31 August, 2012

The Lion Wakes, by Robert Low. Book review

Harper 2011, ISBN 978-0-00-733788-0. 439 pages

Set in southern Scotland in 1296-1298, The Lion Wakes covers the early years of the struggle that became known as the Wars of Independence.  The historical figures Robert Bruce, William Wallace, and Isabel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan are major characters, and other historical figures including King Edward I of England, Bishop Wishart of Glasgow, James Douglas, the ‘Red Comyn’ Lord of Badenoch and his cousin the Earl of Buchan appear as secondary characters. The main characters, Sir Henry (Hal) Sientcler of Herdmanston and the members of his household, are fictional.

In 1297, King Edward I of England has invaded Scotland, sacked the town of Berwick and massacred its inhabitants, declared himself Lord Paramount of Scotland, got most of the Scots nobles to swear fealty to him (with varying degrees of willingness or coercion) and gone back south to England taking the Scots royal regalia (including the Stone of Scone) with him.  A few Scots lords, including Sir William Douglas, have rebelled against Edward’s rule, and Hal Sientcler of Herdmanston has come to Douglas Castle to help defend it if necessary.  As it happens, Douglas Castle has yielded fairly amicably to Robert Bruce, the young Earl of Carrick sent to reclaim it on Edward’s instructions, with no need for fighting.  But Hal soon finds himself embroiled in the deadly rivalry between the Bruce family and the rival Comyn family, a rivalry that extends beyond politics to encompass murder, deception and a secret that holds the key to the kingdom.  Hal’s position is further complicated when he falls in love with Isabel MacDuff, unhappily married to the Bruce’s arch-rival the Earl of Buchan – and in the background, the charismatic guerrilla leader William Wallace is raising a rebellion against Edward’s officials that will set Scotland ablaze…

Braveheart aside, the struggle that became known as the Wars of Independence was at least as much a Scots civil war as a nationalistic fight between the Scots and the English, at least in the beginning.  Indeed, the idea of a ‘nation’ in anything like the modern sense was only just starting to take shape, and identities and loyalties were defined at least as much by region and kinship.  When King Alexander III fell over a Fife cliff to his death in 1286, his only direct heir was his daughter’s daughter Margaret in Norway, a little girl of three, and when she died soon after, that left three families, the Bruces, Comyns and Balliols, each with a roughly equally tenuous claim to the crown.  The Scots asked King Edward I of England to adjudicate, which was their mistake, Edward thought he saw an easy way to get himself recognised as supreme overlord in Scotland, which was his, and the Bruce, Comyn and Balliol factions thought they could use Edward as an ally and proxy in their own quarrels, which was theirs.  The ensuing two decades of increasingly vicious fighting ended up imposing on both realms an incalculable cost in money, deaths, destruction and human misery – and a saga-legacy of courage, cruelty, treachery, daring, atrocities, epic battles, heroes and villains (very often the same people) that has caught the imagination ever since.

The Lion Wakes does an excellent job of representing the background to the wars without getting bogged down in the dizzying complexities of Scots dynastic politics.  Hal Sientcler, the central character, is a minor lord from Lothian who does not have much time for any of the great lords and their squabbles, and who ends up (more or less) in the Bruce camp and fighting alongside Wallace at Stirling Bridge and Falkirk through family loyalties, accident and circumstance.  There are Scots on both sides, and much of the ‘English’ army is made up of Germans, Gascons and Welsh.

Two key battles of the Wars of Independence, Stirling Bridge (a victory for William Wallace) and Falkirk (a defeat for William Wallace), feature in The Lion Wakes, so there is no shortage of gripping battle scenes.  The description of a schiltron (formation of spearmen) limping towards safety while under attack from archery and heavy cavalry and leaving a trail of dead and maimed in its wake ‘like a dying slug’ is particularly memorable.  So is the description of a relatively minor duel between Robert Bruce and a Gascon commander – complete with lots of hints foreshadowing the famous story about Bruce’s duel with the Norman knight Bohun on the eve of the later Battle of Bannockburn.  The mystery element of the plot made me cringe at first when I realised it involved Templars, masons, secret codes and Roslin (better known now as Rosslyn) Chapel, so I was relieved when it developed into something that seemed to fit reasonably well into the historical context.

