The Succession, and  The Historical Consciousness of George Garrett, Part One of Two


This was published originally (if I recall correctly) in an issue of The Texas Review.  George Garrett, knowing how highly my wife and I regarded The Succession, asked me to write the piece, perhaps because he had trouble finding anyone else.

 "Well then, let us hear the tale of Kinmont Willie."  With that voice, heard near the center of George Garrett's The Succession: a Novel of Elizabeth and James, we are introduced to a group of old and disabled Scottish reivers gathered around a peat fire in a tower, drinking malt whiskey and telling tales, as they watch through the night for the return of a raiding party.  The tale of Willie Armstrong comes only at the end of the chapter, where Red Tom--who claims to have been "there in the midst of it"--offers a version somewhat less romantic than what is handed down in the great Scottish ballad.   Garrett, however, does not let the reiver have the whole of the telling, and the narrator takes over, merging his own voice with that of Red Tom.  In the end, he asks, "Did it happen that way?" and answers, "No man in this tower knows.  It is how they have heard it, how they prefer to believe it.  It gladdens their hearts, for a while, to think so." 

     If religion, as Walter Burkert argued in Homo Necans, is the creation of neolithic hunters, then narrative literature was at least the second invention of men out in the bush, seated around their campfires, drinking and telling stories of the past.  Even today, someone wanting to hear a good story would be well advised to take a leave of absence from his creative writing program and head out to the nearest deer camp.  In his historical novels George Garrett has blurred the line that divides fiction from history and restored story-telling to its primitive vigor.

     For the Scots, the ballad of Kinmont Willie was history, their history, and at the beginning of European literature, Greeks sat drinking wine as they listened to some son of Homer singing them the tales of Achilles and Hector and of the homecoming of Odysseus.  German scholars of the 19th century were convinced that there never was a Troy, much less a Mycenae; that if there had been any historical basis for the Iliad, it lay in petty skirmishes of Greek chieftains in the far North.  Heinrich Schliemann, an uneducated merchant who put his faith in literature rather than in the professors, found the sites of both Troy and Mycenae because he believed the lines of Homeric Greek he had first heard recited in a barroom.  

How could he not?  If the Torah served to remind the ancient Jews of who they were, the Homeric epics had the same function for the Greeks.  Noble families traced their ancestry back to the fighters who sacked Troy and territorial wars could be settled by reference to the Catalogue of Ships.

In times closer to our own, the Serbs, after the Turkish conquest, preserved their national identity by singing and re-singing their great songs of the last battle on the Plain of the Blackbirds and of the exploits of Prince Marko Kraljević, who is invariably drinking wine to show his contempt for Muslim prohibition.  When they began to throw off the Turkish yoke in the early 19th century, new songs were composed to honor Karageordge, and in the recent Bosnian Civil War, I heard these old songs being sung, with additional lyrics comemmorating the heroism of a new generation of Serb guerillas.  

History begins, not in the accumulation of data or in the examination of evidence, but in a narrative recreation of the heroic past.  The Greeks had been singing songs of Troy for over three centuries, before they were written down, and even after there were written texts they continued to perform the old songs and compose new ones.  As time went on, the stream of historical epic divided into channels: one led in the direction of heroic lyric and tragedy, whose plots were always rooted in the past; the other toward the more prosaic investigations into geography, ethnology, and political events made by Ionian Greeks who called their work historie, that is, inquiry or fact-finding.  If tragedy, as Aristotle observes, is more philosophical than history, because it aims at the essence of things, history, nonetheless, never gave up its claim to be a kind of narrative literature, and Herodotus is almost as great a narrative artist as his Athenian contemporaries who were writing tragedies. 

As much as professional historians like Polybius might try to make history accurate and boring, ancient history rarely strayed too far from poetry, and vice versa.  In the reign of Augustus, Livy took Polybius' account of the Punic Wars and turned it into something better, not just a more entertaining narrative but more significant history, if history means making sense of the past.  His theme was the Roman people, and his book was a character study of that people from the mythical founding of the city down to his own times.  At almost the same time, Vergil composed his Aeneid, which is superficially the tale of defeated and exiled Trojans, but is really (as the poet tells us at the beginning) the story of "the Latian realm.....and the long glories of majestic Rome."

Historical fiction then, in prose or verse, whether it bears the name history or romance, is as ancient as the human race; it is, perhaps, the fundamental form of our literature, which, although it celebrates the deeds of individual men (which is what Achilles is doing, when the ambassadors come to his tent), is really telling the tale of a people, refreshing the memory of the old and forming the character of the young.  Historical fiction, so far from disappearing with the fall of Rome, lived on in the Greek east, where Digenes Akritas is a border-hero like the Scots reivers, and in the Latin West, where tales of Beowulf, Sigurd, and Roland embodied the tribal memories of Franks, Goths, and Anglo-Saxons: at Hastings, the Normans went into battle with the Chanson de Roland in their ears. 

The Renaissance is nothing if it is not an attempt to recreate historical epic: Petrarch's Africa (in Latin), Tasso's Gierusalemme liberata, Shakespeare's English Histories (as much as most Englishmen have ever known of the Wars of the Roses), and Milton's Paradise Lost, whose subject is nothing less than the history of the human race and its quarrel with God. 

