids, a 2001 movie starring Christopher Lambert as Vercingetorix and Klaus Maria Brandauer as Caesar; the team of writers included Norman Spinrad.
Vercingetorix, a biographical profile.
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