Saturday, May 18, 2024

Blind Harry, The Wallace


Opening Passage:

Our antecessowris that we suld of reide
And hald in mynde thar nobille worthi deid,
We lat ourslide throw verray sleuthfulnes,
And castis us evir till uthir besynes.
Till honour ennymyis is our haile entent:
It has beyne seyne in thir tymys bywent.
Our ald ennemys cummyn of Saxonys blud,
That nevyr yeit to Scotland wald do gud
Bot evir on fors and contrar haile thar will,
Quhow gret kyndnes thar has beyne kyth thaim till.
It is weyle knawyne on mony divers syde
How thai haff wrocht into thar mychty pryde
To hald Scotlande at undyr evirmar,
Bot God abuff has maid thar mycht to par.
Yhit we suld thynk one our bearis befor;
Of thar parablys as now I say no mor.
We reide of ane rycht famous of renowne,
Of worthi blude that ryngis in this regioune,
And hensfurth I will my proces hald
Of Wilyham Wallas yhe haf hard beyne tald. (p. 1)

Summary: At Kinghorn in Fief, Alexander III, King of Scotland, is thrown from his horse, and his death plunges Scotland into confusion over the succession. The two major contenders for the throne are John Balliol and Robert Bruce. (This Bruce is the grandfather of The Bruce.) King Edward I of England is named mediator, and he gives the kingdom to Balliol. Edward was no doubt expecting him to be a puppet king, but Balliol had different ideas, and they soon fell to quarreling. Edward invades Scotland, sacking multiple towns, and seizes Balliol, taking him back to England and leaving Scotland kingless. The teenaged Wallace, meantime, gets into a fight with a young man who tries to take his knife; the other boy is killed, and Wallace becomes an outlaw, escaping the English dragnet by disguising himself as a pilgrim. After killing a few other Englishmen, he is eventually caught and imprisoned at Ayr. He escapes by faking his own death; the poet-prophet, Thomas the Rhymer, uncovers his ruse but predicts that before Wallace's true death, he will rescue Scotland three times.

In an act of vengeance, Wallace does battle at Loudon Hill with an Englishman who had previously killed his father and brother in battle, defeating a force more than three times the size of his own. The English have their own issues, and therefore make a peace treaty, but Wallace has difficulty keeping it, and he and the Southrons are soon at war again. During a lull in the fighting, he marries a woman, Miranda, but she is murdered when he is away again fighting the English, thus committing Wallace wholly to the fight. Meanwhile, Wallace has a dream in which he is visited by St. Andrew and the Virgin Mary, who tell him that the time draws near when he will avenge the wrongs that have been suffered by Scotland. (Later Protestant printings of The Wallace will sometimes tone down the Catholicism of this divine commission, by taking out St. Andrew's name, and sometimes implying that it is King Fergus, the legendary first king of Scotland rather than the patron saint of Scotland, and taking advantage of an ambiguity in expression to turn the Virgin Mary into the Lady Fortune.)

The war heats up severely, and Blind Harry does not stint when it comes to describing the violence on both sides. For instance, at one point, when a hundred or so Englishmen are sheltering in a church, Wallace simply orders the church burned down, on the ground that they are English and certainly not friends of Scotland. This seems to have given qualms of conscience to many of Wallace's Scots, who ask the local bishop for penance and absolution; but Wallace himself just shrugs it off as a venial sin, returning to the English one tiny part of what they have done to the Scots. It is possible, though, that the event leads Wallace to be more careful (for a while) at killing only potential fighters, letting women, children, and priests go free.

All of this comes to a head with the most important battle of Wallace's career, the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Blind Harry's willingness to embroider episodes is very much in view here, as the two opposing forces are described by him as being massive in magnitude -- a massiveness that is certainly more symbolic of the importance of the battle than a historical description. But it is also perhaps Blind Harry's most famous passage, since it has become the legend of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, due to the author's extraordinary capacity to describe battles vividly and memorably. The English cross the wooden bridge across the Firth of Forth, but Wallace has previously sabotaged the bridge, and once the bridge is full of English soldiers, collapses it under them, so that they wash away, destroying the huge English army. At the historical battle, the battle seems to have been won by much more pedestrian means, although still clever, using the bridge as a way to split English forces. But Blind Harry's extremely improbable but vividly told feat of cunning is too good not to remember.

The movie Braveheart draws heavily from The Wallace for its overall structure, although it often adapts the episodes in an action-movie direction. (Blind Harry would hardly be in a position to complain about that.) But the Battle of Stirling Bridge is one of its great failures, since it does not actually give the story of the bridge, apparently because the difficulties of filming in the area around Stirling Bridge were too great. This is an immense pity. Blind Harry's vivid, detailed descriptions are already almost cinematic in their own right, and in his depiction of the Battle of Stirling Bridge he outdoes himself. If there is any scene in epic that is worthy of a close movie adaptation capturing the excitement and visual interest of the original, this is it, and unfortunately we still don't have it. The 'Battle of Stirling Bridge' in Braveheart is not too bad, although it's quite clearly a modified version of the Battle of Bannockburn rather than what it claims to be, but it just is not in the same league even as an epic action piece.

