Book Review: The Forest Laird
by Jack Whyte
The shadow of Mel Gibson’s loudly preposterous 1995 movie Braveheart lies so thick over Jack Whyte’s novel The Forest Laird that Whyte brings up the movie in the very first line of his opening Author’s Note: “The prospect of writing about Sir William Wallace, post-Braveheart, was a disconcerting one from the outset because the screenplay reflected, to a very solid extent, what I had been taught about the great man during my childhood and school days.” And the novel is no sooner finished than Whyte is talking about Braveheart again in his Acknowlegments, saying its box office success (the thing made a large amount of money in the United States and a positively ungodly amount of money overseas) prompted a new wave of popular and scholarly interest in Wallace and the Scottish Wars of Independence. The anxiety of influence must be strong indeed to move so seasoned a writer as Whyte to twice ignore one of the cardinal rules of publicity: promote your own work, not somebody else’s. And the really depressing part of the compulsive genuflection is what it says about our video-centric culture: Whyte doesn’t seem worried about being compared to his literary antecedents, the great, dour historical novelist Nigel Tranter (whose novel The Wallace gets an affectionate nod in those Acknowlegments) and dear Miss Jane Porter, whose 1810 book The Scottish Chiefs has sold more copies in two hundred years than The Forest Laird is likely to sell in two thousand.
Whyte’s book was published in the UK in 2010 and is only now appearing in American bookstores (the cover of the UK edition featured a medieval coin like a farmer might pull out of the ground; the US cover features a wind-blown young model in an illustration by Gordon Crabb, who did the eye-catching cover for Carol Berg’s The Spirit Lens, but whose Wallace isn’t quite as ugly as the real gentleman legendarily was). It’s the first volume of a projected trilogy about three great figures from Scotland’s struggle for independence from Plantagenet England (the series is called “The Guardians,” and volumes two and three will deal with Robert the Bruce and the Black Douglas), and it will doubly surprise: it’s like no book ever written about William Wallace, and it’s like no book ever written by Jack Whyte.
The Wallace we get here is every bit as oversized as the one first popularized by Miss Porter, and he comes to be every bit as conflicted and brooding as the one lovingly crafted by Tranter, but Whyte has worked his own clear historical passion into the story and created a fictional portrait far more human than anything ever written about the character. Those loyal Braveheart fans Whyte is apparently so worried about will find almost nothing familiar in these pages, and that’s purely a good thing.
The novel’s framing sequence takes place in London in 1305, when an imprisoned Wallace awaits his execution for high treason. He’s visited in his cell by Father James Wallace, his cousin Jamie, and it’s through this device that the tale of The Forest Laird is told as Wallace – both Wallaces – look back on the tumultuous events that led them to this last meeting. Jack Whyte is an old-fashioned storyteller of merry capabilities, and he could shape a compelling narrative out of a grammar school spelling bee – so the dramatically charged nature of those tumultuous events spurs him to some of the best, most fluid, most involving writing of his career. This is all the more noteworthy because, strictly speaking, not a whole lot happens in this book. The young Wallace we meet in the story proper doesn’t want anything to happen – he has more important concerns:
“I am to have a son, Jamie, or perhaps a daughter. It matters not which to me, but either one will be a responsibility I’ve never had before. A small wee person, wide-eyed and alive and hungry for knowledge, and dependent upon me for his or her existence. For that reason alone I will be steering well clear of any more leadership in future. If God permits me, I intend to stay here safely in the green-wood with my wife and child, providing for them and getting more of them.”
The problem is of course that history won’t allow him to retire peacefully into the forest dim. Characters in historical novels must always beware of talking about going off to live in peace with their loved ones – it has the same effect as when middle-aged black cops in Hollywood movies start looking forward to their upcoming peaceful retirements: it’s as sure an invitation to the avenging Furies as anything Orestes ever did. Wallace, for example, hardly gets the words out of his mouth before the English have invaded his home, destroyed his house, and murdered his family, thus putting him on the road to bloody vengeance – and, oh yeah, national independence.
Whyte takes the adventurous step of mostly telling his readers about that fight for national independence rather than showing … this novel is at least 70% dialogue, and every ale-swilling Scottish enlisted man talks like he’s read J. D. Mackie’s History of Scotland (or at least cribbed Miss Porter):
“There are too many English here nowadays, and too few of us, and there is no war between us – only arrogance on their part and long-suffering acceptance on ours. But they treat us like a conquered folk and make no effort to disguise their contempt for us.”
And if you think Whyte’s Wallace is the strong, silent type during all of this exposition, think again: he himself supplies the lion’s share of it, laying out Scotland’s grievances to every crofter, soldier, and priest he claps eyes on:
“Scotland is teeming with English soldiery. You were aware o’ that, of course. They swarm like fleas on a hedgehog and they are causing us Scots much grief. They should not be here at all, no matter how the English try to justify their presence, for we have a King of our own again, King John of Scotland, of whom you must have heard, since he is from your own diocese of Galloway, as was his mother, Devorguilla. Well, you see, the fact that John now rules in Scotland means that Edward of England has no lawful place here, save as an invited guest bound by, and beholden to, the laws of hospitality. Yet Edward maintains an army on our soil and in defiance of our country’s ancient laws.”
It’s Whyte’s genius to make all this talk ultimately as involving as any Bernard Cornwell-style serial bloodletting would be, and hovering over all of it – in addition to that pesky Braveheart dirigible – is the horrific fate Edward I meted out on Wallace once he was finally captured: the former Guardian of Scotland was hanged, drawn, and quartered in 1305, and as usual in such cases, the very same fantastic physical strength that had made him famous as a charismatic resistance-leader betrayed him during the ordeal by keeping him alive and awake for the whole of it. Not for Wallace the fainting as he was dragged through the streets of London to Smithfield, being pelted with rocks and offal the whole way; not for him the passing out while being dangled by the neck at the end of a rough rope; not for him even the release of shock as he was castrated and eviscerated before a jeering crowd – he didn’t die until that brave heart of his was actually carved out of his chest.
Whyte doesn’t show us any of that, although he has the odd courage to open his novel with Jamie’s invocation of his cousin’s “final, demented scream.” The echo of that scream fades quickly in the ensuing pages, as Whyte chooses to regale us mostly with colorful stories of Wallace’s youthful exploits and the folklore that almost immediately began to spring up around them. In a curious way, this is certainly the happiest Wallace novel ever written, and that it ends in stark defeat is a mark not of Whyte’s pessimism (a more optimistic historical novelist you’d be hard-put to find) but rather of this book’s place as the opening chapter in a much longer story.
We can only hope the next volume in that story isn’t delayed two years before it comes to history-shy America. And also maybe that it lays off the wind-swept cover models.