What’s it all about, Alfie?

A couple of days ago, in preparation for my upcoming book tour to promote the new novel, The Forest Laird, my publicity people at Penguin Canada asked me to write a "remote" blog entry for inclusion on the website of one of the better-known independent book stores I'll be visiting in the course of my tour of Southern Ontario in October. And so, being a reasonable sort of guy who'll do pretty much anything to sell the odd book, en passant as it were, I wrote the piece appended below. Once I had written it and submitted it, however, I re-read it and asked myself why I should not use it right here in my own blog, for the benefit of my own readers. The long and the short of my answer was that I couldn't think of a single reason to justify not doing so, and so here goes:

In the summer of 1995, Mel Gibson launched the story of an unknown hero into the ken of an unsuspecting world. The hero’s name was William Wallace, the movie of his story was entitled “Braveheart”, and his existence had been relatively unknown and unsuspected outside of his native Scotland prior to that time. Within Scotland, though, the man William Wallace was a legend. Larger than life and revered above any other Scot in history, he was the hero who first articulated the ideas of freedom and independence in Scotland, the man who inspired and motivated Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s greatest king, who came to power in 1306, less than a year after Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered in England’s capital city by the command of England’s king. Strange as it might seem now, though, there were very few Scots, even among the educated, who responded to the title Braveheart in 1994 and ’95, when the movie was being marketed, but the reason for that is a very simple one: they had never heard the single-word name before. The closest approximation they might have heard was “the Brave Heart,” a descriptive phrase used in the 14th Century by Sir James Douglas to describe his friend and monarch, King Robert the Bruce, whose heart Douglas carried into battle after Robert’s death, on a Crusade to rescue Spain from the occupation of the Muslim Moors. Robert the Bruce was the Brave Heart; Wallace never was anything of the kind, until his descendant, Randall Wallace, named him such in his 1990s screenplay.

Be that as it may, Gibson’s epic, and the Braveheart story, took the world by storm that year and brought Scotland and its violent history to the attention of the hoi polloi who, as always, had been utterly indifferent to all things Scots–except, perhaps, Sean Connery himself–prior to their attention being preempted. More surprising, though, was a development that occurred in Scotland itself two years later, in 1997. That year, the long awaited Museum of Scotland opened its doors in Edinburgh to reveal that it contained not a single reference, of any kind, to Sir William Wallace. The revelation, unsurprising as it might have been to academics, was perceived as a deliberate insult by the vast majority of the Scots populace, who saw, in the heavy preponderance of English (and anglicized) scholars on the Selection Committee, a premeditated and concerted effort to deny the historicity of the nation’s greatest single hero, the primordial voice of freedom and the source of Scotland’s independent spirit.

Wonderful, nationalistic stuff as that perception might be, the truth, however, is far less dramatic and far more mundane. Sir William Wallace had been dead for seven hundred years by 1997, and very little that was provable was known about the man. Very few artifacts survive that he can be shown to have used or owned, other than the famous Wallace Sword which has been proved quite clearly to be at least a hundred years younger than Wallace was when he died. Among those few surviving items have survived with demonstrable links to him, the primary one is a famous letter that he wrote to the Hanseatic traders in Lubeck in October of 1297, a month after his great victory over the English at Stirling Bridge. In that letter, which he sealed with his own signet, he invited the German merchants to return in Scotland, which was once again open for business after the expulsion of the English, and he signed his name as William Wallace, Guardian of Scotland.

In terms of factual history, little else was known of him. The man had been absorbed and consumed by his own legend and by the adulation and hero worship of a nation desperately in search of nationality and independence, and serious academicians and classical historians had decided, as far back as the reign of Queen Victoria, that because they were unable to separate the man from the myth, they could say nothing substantive about him. That decision, a century later, resulted in the opening of a Scottish National Museum with no record of Sir William Wallace.

That incident might have caused a revolution in the streets of Scotland, but it did not. Like all such quickly-sparked outrage, the furore fizzled out soon after it was ignited. It did, however, cause a grass-roots swell of protest and discontent that generated tangible and surprising results. Beginning that same year, in 1997, for the first time in almost 150 years, a new wave of academic studies was launched, examining every aspect, no matter how small, of everything that was, is and has always been known about the man, the historical William Wallace. The results of this renewed investigation and the enthusiasm of the new researchers in re-examining previously “known” material have generated some astonishing results, one of which, among the most obvious, is that William Wallace’s early life, like the early life of the man Jesus, is an unknown and unknowable factor. Both men spent close to three decades in oblivion, training to become what they would be, and then each stepped into public awareness for a brief and meteoric career that was terminated by a public execution and undying fame thereafter. We will probably never know what Jesus did during his first thirty years of life, but there are exciting hints and insights, born of this newest wave of research, into what William Wallace might have done in his early life to prepare himself for the destiny that awaited him. That material, and the speculation it stirs, has provided the stimulus underlying Whyte’s newest novel, The Forest Laird: A Tale of William Wallace. The book is scheduled for release on September 23, 2010, and it examines the early life, boyhood and manhood, of the man who was destined to become Scotland’s greatest patriot.