The Historical Consciousness of George Garrett 

 "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 tellling, 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 Necans1, 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 resinging their great songs of the last battle on the Plain of the Blackbirds and of the exploits of Prince Marko Kraljevic, 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 comemorating 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."2  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. 

What is astonishing in Garrett's narrative technique is his generosity.  While most novelists write from a point of view, whether their own or that of a fictional character or of liberal philosophy's impartial spectator, Garrett allows his people to speak for themselves and to justify their (often miserable and sometimes worthless) lives.  In this impartiality, he brings us back to the dawn of historical writing, to Herodotus who would repeat conflicting versions of a story and allow the readers to make up their own minds.  

The multiplicity of voices in The Succession has the effect not so much of a mosaic--lifeless fragments forced into a single pattern and reflecting, however diverse they are in hue and tone, a single light--as an Elizabethan play filled with characters who go their own way, sometimes in contempt of either the hero's destiny or the author's apparent intention (e.g. Pistol in Henry V).  As we are reading their tales, hearing them in their own voice, we inevitably take the sides, successively, of the Macchiavellian secretary, the committed but fearful papist priest, the hedonistic and irresponsible actor, the reckless courtier.  If, as Dr. Johnson once suggested, every man's life is worthy of a biography, then Garrett has given us a varied cast of Everymen, each one of them with something to say in his own defense. 

As a novelist of character--there is no more plot to The Succession than there is in Poison Pen--Garrett is able to write a kind of social history of Elizabethan and Jacobean Britain.  He is not, let us be careful to note, making up his material as he goes along.  His original ambition was to write a more formal kind of history, for which he read everything and took volumes, boxes, roomfuls of notes, much as Scott spent his free time roaming the border country, getting drunk every night with the farmers and shepherds, collecting the materials for his Border Minstrelsy.  (All that time, said one of his companions, he was making himself.)  But, as Garrett explained to Madison Bell in an interview, when the time came to write Death of the Fox, the task of digesting his information turned out to be insurmountable: 

 As fast as I would think I was reading everything I should know, 50 more books would come out.  Trying to know enough to do it, handling truckloads of notes got in my way....So I  changed the model of my book from term paper to test....and  then I just closed the trunk and wrote it off the top of my  head.3

As historian, then, (and not just historical novelist), Garrett is more like Livy or Herodotus than he is like an academic historian; indeed, his work is more historical in the classical sense than any living American historian except Shelby Foote, whose Narrative History of the Civil War is a Proustian novel of reminiscence.  If Foote has written history using the techniues of the novel, Garrett has composed a novel that serves the original purposes of history.  As Clyde Wilson, himself an American historian, has pointed out, Garrett has revivified the historical novel and "brought to life Elizabethan England" as well as demonstrated "that it was still possible for a modern American writer to make contact with the pristine English language, the authentic religious belief, and the terrible immediacy of both glory and disaster that marked Shakespeare's England."4 

In his profound examination into the uses and possibilities of history, Historical Consciousness5, John Lukacs distinguishes the aims of fiction from those of history and sees the borders of the novel being invaded, on the one flank by poetry, and on the other by history.  For Lukacs, the truest history should be not so much an account of facts as a rendering of the consciousness of different times.  Deprecating the current state of the historical novel and skeptical of the fictional documentary, Lukacs sees history as the successor to the place of the novel.  In fact, however, George Garrett's The Succession comes closer than any recent works of fiction to realizing Lukac's criteria for historical consciousness. 

Ancient (by which I mean pre-academic) historians wrote with a purpose in mind, a general theme to be illustrated as events unfolded.  It may be too much to say that Garrett writes with such a purpose or formula; he does, however, have a distinct view of Elizabethan and Jacobean England, a period which he finds both stranger and yet more relevant than is sometimes supposed.  Asked about the political behavior exhibited in his historical works, he told Madison Bell that the earlier age:

 had more integrity in a certain way--you died for your positions.  You don't die for them now, you just deny  everything and run on the other ticket.  I think you would shake a lot of guys out of American politics like rotten apples off a tree if they thought their lives were on the line.6

The most extreme case in The Succession is the priest, whose life we have come to see through his own eyes: his drunken, fox-hunting father, the timid old parish priest who, though still Catholic in his heart, has switched sides to save his skin, his fellow-renegades who are making a last-ditch effort to save England from the most cynical of reformations.  The last words of the chapter (as in the ending of Aiken's "Mr. Arcularis") belong to the government agent expressing his dismay that the priest died before revealing anything worthwile.  It is only at that point that it is brought home to the reader that all he has heard and experienced is from documents confiscated from a man who has been tortured to death.  His public epitaph is the official lie handed out by Elizabeth's servants: "It has been agreed by the physicians and the jailer that it shall be given out (to the shame of the Papists) that the priest, in fear of torture or death by execution, has hanged himself in his prison cell. 

