Thursday, November 30, 2000

The Wallace, Nigel Tranter, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by Nigel Tranter

Tranter’s modern historical fiction based on the apocrypha surrounding William Wallace weaves together stories of Wallace’s ’s many skirmishes, historical or otherwise. Interesting to see how different the movie, Braveheart was from this novel.

A compelling read it wasn’t; this tedious four-part novel really was ‘homework.’ Give me Mel’s version, or should I say, dramatist Randall Wallace (who relied on Blind Harry)—even though John Balioll wasn’t dead in 1290, the French Princess was 5 or 6 years old, and at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, there was no bridge depicted. 

I love Randall Wallace’s ribald comment: “I try not to let facts get in the way of truth.” (History’s Mysteries, 11/29/00, The History Channel.) “As a dramatist, you need to know why you should tell the story before you decide how to tell it. . . . Blind Harry and I are both dramatists. . . . History is far more than scholars, history lives in storytelling.” Tranter manages to fit in most of the stories of Wallace, but they seem stilted, a chore to read. This is a manly story, no bodice ripper, with incredible attention paid to battle details. He occasionally forgets himself and writes well when it involves scenic descriptions.

Tranter’s story opens with the slaughter of the nobles of Ayr, as does Braveheart, except Wallace is an adult. Wallace and 50 men (commoners) with boulders for weapons, seek revenge on the English captain responsible, Fenwick, who is Wallace’s father’s murderer—with a guerrilla strike at Loudon Hill. This incident is the catalyst to overthrow English oppression. 

With English weaponry, and encouragement from the clergy, John Blair, Thos. Gray, Bishop Wishart and William Lamberton of Glasgow, they continue their guerrilla tactics from their base, Ettrick Forest, Wallace’s “capital.” We read of their taking of strategic cities: Perth, Glasgow, Edinburgh (without a blow taken), Aberdeen, etc. Sir James Steward, Wallace’s overlord, and an official for the English crown, is an example of the crossed allegiances between English and Scots nobility, of which, The Bruce, vacillates the most. 

A nice twist on the tale is when The Bruce knights Wallace when the Privy Council members refuse to accept Wallace as Guardian at Selkirk because he is of lesser rank. The way Tranter handles the council scenes and the way he portrays Wallace’s astute political decisions, makes for a good read. He depicts Wallace as a leader of bands, not a general of an army: his greatest weakness and character flaw is unveiled at Falkirk. 

Tranter does not neglect the significant role the Church of Scotland played in Scotland’s struggle for freedom from the English (spiritual warriors). A tidbit on the drawing & quartering: medieval man was preoccupied with burial for a good reason: he needed an intact body, buried facing east in a churchyard—in order to be resurrected. Edward’s attempt to literally send Wallace to hell only served to make a martyr of him.

Tranter seems unaware of Celtic motifs. However, we can overlay Celtic stereotypes: the clergy function as druids and warriors; Wallace is literally larger than life, warriors are nearly undefeatable (but they’re commoners), they’ re betrayed by nobles (warrior class), and kings. 

Rival Edward is a combination of druid (lawmaker, arbitrator), greedy king (Caesar), and warrior. But Wallace (a Vercingetorix/CúChulainn character), a commoner, is his primary target in an enormous game of chess/fidchell with live knights, bishops, and pawns. In Tranter’s story, we learn of the historical background of the principal players, and their motivations—the visual story of Braveheart is painted more imagistic. 

BUT with the advent of Braveheart, we’ve literally witnessed romanticism in action. Time past and time present. Braveheat resurrected the Wallace icon as a symbol for freedom. A catalyst, it reawakened nationalistic feelings in Scotland and galvanized it into rethinking its political identity. In May, 1977, the Labor Party wins 3:1 on the “Braveheart ticket” (freedom!) 

On Sept. 7, 1997, the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, the Referendum for Devolution was signed, and in July, 1999, a new Scottish Parliament was called to order. Today is St Andrew’s Day, Scotland’s patron saint. Alba go Bragh! Wallace needs no tomb for resurrection, he has risen again in celluloid format. Arthur must be waking.

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