16 October, 2006

Nigel Tranter's historical novels

This is in response to a query in another discussion, in which someone asked which of Nigel Tranter’s novels were worth reading besides the Bruce Trilogy.

Nigel Tranter wrote more than 60 historical novels set in Scotland, plus a great many other books. The public library in the town I lived in as a kid had a lot of his historical novels, and I read twenty or thirty of them. So although I haven’t read everything, and a good many of them have blurred together in my memory, I can probably claim that my impression of his novels is based on a reasonably representative sample.

The typical Nigel Tranter historical novel takes a chunk of Scottish history and dramatises it in narrative form. It may be a historical event or episode, e.g. the Wars of Independence or Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight after Culloden, or a dramatised biography of a historical figure, e.g. William Wallace or Rob Roy MacGregor, or a combination of both e.g. the Bruce Trilogy is both a biography of Robert Bruce and an account of the Wars of Independence. Sometimes the main character is an important historical player, e.g. Bruce or Wallace, sometimes it is a real figure on the periphery of events, e.g. Thomas Kerr of Ferniehurst who tells the story of Mary Queen of Scots’ personal rule in Scotland in Warden of the Queen’s March. As far as I can tell, the novels stick closely to historical events and weave a story in the gaps where information is missing.

Real life, and therefore real history, doesn’t usually follow a nice neat “story arc” (I think that’s the correct lit-crit term?), and doesn’t always take the most dramatic turn of events. I find many of Nigel Tranter’s novels episodic, rather than following a simple three-act play structure with a character in pursuit of a single goal. I think this is probably a consequence of respect for the underlying history. For example, it would be satisfying for Robert Bruce to defeat his main antagonist (Edward I) in battle to win Scotland’s independence, and it’s less dramatic for Edward I to die of a stroke and Robert Bruce to defeat his successor, Edward II, at Bannockburn. But that’s how the history happened. Another author might have chosen to alter the date of Bannockburn or the date of Edward I’s death in pursuit of a dramatic clash between the main protagonist and the main antagonist. Tranter sticks to the history. I prefer that approach - that’s why, in my view, it’s called historical fiction - but plenty of people disagree. You take your choice. When the underlying history is stirring stuff, as with the Wars of Independence, the actual events are dramatic enough to carry a story, even if it may not be as neat as books of literary theory prescribe. When the underlying history is rambling, as with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight after Culloden where he seems to have stumbled from one refuge to another without much of a goal beyond avoiding capture, the associated novel seems to be rambling too.

Tranter is good at capturing political complexity. Taking the Wars of Independence again, plenty of Scottish nobles fought for Edward I and/or against Bruce. Rather than taking a simplistic nation-state view that they were ‘traitors’ or ‘backsliders’, Tranter’s Bruce Trilogy recognises that family loyalties and rivalries were at least as important as nationality (a concept that hardly existed at the time). Similarly, although Robert Bruce is the hero of his trilogy he is not without flaws, and although Edward I is on the opposite side he is not shown as a black-hat villain but as a fully developed character with a mix of good and bad qualities. Expect to find at least two sides to every war, and good people on all of them.

Tranter is also very good on historical detail, especially on minor aspects of everyday life. Expect to learn about the workings of a Highland shieling (summer grazing in the high mountains), the method for waterproofing boots when going duck shooting in a marsh, castle architecture, battle tactics and strategy. Landscapes are accurately and vividly described. I happen to have visited the Pass of Brander, Rannoch Moor, Glen Sligachan on Skye and Glen Trool, and they look much as described in the novels. The plants and wildlife are right too, except for that curious conspiracy of silence about the midge common to most Scottish novels and maintained by Highland tourist boards to this day.

