Tuesday, November 28, 2000

The Bruce, by John of Barbour, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by John of Barbour

As I previously mentioned in my review of Blind Harry’s Sir William Wallace, I had trouble reading and (comprehending) the Lowland Scots texts. Prelate John of Barbour, archdeacon of Aberdeen, then the richest city in Scotland, wrote in 15 “buiks” The Bruce, ca. 1376, within living memory of Bruce’s reign. Celtic motifs: heroic battles, superhero, kings, druids/priests, soothsayers, treachery, revenge, freedom! This story contains more traditional Celtic elements: most battles happen at fords, between worlds, there are mysterious mists.

Robert the Bruce is portrayed as a super hero with no equal rival, save his knights: brother Edward and the black James of Douglas. Though more powerful than the Scots, the English suffer greatly under his hand, especially at Bannockburn.

The story opens with an envoi proclaiming the tale’s veracity, and sets the scene with the interregnal origins of Scotland’s oppression: the competing claims of John Balioll and The Bruce (surely he means the father?) to the throne; Edward Longshanks is invited to arbitrate and gives the crown to Balioll, a puppet king who, in effect, gives Scotland to England. 

The Lowlands are planted with (English) Norman noblemen who don’t rule wisely. Scots are hung for the merest offenses and yearn for freedom in a marvelous rallying speech: A! Fredome is a noble thing! ...all solace to man’s giffis.... And sould think fredome mar to pryss/ Than all the gold in warld that is.

William of Douglas is seized, slain while his son James lives in exile in France for three years. He lands at St Andrews to reclaim his lands and is compared to Ector of Troy. Bishop William of Lamberton presents him to The Bruce as knight. Bruce is betrayed by familial enemy and arch rival to the crown, John of Comyn. Bruce is summoned to London, escapes arrest and returns to Scotland to slay the traitorous Comyn at Dumfries. 

He is crowned at Scone, defeated at Methven, and Dalry by John of Lorn, where he is compared to Hannibal and Charlemagne. A chivalrous scene and feast with the queen, who are made prisoners at the Girth of Tain. Neil Bruce is betrayed, Edward I consults a fiend as to the time and place of his death (shades of Homer!). 

The Bruce returns to Arran and rallies forces with James of Douglas and Edward, his brother, lands at Carrick, holds a council of war. A woman accosts him on the beach and prophesies his victory. Percy abandons Turnberry, the queen is captured, the king attacked by traitors, and fights his way out single-handedly. The Galloway men attack, he routs them. 

A portrait of English Warden Sir Aymer de Valence (worthy opponent?), who attacks; but John of Lorn attacks form the rear, and pursues the fleeing king with bloodhounds. The Bruce slays his trackers, his foster-brother slain. As Edward Bruce makes some headway in Gallwoay, Bruce engages in single-handed combat with Valence and like Arthur, is wounded, and carried in a litter.

He rises again ad routs his enemies (the mist cleared suddenly)s; Perth falls. Douglas overhears plans to betray The Bruce, and attacks. Edward II marches, we get the four battles of Bannockburn in full detail; the taking of Edinburgh castle; Edward Bruce lays siege to Sterling, the governor capitulates.

Bruce address his troops like Caesar, Scottish archers destroy the English Horse, camp followers, some 15,000 strong, come to see the battle. The English mistaken them for enforcement troops and capitulate. Bruce reunites with his queen and daughter traded as hostages. Engram with the king and a laundress (weird—oblique reference to the washer at the ford  = death motif? ) followed by the death of Bruce.

As James Goldman, author of The Lion in Winter said "Historians and storytellers don't have much in common, but they do share this: the past, once it gets hold of you, does actually come alive. For scholars, this is troublesome. For writers, it's the good stuff."

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