What I liked most about the book, as with the author’s previous Oathsworn series, was the characterisation.  Not just of the main players like Bruce – here a plausibly complex and interesting character, part sulky playboy, part ruthless schemer, part statesman in the making – but also of the ‘commonality’, the ordinary people who made up most of the population and most of the army.  Hal’s retainers Sim Craw and Bangtail Hob represent the tough mounted infantry of the Borders, part soldiers and part cattle rustlers (later romanticised as the Border Reivers), while the Dog Boy, Alehouse Maggie and Bet the Bread represent the working people who kept farmstead and fortress functioning.  On the other side, Addaf the Welsh mercenary gives the perspective of the archers who employed the longbow with such devastating effect at Falkirk and began the emergence of longbow archery as the war-winning weapon of the Middle Ages. 

Much of the dialogue is written with a distinctively Scots accent, and Scots words and phrases dot the narrative.  I liked this, as not only does it help to create atmosphere, it is also cleverly used to indicate social and regional differences.  Wallace speaks broader Scots than Hal, Robert Bruce at the beginning of the novel speaks English and court French but is still finding his way in Scots (reflecting his upper-class background), and Fergus the Beetle, a common soldier from north of Aberdeen, speaks such ‘braid Scots’ that the author actually provides a translation at the back of the book.  I had no difficulty following the dialect – I even understood about two-thirds of Fergus the Beetle’s speech and could deduce most of the rest from context – though it took me a little while to get a feel for it.  Readers who find the dialect troublesome may like to know that most (not all) of the Scots words are explained in a glossary at the back of the book, and may like to bookmark it for easy reference.  I also liked the use of names for Hal’s retinue – Bangtail Hob, Ill Made Jock, Tod’s Wattie, Lang Tam – these are the characteristic names of the Border, familiar from numerous criminal charge sheets over the next three centuries, and from George MacDonald Fraser’s masterly study of the Border, The Steel Bonnets, and his splendid short novel The Candlemas Road.  Like The Candlemas Road, The Lion Wakes gives a powerful impression of authenticity, a sense of having opened a door onto another world and its people, complete with their customs, norms and values.

At the end, the mystery part of the plot is fully resolved, but the Wars of Independence have hardly started, so there is clearly plenty of scope for more adventures for Hal and his companions.  I have a feeling that Bangtail Hob has a story of his own, and that the hints about Dog Boy’s parentage suggest that he is going to turn out to be a significant character in later instalments.

A helpful Author’s Note at the back sketches some of the underlying history, identifies the fictional and historical characters, and admits to some of the liberties taken with historical figures about whom little is known, notably Isabel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan.

Gripping adventure with strong characterisation and a sense of authenticity, set against the background of the Wars of Independence in late thirteenth-century Scotland.


Rick said...

This sounds like it pretty much does exactly what historical fiction is supposed to do.

And the author has some courage, not only taking on "Braveheart" but the surrounding modern mythology - even having a credible go at the Rosslyn Chapel thing.

(About which I know nothing, except for having seen the name mentioned with the same Dan Brown-ish associations you mention.)

I tend to be resistant to all Scottish hist-fic, because of the huge element of nationalistic blarney (sic!) that tends to follow the Cross of St. Andrew. But this sounds like a hearty exception.

Carla said...

Not to mention straying onto the territory of Nigel Tranter's famous Bruce Trilogy - the author says in one of the historical notes that he hopes Nigel Tranter 'is not birling in his grave too much', or words to that effect. ('Birling' is Scots for twisting or turning, if you hadn't worked that out). I liked this very much, and would say it's definitely worth looking out for. Number Two in the series is already out and will be reviewed here in due course.

Is Scottish HF notably more nationalistic than others? What makes you say that? Candlemas Road and Tranter's novels are what come immediately to my mind if asked for Scottish HF (though Candlemas Road is more of a Borders story). The Candlemas Road doesn't strike me as nationalistic, and although Tranter's Bruce trilogy is very pro-Bruce, the enemy is as likely to be Scottish as English (which is a fair approximation to the history).