Tranter’s historical novels are stronger on battles and politics than on relationships and romance. There are some convincing romantic relationships, such as Robert Bruce’s marriage to Elizabeth de Burgh, but they are not a key feature. If you enjoy romance and relationships, you’ll do better elsewhere. His prose style is fairly straightforward, though it does tend to be verbose and can veer into the coy. Love scenes in particular can get so purple as to be unreadable for me (they are short, so easily skipped). If you subscribe to the view that the only acceptable dialogue tag is ‘said’, you may have problems as Tranter’s style is to vary the verb wherever possible, so you get ‘mentioned’, ‘observed’, ‘began’, ‘returned’, ‘wondered’, ‘asserted’, ‘objected’, and so on. I like variation, as I find ‘he said/she said’ gets on my nerves, but one can have too much of a good thing and occasionally I feel as if I’ve stumbled into a game of Thesaurus Bingo. Also expect quite long stretches of narrative and backstory, with a fair amount of ‘telling’ not ‘showing’.

In summary, I’d say Nigel Tranter’s historical novels score highly for content, but less so for structure and style. So the ‘best’ for you are likely to be those that deal with a period or a character you’re particularly interested in. A bibliography organised by historical period and character can be found on the Nigel Tranter website*.

The ones that stand out for me are:

  • The Bruce Trilogy, for its recognition of the political complexity of the Wars of Independence, for the delightful character of Jamie Douglas, for the heroic figure of Bruce, for the description of the Hebridean Lordship of the Isles, and for the battle scenes. Easily my favourite of Nigel Tranter's novels.

  • Macbeth the King, because the historical Macbeth is an intriguing historical puzzle and Shakespeare was very unfair to him. And Thorfinn of Orkney is great if you like big bluff hairy Vikings.

  • Margaret the Queen, about St Margaret daughter of Edgar Aetheling and wife of Malcom Canmore (Macbeth’s successor), for the comparison between the ‘Celtic Church’ and Margaret’s Roman Christianity.

  • Wallace, as an antidote to the historical liberties taken in the film Braveheart

Four that stick in my mind as being rambling and meandering, with lots of detail but not much of a story (a bit like Odinn’s Child in that respect) are:
  • Crusader - an affectionate portrait of a high-spirited eight-year-old who becomes King of Scotland, fine if you like winsome children

  • Highness in Hiding - a travelogue of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s wanderings after Culloden, fine if you do a lot of hillwalking and can recognise every mountain pass they limp over and sympathise with every bog they fall into

  • Gold for Prince Charlie - lots of description of Highland shielings and how to keep goats

  • Warden of the Queen's March - the main character, Thomas Kerr, isn't party to the dramatic incidents in Mary Queen of Scots' life (e.g. was she complicit in the murder of Darnley, what was her relationship with Bothwell, etc), and his own life isn't that exciting.

* This is one of those annoying websites where it seems to be impossible to link directly to a specific page, so scroll down to the bottom, click the yellow button labelled ‘Links Page’ and then scroll down and click the flag next to ‘A dated timeline of the historical novels’.


Anonymous said...

What a helpful post (and a very useful link to that Tranter website). I have a copy of his Bruce trilogy but have yet to get started on it. I think I may try one of his Montrose novels as I'm reading in that period at the moment--have you read them?

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks a lot, Carla! That's really helpful. I'm really looking forward to getting stuck into The Bruce Trilogy, and I'll probably give The Wallace a try. The ones about Macbeth and Queen Margaret look fascinating, too.

Marg said...

Thanks Carla. I have looked at Nigel Tranters books more than once but haven't yet got around to any of them.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Thank you, that's very helpful indeed. I have vague memories of one of the Bonnie Prince Charlie novels I came across in Scotland and wasn't enthused - but then, I'm not that big a Charlie fan anyway. :)

So, besides the Bruce trilogy I'll give Wallace and Macbeth a shot, too.

Sarah Johnson said...

Nice post!

It's interesting, I don't think any of the Tranter novels I've read are on either of your lists. My personal favorite is the Master of Gray trilogy. Has anyone reaad it?

I've noticed that in his later novels especially, Tranter got less adept at writing from a female point of view. Mary Stewart in Price of a Princess is a good (or bad, as the case may be) example of this.

Bernita said...

Very helpful, very fair. Thank you.

Carla said...

Glad that you found it helpful!

