Monday 1 April 2013

The Perils of Patriotism

 If only Angus McBride was still with us...
The more I read Scott Oden and Howard Andrew Jones' work, the more inspired I am to write/draw that Scottish historical epic that's been on my mind. Think the Battle of Bannockburn given "The Grey God Passes" treatment.
 - A Facebook status update which spiralled out of control
Well folks, here it is, after seven days, I have completed the first page of my Battle of Bannockburn comic!  This first page is a gritty and entirely historically accurate interpretation of the famous tale of Robert the Bruce and the Spider. This is intended to be as authentic as possible, none of the Hollywood razzmatazz generally associated with historical fiction: it's as close an attempt as possible to adhere to historical events, as you'll no doubt appreciate.

Without further ado...

Alright, April Fool's: this is another comic I did a while back, this time, my idea of what Robert the Bruce might have done if he interpreted the significance of that wee spider at Raithlin Island in the most awesome possible way.

However, the Battle of Bannockburn is indeed something I've been pondering for quite a while. To copy again from my Facebook:

1. Yes, this comic is capitalising on the 700th anniversary, I can think of no better year than that to do so.

1.a) Yes, this comic is also relevant to the referendum happening in Scotland next year, and I have extremely strong opinions on that matter, though I will endeavour not to turn the comic into a ham-fisted allegory. That would be disrespectful and tacky: it will, however, contain elements that are highly applicable to current events and discussions.

2. This will NOT be an inherently nationalist comic: that's a modern word for a modern phenomenon, and anyone who wishes to ascribe nationalist values to it is welcome to do so, but it is not the intent. This will be a patriotic comic. There is a distinction.

3. This comic will NOT be an Anglophobic comic. Contrary to what MP Davidson thinks, it is not celebration of the "murder of hundreds of thousands of English people" to commemorate the anniversary of a battle where a nation's people repelled an *invading force* which attempted to impose authority upon it, any more than commemorating the Battle of Agincourt was an exercise in celebrating "the murder of thousands of French people." The history between England and Scotland and their people is too bloody on both sides to turn an entire people into goodies or baddies, and indeed, I would like to include sympathetic English characters as much as I can, including one particularly interesting noble who was strongly against the Scottish invasion.

4. This comic will masterfully sidestep issues of historical fidelity whilst also acknowledging what is (to the best of our current knowledge) hard history via the inclusion of supernatural elements which render the nature of reality somewhat malleable. Quite literally, "A Wizard Did It" - or, more accurately, "The Faeries Did It."

5. I am working with several possible narrative structures and am undecided on many factors. I am, however, determined to include my interpretation of just why Edward I wanted his bones to be carried north to conquer Scotland, because stuff like that is too badass NOT to use.

Although I just could write a big spiel about Separatism and Unionism, I wouldn’t want to apply modern politics to an event that happened before the printing press came to the west. That’s just gauche, lazy, and vaguely disrespectful. There are, of course, lots of applicable comparisons, but I wouldn’t want this to be seen as an allegory. Likewise, I’m not interested in portraying the English as complete scoundrels: the Scots and the English were scoundrels to each other over the centuries, so even though this is a case where there’s a clear invader, it’s a bit bland to just cast them as the sneering baddies like in Braveheart.

It turns out I didn’t have to try very hard. The story of Bannockburn is full of heroism and duplicity on both sides of the field, with little stories that add an intimate human element to proceedings.

 A Gloucester wargamer's depiction of Marmaduke de Thweng, which is one of the most English names I've ever heard. It's part of an entire Bannockburn army set he's working on.

Marmaduke de Thweng was a veteran of Stirling Bridge: he was one of the few English soldiers who broke through the Scottish schiltrom, and lived to tell the tale. He witnessed the horrendous fate of Hugh de Cressingham, whose skin was flayed to make baldrics and “keepsakes” for the bloodthirsty Scots. He fought for Edward II at Bannockburn.

Yet despite knowing what happened to Cressingham, when it was clear the day was lost, he did not flee. He strode through the battlefield, among the dead and dying, searching for one man: the Bruce. When he found him, he surrendered without delay, for he wished to yield only to the victor himself. The Bruce was so impressed by this display of courage and chivalry that he invited Thweng to a feast, and sent him home to Cleveland without a ransom, and laden with gifts.

That’s an awesome story. 

Aero Art International have a line of miniatures dedicated to the knights of England and Scotland, and all are as meticulously detailed and well-researched as this depiction of Giles D'Argentan.

Similar to that is the tale of Giles d’Argentan, who is chronicled as one of the three greatest knights in all Christendom – along with Robert the Bruce and Emperor Henry VII. Edward II personally arranged for d'Argentan's release from the dungeons of the Byzantine Emperor, and the knight errant came to Scotland. He was every inch the chivalric ideal: handsome, charismatic, pure. When it was clear the battle was lost, d’Argentan dragged the still-brawling Edward II – contrary to certain films and biographers, he was no effete coward – to safety, and told the king to ride to his castle. When Edward commanded he ride with him, d’Argentan replied with parting words so knightly you can practically hear the rousing orchestral score swell to a crescendo:

“Sire, your rein was committed to me; you are now in safety; there is your castle where your person may be safe. It is not my custom to fly, nor am I going to begin now. I commend you to God.”

He rode back to the melee, where he died, impaled by several Scottish spears, as he roared his battlecry - "D'Argentan!" What a knight!