The Scots have won the day -- for a while. The English are certainly returning and Wallace as Guardian of Scotland is holding the kingdom in another's place. Historically, Wallace as a partisan of Balliol and was holding the kingdom for him and his heirs; but, of course, history is inconvenient here, because it is Robert the Bruce who will actually restore the independence of Scotland, not Balliol or anyone in his party. So Blind Harry, with the impenitent impudence that is one of his most charming features as a poet, corrects the historical record with the way things should have been: William Wallace recognized Robert the Bruce as the rightful king, but The Bruce's sworn obligations to King Edward have put him on the wrong side of the war. This usefully ties into one of Blind Harry's themes, that the woes of Scotland are often linked to the failure of Scots to take a bold enough stand against the Southrons; Robert the Bruce himself commits this mistake, and has to be corrected by William Wallace. Robert the Bruce comes to an agreement with Wallace that he will fulfill his oath to King Edward to the letter, and when it is completed, he will join Wallace.

Wallace has many minor side adventures interweaving through and coming after these events. One of my favorites is in Book IX, when William Wallace tangles with a pirate known as The Red Reiver (The Rede Reffayr), whose ships have red sails, and whose shield is red, green, and blue -- red for blood, green for courage, and blue for Christianity! Wallace with good Scots humor drily remarks that Christian or not, piracy is not a godly deed, and he and his men seize The Red Reiver's ships and The Red Reiver himself. The Red Reiver begs mercy, and is given it when he swears to give up piracy. His name is Thomas of Longueville (Longaweill). He is a Frenchman who became outlaw due to the accidental shedding of blood (remember Wallace's own start), and so he seized an English ship and has been wreaking havoc on the English in the hope of eventually winning pardon from the King of France. With a biography like that, William Wallace could hardly fail to become good friends with him, and as he met The Red Reiver on his way to France at the request of the King of France, Wallace uses his connection and audience with the King to get The Red Reiver pardoned, and the Frenchman and his men join Wallace's army.

I read the work in the original. In many ways I am glad I did so, since Blind Harry's vigorous language is enjoyable in and of itself. Any modernization is likely to blunt the "do or de" (do or die) quality of much of the description, and there is something especially fitting about getting the Guardian of Scotland in Middle Scots, driven by "ire of wrang" (ire against wrong) and "pitte" (compassion). But it was also a rough slog; it's like reading Chaucer (who is one of Blind Harry's major poetic influences), but Middle Scots is farther from modern English than Chaucer's Middle English is. I found the best way to do it was to read by sound rather than spelling, since a lot of the lines made perfect sense if you read them aloud Chaucer-ishly, but it's still the case that I would get going on a good stretch and then hit a tangled bit of poetic syntax or a passage thick with Middle Scots words that could only, even with notes, be worked through bit by bit. Looking around, there doesn't seem to be a particularly good modernization, which is unfortunate; the nineteenth century ones regularly change small details and, as Blind Harry is not as famous as Chaucer, and has only more recently begun to be really appreciated as a poet, we still are waiting, as we are for that properly cinematic adaptation of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, for a modernization making The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace (The Acts and Deeds of the Illustrious and Valiant Champion, Sir William Wallace) accessible to a wider modern audience.

Favorite Passage: Blind Harry is mostly focused on narrative description, but occasionally he gets more meditative, in Chaucerian fashion, as with this Boethian reflection (from Book VI) after the death of Wallace's wife that plays on the similarity in sound between 'live' and 'leave':

Now leiff thi myrth, now leiff thi haill plesance,
Now leiff thi blis, now leiff thi childis age,
Now leiff thi youth, now folow thi hard chance,
Now leyff thi lust, now leiff thi mariage,
Now leiff thi luff, for thow sall los a gage
Quhilk nevir in erd sall be redemyt agayne.
Folow Fortoun and all hir fers owtrage.
Go leiff in wer, go leiff in cruell payne. 

Fy on Fortoun, fy on thi frevall quheyll,
Fy on thi traist, for her it has no lest;
Thow transfigowryt Wallace out of his weill
Quhen he traistyt for till haiff lestyt best.
His plesance her till him was bot a gest;
Throw thi fers cours that has na hap to ho,
Him thow ourthrew out of his likand rest.
Fra gret plesance in wer, travaill and wo. 

Quhat is Fortoune? Quha dryffis the dett so fast?
We wait thar is bathe weill and wykit chance,
Bot this fals warld with mony doubill cast,
In it is nocht bot verray variance;
It is nothing till hevynly governance.
Than pray we all to the Makar abov,
Quhilk has in hand of justry the ballance,
That he us grant of his der lestand love. (pp. 112-113)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended.


Blind Harry, The Wallace, McKim, ed., Canongate (Edinburgh: 2003).