Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What was Robert the Bruce really like?

On occasion, I have been asked if I would have liked to live in the past. Hmm, well . . . no. That seems an odd thing to say, coming from one who has spent the last decade studying the events of 700 years ago and writing about them, but let me put it this way: I'd like to be able to visit the past, provided I get to take my Universal Translator (like the ones they had in Star Trek, because how else would I understand what the medieval Scots were saying?) - and if I'm allowed to come back whenever I need to, because I would not want to be stuck in the Middle Ages interminably for lots of reasons. Having just spent nearly two whole days without electricity following an ice storm, I can honestly say that modern comforts have made a wimp of me. If I had to stumble through the Scottish Highlands in the dead of winter, sleeping on the ground in the open air, without central heating to thaw my bones, insulated Goretex snow boots, and hot Toasted Almond coffee that appears with the push of a button, I would be one major whiny-pants. This is why I have not applied to become a contestant on Survivor. I would probably draw blood in order to win reward after having to spend my nights sleeping on a bamboo mat under a leaky palm-leaf roof in a monsoon, while cockroaches the size of guinea pigs crawled over me.

One thing I would like to do is go back, for just a little while, and get to know Robert the Bruce. I mean, what was he really like? Not the king or even the soldier, but the man. Historians have done a great job of compiling historical documents from both sides of the war and giving us the English slant vs. the Scottish one. As a novelist, I don't believe my job is to repeat what so many accomplished scholars have already done. I believe it is my job to give a more human interpretation of what Robert and his contemporaries were like as people, not historical figures who made only political or military decisions.

Yet in doing so, I risk failing to meet the expectations of some readers - and I'm well aware of that. It is the inherent danger of writing biographical historical fiction. If a reader comes into the opening pages believing Robert was stoic, unfailingly decisive, and without regret or guilt, then I'm not likely to convince them that he may have been otherwise. My interpretation of Robert the Bruce is just that - mine. And if I can humanize him well enough, hopefully readers will accept how I have chosen to represent him.

So did I make all this stuff up about what he may have been like? Or did I find the Secret Diary of Robert the Bruce hidden in a spidery cave somewhere in Argyll? Uh, no, neither actually. I take the known facts, a smattering of legend and fill in the holes as best I can.

One thing we do know about him is that Robert the Bruce was an exceedingly forgiving person and a man who was willing to compromise for the long-term and greater good. For example, he later forgave and accepted into his service the Earl of Ross, who was responsible for capturing his wife and daughter as they were trying to escape to the Orkneys and then handing them over to the English. How many of us could have been that Gandhi-like? (I don't know about the rest of you, but I can hold a grudge forever.) Robert did so because he needed allies and he wanted Scotland to stand as one. If he had made a point of punishing his fellow countrymen regularly that would only have served to divide them further.

Another matter that makes me believe he was a man who loved deeply was his pursuance of Elizabeth de Burgh. He met and fell in love with her at a time when he was a declared rebel against Longshanks (Edward I of England). The sticky issue was that her father was still an adherent of Longshanks, so in order to marry her he would have to once again submit to the English crown. Which meant that to many of his fellow Scots he was an opportunist and not really on their side after all. Quite a dilemma. He desired Elizabeth, but he also wanted to be king. In the end, he chose the woman. Very romantic. (Swoon.)

Imagine the torment he must have suffered later when she was taken captive by above mentioned Earl of Ross and delivered into the hands of Longshanks himself. I don't think it's too far-fetched to say that he would have missed her terribly and maybe even have questioned how he could have kept her safe.

While many documents exist entailing the Bruce's political and military actions, we have fewer accounts of him as a private man. English chroniclers naturally tend to vilify him, while Scottish ones relay the legends surrounding him which paint a more heroic portrait. Here's an example from a 14th century Scottish chronicler John Fordoun:

"This man [Robert the Bruce] seeing them [the Scots] stretched in the slough of woe, and reft of all hope of salvation and help, was inwardly touched with sorrow of heart; and, putting forth his hand unto force, underwent the countless and unbearable toils of the heat of day, of cold and hunger, by land and sea, gladly welcoming weariness, fasting, dangers, and the snares not only of foes, but also of false friends, for the sake of freeing his brethren." (From Chris Brown's Robert the Bruce, A Life Chronicled)

I question that he suffered all those trials 'gladly' (perhaps ' with acceptance' would have been a better term?) or that he did so purely for selfless reasons, because he was an ambitious man who believed that the crown of Scotland was rightly his by birth. Clearly though his character was one of perseverance and brotherhood.

Did he ever question his goals or his actions? Let me wrap up this post with a quote that Fordoun attributes to Robert: "Were I not stirred by Scotland's olden bliss/Not for earth's empire would I bear all this."

Until later,


Pricilla said...

I have always felt that history, being written by the victors, leaves much missing. Particularly this human aspect of which you write. Much of what is left is not of the personal, the mundane but rather what was deemed important for whatever reason and feelings were not important in times of war.

I also think that we tend to inflict our sensibilities into history which can create conflict when something morally disagreeable to our times occurs which is why I so enjoy good historical fiction written by an author well versed in the mores of the time.

N. Gemini Sasson said...

Thanks, Pricilla. And true - there is so much we don't know. Sometimes I feel like with modern celebrities and leaders, we know too much about their personal lives. Quite the opposite from trying to interpret the lives of people from the past.

Greta said...

Well said. This is the difference between history and fiction. Even so,historians, too, whether they like it or not, put their own slant on an historical figure. So often accounts of the 'facts' are coloured by the opinion of the historian. Take Napoleon as an example - or, indeed, Robert the Bruce.

And I do so agree about 'Survivor'. I couldn't do without my plumbing.