Susan - I'm sure I read one of the Montrose novels among the twenty or thirty, but I can't remember any details, either good or bad. If you're interested in the period and/or the character I would expect you'd find it worthwhile.

Alianore - I read Macbeth the King when I was doing Macbeth for 'O'-level English, and found it fascinating that Tranter and Shakespeare could tell such different stories about the same individual. Then, much later, I came across Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter and got yet a third completely different take. That's one of the things I love about historical fiction!

Marg - hopefully you now have an idea where you might like to start!

Gabriele - the romantic Prince Charlie legend appeals to me, but the two Charlie novels I read were both disappointing - not Tranter's strongest works by a long shot, I would say. Possibly because the actual history isn't as romantic as the legend.

Sarah - The Master of Gray trilogy is one I haven't read. I don't know why. I've heard other people recommend them, so I will give them a try some time. I hadn't noticed the decline in female viewpoint that you mentioned, but you may very well be right. Most of the time the viewpoint is male (which I like anyway), so Tranter may have always been more comfortable with the male point of view. Have you read the Montrose novels and can you give Susan any information about them?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I have never been able to get into Nigel Tranter. I can't recall which novel it was of his I tried - couldn't even remember the title from the website - but several verbose repetitive sentences of over 100 words in length put me off. I tried David The Prince, but it was so full of historical inaccuracies both of detail and politics that I gave up with that one too. A friend challenged me to read Master of Grey and still say I disliked Tranter's works. I have to say it was much better than the other two efforts, but having been spoiled by Dunnett (of which Grey is a weak echo IMO) I decided to leave Tranter to those who appreciate him - my mum included. When we lived in Scotland, she must have read most of his oevre from the library.

ali said...

I love the Bruce trilogy. First ones of his I read, and I still think they're the best.

Children of the Mist is another good one - about the MacGregors being outlawed.

But I read Mary and Marie a while ago, and that was just awful. I can see why some people have been put off.

Sarah Johnson said...

I've never read the Montrose novels. Altogether I've probably read half a dozen, excluding Master of Gray.

His novels are hard to get into at first, I've found, especially because of his clipped, awkward dialogue. His characters don't seem to like speaking in complete sentences.

Carla said...

Elizabeth - was David the Prince about the David who married Waltheof's daughter Matilda? You probably know more about the history than I do - what were the inaccuracies?

Ali - I like the Bruce trilogy best, too. I've read the second part of the MacGregor trilogy, Clansman, which I'd rate as OK, but I don't think I've read Children of the Mist.

Sarah - Interesting comment about the clipped dialogue. It's very much part of his style. I find it doesn't bother me, in fact I quite like it. People often do talk in sentence fragments, especially in highly-charged situations, so it seems to fit quite well.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Yes, David the Prince is about the David who married Waltheof's daughter Matilda, and who was Henry I's brother in law. It's many years since I attempted David The Prince, so the specifics have gone from my mind. However, as far as I recall, the costume detail was wrong (but that's just nit-picky me and wouldn't bother most folks),there was at least one character who was completely the wrong age i.e. a young sprog when in fact he should have been an old fogey or vice versa, but the main problem I had was with the character of David. In the primary sources he is nothing like the character Tranter makes him out to be. I seem to recall that Tranter made him pretty much uptight and against Henry, when in fact David and Henry were on good terms and were up for mutual back scratching. Tranter's character, basically, just did not gel with the known history of his traits and attitudes. I know novelists can interpret history with many different slants and ways, but I felt Tranter could have done a more convincing job in this case.

Carla said...

That's interesting, Elizabeth, thank you. I wonder if it might be something to do with Tranter's pro-Scottish outlook; maybe he felt that a proper Scottish king couldn't be on too friendly terms with England?

Lorinda Mae said...

Wow! What a fantastic post! Thank you for making it. I love historical fiction and have run my way through my favorite authors. I need to find a new one to read but everything I pick up just doesn't jell for me. I am considering Nigel Tranter and now I feel informed about what to consider rather than just a shot in the dark. Awesome. Thank you!