Kathryn Warner said...

Ah, I hadn't heard of this one, so thanks for letting us know about it, Carla - sounds right up my street. ;-)

Rick said...

Thinking about it, I suspect my bias has nothing to do with actual Scottish hist-fic, but rather with made-in-America 'Scottish' romanticism.

I can't cite book examples, but 'Braveheart' and the Hollywood version of 'Rob Roy' are familiar examples. (And, much softer and much further back, 'Brigadoon.')

For none of which are the Scots, or their hist-fic writers, to blame, but there you have it!

Carla said...

Kathryn - I'd say it's well worth a read. Piers Gaveston makes a fleeting appearance, you may like to know :-) If you read it, I hope you enjoy it!

Rick - Ah, Hollywood. A law unto itself.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Your are determined to fill that new bookshelf of mine, aren't you? :)

Carla said...

Wouldn't like to think of it lying empty, Gabriele :-)
I thought you'd probably already have come across this one. Well worth a read.

Annis said...

Another excellent review, Carla :) I was very taken with this one as well when I read it last year - review here. I've since read the sequel, "Lion at Bay", and think the series gets even better as it goes along. Low is very good at dealing with the complexities of the Wars of Scottish Independence - it was nowhere near as simple as the English v the Scots - and the ways people of all classes were affected by the conflict, especially the hapless Border folk.

I was struck by the "Candlemass Road" analogy as well. Alan Massie's "Hanging Tree" also came to mind and I was quite chuffed to have got it right when I saw Robert Low mention that particular novel somewhere as an inspiration when he wrote LW.

Some readers do seem to struggle with the Scottish dialect, but I personally think it adds greatly to the atmosphere. The meaning is always made clear in the context anyway, so if you are reading properly and not skipping, it shouldn't really be an issue.

Kathryn Warner said...

Ohhh, if Piers is in it, then I really have to read it! :) *heads off to Amazon* ;-)

Carla said...

Annis - thanks! I have the sequel too (a review will appear here in due course). In his non-fiction account of the Borders, The Steel Bonnets, George MacDonald Fraser traced part of the development of the reiver culture to the destruction wrought by the Wars of Independence. I can see the echoes of that in this series. Like you, I liked the use of dialect.

Kathryn - he only makes a very fleeting appearance, though a flattering one :-)

Rick said...

I suspect that the American version of Scotland is not just limited to Hollywood. It may even have genuine historical roots - I seem to recall reading that the aftermath of 1745 triggered significant emigration to the colonies.

A dram of fact - or even less - is plenty enough to bring forth a barrel of mythologizing.

Carla said...

Rick - emigration was underway before the '45, but no doubt that accelerated it. If I remember rightly (and don't quote me on this), some people found guilty as rebels were forcibly transported to the colonies after Culloden.

Rick said...

Oh yeah, I didn't mean to imply that there was no Highlands emigration previously. And I also seem to recall reading of forced transportation after Culloden.

Scots immigrants, borderers, and Scots-Irish, supposedly contributed especially to the populating of Appalachia, contributing to cultural phenomena ranging from President Andrew Jackson to country-western music.

Carla said...

Rick - That's interesting, you would know more about the cultural history of America than me. George MacDonald Fraser's The Steel Bonnets has a memorable introduction pointing out the Border names of three participants in President Nixon's inauguration ceremony (President Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Billy Graham).

Annis said...

Country music is meant to have its origins in the English/Scottish/Irish ballads which settlers took with them to America, isn't it? Has anyone seen the movie "Songcatcher"? Quite good- a story about early attempts to record and preserve the old ballads in the Appalachian mountains before they got lost.

On another note- tthere is a theory that the burning cross associated with the KKK could well be based on the Scottish Crann Tara or fiery cross which was carried through the land to rally clan members when battle was at hand.

Carla said...

Annis - No, I haven't seen Songcatcher. That sounds a little like the attempts made to write down traditional English songs and lyrics in the late Victorian period, before they disappeared.