Another Bannockburn story is the tale of the Sir Lawrence Abernethy and his men. Despite the obvious “England vs Scotland” nature of the battle, several clans threw in their lot with Edward II – rivals of the Bruce dynasty, mostly: the Comyns, the MacNabs, the MacDougalls. "Enemy of my enemy" and all that. Abernethy and his troops (some sources say 20 horsemen, others 80) rode south to bolster the English forces. But when they arrived at the battlefield on the second day, they crossed “The Black Douglas” himself, James Douglas, who informed them of the situation: namely, that the Scots had the English on the run. A pragmatic Scot to the core, Abernethy decided to switch allegiances there and then, and joined Douglas in the charge against the English!

In addition, I'm also going to make an effort to include women in ways that make sense for the narrative: the English exploratrix (spy) Juliana de Goldyngham was summoned from York to Berwick in 1314. We don't know much else apart from that, but it's easy to suppose she had some role in communications, reconnaissance, and other matters of intelligence. There's also the "Sma' Folk," the camp-followers and attendants of the army, who actually got involved in the battle itself: women and girls were not uncommon in this role, usually as ale-brewers, cooks, and the like. Certainly the Bruce women and Isabella MacDuff warrant at least a mention or cameo despite not being present at the battle themselves.

There are plenty of legends around Bannockburn, too: the Knights Templar’s alleged involvement, though it’s attractive to think it’s just a way for the English nobility to salve their pride – much more fitting that they were beaten by the Elite of the Elite, not a mere rabble of highlanders. John Barbour's "The Brus" speaks of Edward's orders to "byrn and slay and rais dragoun": that's been interpreted as either a variation on "raise hell," or to raise a dragon banner which promises no quarter to the enemy, possibly a white Saxon dragon. Or... could we be over-thinking it? There’s a rumour that Edward I wanted his heart to be taken to the Holy Land to fight the infidels: a request Robert the Bruce would make of the Black Douglas. Another was that he asked for his bones to be carried to Scotland so he could oversee the country’s subjugation. While neither request was carried out, one has to wonder if there was another, more sinister reason Edward wanted his bones to be present for the conquest of Scotland…

And quhen to King Edward wes tauld 
How at the Bruys that wes sa bauld 
Had brocht the Cumyn till ending, 
And how he syne had maid him king, 
Owt off his wyt he went weill ner, 
And callit till him Schir Amer 
The Vallang that wes wys and wycht 
And off his hand a worthy knycht, 
And bad him men off armys ta 
And in hy till Scotland ga, 
And byrn and slay and rais dragoun
And hycht all Fyfe in warysoun
Till him that mycht other ta or sla
Robert the Bruce that wes his fa.

John Barbour, "The Brus" (Art by Vance Kelly)

And of course, it’s so easy to add in some Howardian Easter eggs. The Bruce stopped for a while at the Tor Wood: wouldn’t it be interesting if this forest was one of the last outposts of the Little People, the original inhabitants of Scotland who are convinced to aid the Scots against a more terrible supernatural menace concurrent with the battle?

So, like “The Grey God Passes,” Bannockburn will be two stories in one. It will be a near-enough historical account of a pivotal battle in the history of Britain, and it will also be an apocalyptic tale of the passing of an age. In “Passes,” it was the death of the Old Pagan Ways and the dawn of Christianity in Ireland; Bannockburn will see the death of the noble knight’s domination of the battlefield – and, by extension, society – and the rise of infantry, and the common man. Plus faeries, demons, monsters, and the Loch Ness Monster. Maybe the Wild Hairy Haggis.

What, to him and his, were the traditions that lie behind me, and of which I am a part? How could the representatives of two such utterly separate stocks and traditions bridge the gulf between? It cannot be bridged. Not in my life-time or his. What is Bunker Hill, Lexington and Paul Revere to him? What is King’s Mountain, the Battle of New Orleans, the drift of ‘49, Gettysburg, Bull’s Run, or San Juan? Nothing. A meaningless drift of words, talismans of a slow-thoughted breed, to him inferior, in his own mind. If the difference lay just in this country, it might be overcome. But it lies beyond that. What to him and his is Hastings, the Crusades, the Wars of the Roses, the Battle of Culloden, of Bannockburn, of Preston Pans, of the Blackwater? The Black Prince means nothing to him, nor Robert Bruce nor Shane O’Neil.
 - Robert E. Howard, Letter to H.P. Lovecraft, 9th August, 1936


  1. Well if you were to draw it, I'd sure as heck read it.

  2. Hero of the Federation1 April 2013 at 23:16


  3. And De Bohun. Bruce MUST have been fishing, "Whoops, no bodyguard,just this axe..."

    1. Oh, absolutely the de Bohun confrontation, can't tell the story of Bannockburn without it!

  4. Try to get funding for it!... And if not as comic (=loads of work) then as an picture book (=needs someone for the prose).

    I think seeing the header of this blog prompted me into a bizarre, convoluted dream last night, of which I remember very little, except that you were leading an Independent Scotland battle, Braveheart-like. Make of it what you will.


    1. I'll be doing the words for the comic, but a picture-book might be a fun fallback plan. I've always been a bit leery of getting money, but Kickstarter and other organisations have shown it can get things done. I'm sure the Scottish Art Council could help out, too. Worth considering.

      And I'm honoured to infiltrate your dreams!

  5. You have readers on this side of the pond, too!

  6. The giant spider reminds me of a Kevin Smith monologue about the 'Wild Wild West Movie'. Anyway, do what you have to do. I'll buy it.

    1. That may or may not have been at the back of my mind, Bruce...