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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Playing Red Rover with William Wallace--On A Foreign Field by Hazel West

Did you play Red Rover as a child?  It involves bringing people from the opposing team over to yours.  I think that Red Rover is a particularly apt central metaphor for a novel about a captured English knight who learns about the Scottish rebels he'd been sent to fight, and changes his perspective.  The novel is On A Foreign Field by Hazel West.

Here's some background that reveals my perspective on this topic. I was a teenage Jacobite whose imagination was fueled by Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott. The Jacobites were supporters of the Scottish Stuart Kings after Scotland had formally become part of a new entity called Great Britain through the Acts of Union .   I read a great many books dealing with The Battle of Culloden . I also became a fan of the Highlander TV Series.  In the Battle of Culloden the Jacobite cause was led to defeat by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Yet the Highlander TV series contained an episode called Through A Glass Darkly that questioned the value of the Jacobite cause and the leadership of Bonnie Prince Charlie.  The link to "Through A Glass Darkly" that I'm providing will allow you to watch this episode for free on Hulu.  Contacts with Scottish fans of the Highlander show also exposed me to other perspectives on Scottish history. The Jacobite phrase "Charlie is my darling" was not the slogan of everyone in Scotland. In fact, I learned that many contemporary Scots thought the Stuart prince had been "a right Charlie" which is UK slang for being a fool. See Wiktionary definition of Charlie.  It's the third definition under noun.  I  began to question whether the restoration of the Stuart dynasty would have benefited Scotland myself.  Had the Stuarts ever really cared about the Scots?  Did any royal house care about more than maintaining its own power?

I knew that before the Stuarts ruled in Scotland there had been an earlier hero of the cause of Scottish independence who hadn't been a prince or even a nobleman.  His name was William Wallace.  His story was popularized in the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart .  As a commoner in the 13th century, William Wallace never expected to rule Scotland.  He simply wanted to end the tyrannical abuses of English rule. Surely from the perspective of this democratically inclined American, William Wallace made a far better iconic figure than the Bonnie Prince. Yet I had never researched Wallace or even read historical fiction about him. 

Hazel West has written a William Wallace novel that I still haven't read called Freedom Come All Ye. I decided to read her second novel dealing with William Wallace, On A Foreign Field, because it has an unusual focus.  As I indicated above, the central character is an Englishman named Reeve Montgomery captured on the field of battle while he was fighting the rebel forces led by William Wallace.

Reeve originally condemns William Wallace's  battle strategy as being dishonorable.   This is what I had to say about that in a Goodreads discussion of On A Foreign Field :

   At the outset Reeve thinks that William Wallace's tactics are "foul play". I didn't agree, but I think that this  was a common view historically. Many peoples believed that the only fair way to fight was the way they were trained to fight. So if someone used tactics that were outside their training, they were considered dishonorable. In fact, I read that the longbow was considered dishonorable by knights trained to fight with the sword. They thought that slaying at a distance was wrong. Now in the modern world nations routinely drop bombs which is considerably more distanced than the longbow.
I think that war is not a game. Rules for combat are for sports competitions. The reality of real combat is quite different. In the case of the Scots fighting against the English for their independence, it was a desperate struggle. William Wallace's tactics were pragmatic. He did what worked.

Wallace did what worked, but Hazel West also portrays him as being ethical.  He doesn't believe in mistreating prisoners like Reeve Montgomery which is one of the reasons why Reeve begins to change his attitude toward the Scottish cause.

There's another unexpected ally of William Wallace mentioned in this book, a French pirate. I did research on this individual.  His name was Thomas de Longueville.  Here's a site that contains his story: Pirate Joins William Wallace .  It also intrigued me that this pirate was known as The Red Rover. The Electric Scotland website says that Sir Walter Scott incorporated the tale of the Red Rover becoming a follower of William Wallace into The Fair Maid of Perth which you can download for free from Project Gutenberg at the link I've provided in your format of choice.  There was also a novel by James Fenimore Cooper called The Red Rover.  It deals with a pirate, but it's totally unrelated to Thomas de Longueville and William Wallace.

  In an article about the game Red Rover at Red Rover Game Wikipedia states that "rover" comes from a Norwegian word for pirate.  Then the article speculates that the game was originally daring the Vikings to "come over".  Yet the request to the Red Rover in the game to let someone "come over" doesn't really make sense in that context. What if  it was originally about members of a pirate crew asking their commander, the Red Rover, if they can "come over" to William Wallace's side? The game ends with "Red Rover, Red Rover, let everyone come over."  If the game was based on Thomas de Longueville, this might indicate that all the pirates in the crew joined William Wallace's cause, not just de Longueville himself.  So the game Red Rover might not only be a metaphor in the context of this novel. It could actually preserve a part of the history behind the events of the book. 

I always enjoy learning more about history, and discovering more books through research inspired by a work that I'm reviewing.  I feel that my experience of reading On A Foreign Field has been enriched by this research.  The book now has more depth for me. 


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for taking the time to review =) And those are some interesting thoughts on the Red Rover story as well. There's a good deal of that story in Blind Harry's epic "The Wallace" that actually goes into Longneville's history which is pretty interesting to look into as well. I had more of that, and actual parts with Wallace meeting Longneville in my first draft Wallace novel that never made the cut, but I didn't feel there was room for that in this particular book.