By the end of the 17th century, when Europeans aspired to something like the same level of civilization as the ancients had enjoyed, the historical stream divided again, one branch flowing into the novel of domestic manners and personal narrative, the other toward more scientific history.  But, just as in the earlier Augustan Age, critically minded historians did not lose sight of their narrative origins (and purpose) of history; Gibbon and Hume were masters of the narrative art, perhaps greater masters than their novel-writing contemporaries.  

For the English, a nation already forged in the civil wars of the 15th and 17th centuries, critical history may have sufficed, but for nations still aborning, like poor Scotland that is always aborning but never born, the old ballads and folktales remained necessary fixtures of historical furniture.  Many of Burns's poems are new versions of old songs, some of them political and historical, but it was Sir Walter Scott, first in his short epics and later in his novels, who showed how national history could, once again, be written in fictional forms.  His Waverley novels, which took Europe by storm, have set the pattern for historical fiction ever since, even for those (like Mark Twain) who professed to hate him.  George Garrett, who has done more than anyone since Scott to advance the historical novel, also shows himself Scott's heir in many ways. 

Scott's relevance for The Succession goes well beyond a general indebtedness to the creator of a genre.  The tale of Kinmont Willie, so beloved by the collector of The Border Minstrelsy, serves Garrett's narrative purposes as a connection between Elizabeth and James, (although there are dozens of other connections that could have performed the same service as well or better.)  

The climax of the story, in Garrett's telling, is the triumphant meeting of "Bold Buccleuch" with the Queen.  The Dukes of Buccleuch were, it needs not to be said, the chiefs of Scott's family (which branched off, apparently, in the 14th century), and in the course of the chapter we are told of another of Sir Walter's ancestors, his namesake Auld Wat of Harden, "that ancient chieftain, whose name I have made to ring in many a ditty."  In retelling the ancient ballad, in bringing on a cast of Scottish reivers whom Scott would gladly have drunk with (he once said he could not find it in his heart to condemn his thieving ancestors), and in connecting his tale with Sir Walter's ancestors, George Garrett invites (perhaps unconsciously) comparison with the greatest of historical novelists, whom he has, in some sense, challenged on his own ground.  

As narrator, Scott is inferior to many of his contemporaries (including the historians) and is once said to have exclaimed that a plot was only a device from which to hang his characters.  In variety of characters, however, Scott is excelled only by Shakespeare.  As a shirt-tail connection with the Scotts of Buccleugh, Scott was keenly aware of class distinctions, but he despised snobbery and pretension (He once exploded at his daughter for deprecating something as "common").  As memorable as some of his noble and gentle heroes are, it is the simpler characters such as Meg Merrilies and Jeanie Deans, Dandie Dinmont and the blacksmith suitor of the Fair Maid of Perth, who became household names and archetypal figures.  The very same qualities can be found in Garrett, a writer who has more than once acknowledged that he comes from old American stock but whose characters run the gamut from Anglican ministers to fundamentalist Bible-thumpers to Elizabethan bravos to circus performers. 

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

6 Responses

  1. Clyde Wilson says:

    Brilliant, Tom. You understand History better than 99% of the so-called historians of today. History, told in whatever form, is a distinctively Western form of thought. It is now being replaced by Communist and African superstitions, something even worse than the wholesale lies that “historians” now tell. Thanks also for the attention to George Garrett, who was certainly one of the greatest writers of the last century.

  2. Dot says:

    Portugal has her own epic poem written in 10 cantos in the 16th century by Luis Vaz de Camoes. It tells the history of the nation of Portugal. Each canto has explanatory notes.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, one of many great Renaissance epics. When I read an old translation decades ago, I thought of learning Portuguese, but the vain hope faded until I was invited to read a paper at a “Papal Encounter” in Brazil. I was inspired for several months to work through a book, optimistically titled , “Le Portugais Sans Peine.” As it turned out, my colleagues all got by better with their college Spanish, while I was wrestling with the nasal vowels so reminiscent of Polish.

  4. Frank Brownlow says:

    Yes, a very nice piece. “The English, a nation already forged in the civil wars of the 15th and 17th centuries.” Who, though, ARE the English? A question not easily answered by now. They first became a nation, & a surprisingly successful & civil one, under the Old English kings. Then came a 2nd start under the foreign rule of the Normans, a race with the odd habit of becoming the people they conquered, language & all, so that by about 1350 the English had recovered their Old English ways, including their language. Then the disaster of Henry of Lancaster’s usurpation, followed by dynastic wars that finished off the Norman royal house, brought on an even worse disaster, the Tudors and their failed succession that eventually brought on full-strength general civil war, won by the kind of people who settled Massachusetts. Shakespeare, the one great English writer who really tells the national stories, seems to have lived, imaginatively or emotionally, in that pre-Tudor England to which his family belonged. As Edwin Muir said, Shakespeare and the other dramatists were the final stage of the great medieval age of story-telling.

  5. Robert Reavis says:

    Dr Brownlow,
    I hope sometime in the near future you will share a little of your understanding of Chaucer with all of us. Some consider him the greatest of all English storytellers and of course good storytellers are a rich find in our time.

  6. Roger McGrath says:

    I second Clyde Wilson.