The Lion Wakes by Robert Low Harper Collins. 439pp, £14.99
The long War of Independence, stretching over more than 30 years with intervening periods of precarious peace, is one of our formative national myths. By myth I don't mean something that never happened; rather an event, or series of events, that lives on in memory and the imagination, and thus goes to form our sense of who we are.
The myth was first given literary expression by John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, in his long poem "The Brus", written within half a century of its hero's death. More than a century later came Blind Harry's celebration of Bruce's heroic predecessor, Wallace, the poem that by his own account first gave Robert Burns a strong sense of Scottish identity, itself given memorable expression in "Scots wha hae". In our own time The Corries' song Flower of Scotland has been adopted as an unofficial national anthem, while the potency of the myth, albeit in vulgarised form, was made evident by the success of Mel Gibson's Braveheart.
Novelists have told the story too. As a boy I was enthralled by GA Henty's In Freedom's Cause, remarkable for being a glorification of the Scottish fight for independence written by an Englishman. Nigel Tranter wrote a very successful trilogy about the hero-king Bruce. Now comes the first volume of a series which will tell the story of the wars from beginning to end, purportedly written by a monk in the last year of King Robert's life. It takes us up to the Battle of Falkirk, so there should be several novels to follow.
The Lion Wakes is gripping, written with great bravura, and dense in texture. In the best tradition of the historical novel, Low mixes historical and invented characters, his hero, or central figure, being a Lothian knight, Sir Hal Sientcler (or Sinclair or St Clair) of Herdmanston, a cadet member of the family of the Sinclairs of Roslin, associated with the Knights Templar. In creating Hal, Low follows the tradition established by Scott, of choosing as his hero a man caught in the middle, subject to conflicting loyalties.
One of the great merits of the novel is that it avoids the simpicities of nationalist history. Wallace is a hero, certainly, a man of great courage and powers of leadership, but he is regarded as a "brigand" by many. The War of Independence was also a civil war in Scotland. The Bruces, Balliols and Comyns all belonged by origin to Anglo-Norman families, holding lands in England as well as Scotland, though also descended from David I, youngest son of Malcolm Canmore and his Saxon queen, Margaret. When Edward of England first upheld John Balliol's claim to the throne of Scotland, he alienated the Bruces. When he deposed Balliol, he alienated the Comyns. When he invaded Scotland, the Scottish barons were more concerned, understandably, to safeguard their estates than engage in national resistance. Low has Robert the Bruce able to speak English, French and Gaelic, but incapable of understanding the Scots- English of the Lothians.
The novel is full of action - staghunts, sieges, skirmishes, battles, murders, rapes and massacres - all vividly rendered. It is gripping, but not an easy read. Characters appears without introduction, many only to vanish from the narrative soon. The style is abrupt, vigorous and inconsistent, nowhere more so than in the rendering of speech. This is venial; the characters of the novel have no common language, but it does mean that there is a great variation in tone, sometimes convincing as a representation of actual speech, sometimes lapsing into what Scott called "tushery" or the clichs of mock-mediaevalism, In extenuation it should be said that achieving a common register of speech that should also be convincing is wellnigh impossible in a novel such as this. The alternative is to accept that since a literal transcription of the characters' speech, even if such should be possible, would not be understood by a reader today, one should employ a neutral contemporary English. This, however, has its drawbacks, not least the loss of vitality. On the whole Low's eclectic approach to the problem of dialogue works well most of the time.
If the novel demands more concentration from the reader than is often the case with historical novels, the attention required is well rewarded. There is a splendid gusto to this fiction as well as an acute political understanding.
The narrative is hard to follow at times for the plot is as confused and full of contradictions as the history on which it draws; yet the individual scenes are wonderfully vivid. The account of the Battle of Falkirk in particular is a splendid piece of imaginative re-creation. All the horror - all the blood and spilled guts of a medieval battle - is made explicit.
Low has, as he admits, taken liberties with history in the case of some of his characters. This is fair enough, since nothing but the bare outline of the lives of many of them is or can be known.
All in all he has done something remarkable, and I look forward to the sequels. He has not set out to demolish the myth, but rather, by questioning simple interpretations of it, to deepen and enrich it; and he has brought this off in fine style. As a piece of bravura historical painting The Lion Wakes is remarkable.