In Winter's Shadow

by Gillian Bradshaw

Reviewed by Margaret Tomlinson

In Winter's Shadow is the last novel in the "Hawk of May" trilogy based on the legend of King Arthur. Narrated by Arthur's wife, Gwynhwyfar, it covers the final years of his reign, when his illegitimate son stirs up rival factions in the warband, leading to the final battle which destroys Arthur, his son, and the empire.

As the story opens, Gwynhwyfar is reading an insulting letter from a kinsman in northern Britain who gives her an ultimatum: if she won't help him take over a neighboring clan's territory, he will no longer consider her a member of the family. His demand is a vivid example of the tension between the tradition of clan-against-clan warfare and Arthur's new way of a united empire ruled by laws enforcing justice. 

But this new way can hold only as long as a strong emperor can make it hold, as much through the strength of his moral example as through force of arms. And as a young man, Arthur committed adultery and, unknowingly, incest with his half-sister. The child they conceived is Medraut, whose very existence is a threat, and whose poisonous resentment is now sowing discord.

In Winter's Shadow draws from the earliest Arthurian traditions and solid historical research into fifth-century British life. Grounded in realism, it avoids the fantastic while recognizing the supernatural beliefs of the time. A recap in the opening chapter gives readers all the background they need to understand the story that follows; if the recap is less than compelling, the chapters to come make up for it. Gwynhwyfar and Arthur are faced with a series of decisions with no good options. Political leaders are human; one serious mistake can reverberate down the years, causing the downfall of an outstanding but imperfect leader and enabling one whose single-minded pursuit of revenge will destroy lives and blight a society for generations. 

Originally written for teens, it has no explicit sex, with more than enough insight and psychological depth for adults. (1981, 410 pages)

More about In Winter's Shadow at

Other Arthurian novels:

The Legend in Autumn by Persia Wooley (1991), third in a trilogy about Guinevere, covering the last years of Arthur's reign. More info

Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff (1963), a realistic retelling of the Arthur story that draws on the early traditions about him; one of Sutcliff's few novels for adult readers. See review or more info at Powell's Books.

The Wicked Day by Mary Stewart (1983), a sympathetic portrayal of Mordred; follows Stewart's Merlin trilogy beginning with The Crystal Cave. More info

Nonfiction about the Arthurian period in British history:

Warfare, Raiding and Defence in Early Medieval Britain by Erik Grigg (2018), a study of the nature of warfare in Britain from 400-850 C.E., between the end of Roman rule and the arrival of large Viking armies, with a focus on the large defensive earthworks typical of the period. More info

The Historic King Arthur by Frank D. Reno (1996), a study by an amateur researcher of the early evidence for a historical Arthur-like figure which advances a theory for who the real person was behind the legend. More info

Arthur's Britain by Leslie Alcock (1971), a review of post-Roman Britain by the archaeologist who directed the excavation of Cadbury Castle in Somerset in the 1960s. More info


Guinevere, a Wikipedia entry about the many ways in which Guinevere/ Gwynhwyfar has been portrayed through the ages

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