But the other actors play equally dangerous games: Buccleuch in rescuing Kinmont Willie, the actor in joining Essex' household (and conspiracy) and, even while serving as double-agent, maintaining a sentimental loyalty.  Even the Cecils, both Macchiavels who knew how to play all parts, stayed loyal to their royal mistress and to their country (at least to their own view of their country).  The later days of Elizabeth were not, however, by any stretch of the neck or the imagination, Merry Old England.  The religious and political wars had infected the English character with a self-serving cynicism that is poison to simplicity.  The messenger, whose periodic appearancs serve the function of a tragic chorus, spends an evening drinking in the North with an old captain, who has received some favors from Cecil, but who has never been asked "to do anything that might be misconstrued as disloyal to the Percys."  The captain might be corruptible, but--who knows?--his loyalty "might turn out to be true and deep."

The reign of Elizabeth is interesting, precisely because it is the threshold between the old world of violent honor and the newer world of treacherous statecraft.  The messenger permits himself a nostalgic longing for an Old England, before the time when he realized that "there is no one--no servant, no ally, kith or kin--who cannot sooner or later be sold off like a sheep."  However, Garrett's 16th century sellers and fleecers all know what they are doing and display more than a little courage, even in their policy and their treachery.  

More than one reader of The Succession have told me they found the messenger the most sympathetic character, the nearest thing to a hero in the book: a man too weak to be anything other than what he is--a spy for Cecil--and too honest and courageous to lie about anyone including himself.  Old enough to remember a better England (or at least to think he does) but unflinching in his determination to make the best of his admittedly disappointing life.  

If history can be useful, it is not as a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected in a different time, and it is not as a set of universal archetypes that reduces all ages and all men down to a few simple principles (as in the philosophical criticisms of Leo Strauss and his followers); history is more like a love poem written by a stranger, in which we can hear our own experiences, true, but in different accents, with different names, and even with suprisingly different attitudes.  Garrett's company of Elizabethan players are men and women, with most of our own desires and frailties, but they play their games with conviction and courage, and it has been some time since those qualities could be attributed to Americans.     In his satiric works, (most recently in The King of Babylon), George Garrett reveals himself as one of the sharpest social critics writing fiction.  What is not always so well understood is that his historical works, in their depiction of an England that belongs as much to modern Americans as to the English, offer a social criticism of American life that is no less savage for its implicitness.



1. Walter Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrifical Ritual and Myth, tr. by Peter Bing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

2.  Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott by John Gibson Lockhart (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901) p. 3.

3. "George Garrett Talks to Madison Smartt Bell, Chronicles, June 1988, p. 22.

4. Clyde Wilson, review of George Garrett's Poison Pen, The World and I Vol. I, no. 12 (December 1986), p.   .

5. John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness: The Remembered Past (3rd edition, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994).

6. Bell interview, p. 23

Thomas Fleming is a classical philologist, poet, and editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture.

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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. Robert Reavis says:

    This review of Mr Garrett’s voice as one “crying in the desert” reminded me of how tenuous the golden thread can be at times. It can’t cease to be simply because it’s ignored or pillaged by hucksters but it can certainly be forgotten or almost forgotten. One of Alasdair MacIntyre’s teacher’s or “academic advisors” as we must say today, long before women were reduced en masse to political advocacy or exhibitionists to sell product, once remarked “ it is doubtful whether life can be significantly lived without conscious relation to some tradition. Those who do live without it live as a kind of moral proletariat, without roots and without loyalties. For to be significant life needs form, and form is the outcome of .…. a tradition ” Dorothy M. Emmet was writing about and observing things of this sort in 1946 but except through her students, probably not very memorably.

  2. Roger McGrath says:

    And this is why the Cultural Marxists are dedicated to the destruction of our history, literature, and traditions. The Gaelic clans of old understood this. The seanachie was seated at the right hand of the chieftain.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    George had told me more than once, the story he told Mad. Bell, about how he had locked away his notes before writing Death of a Fox, and added. that even he he made a mistake, Walter Raleigh in the tower would not have had a perfect recollection. His account was a tonic for me, who read too much and took too many notes. I now follow the Garret/Philip Sidney advice of “Fool, look into thine heart and write.” Of course I then go back and make corrections and insertions, but whatever coherence my books have, it is due in part to GG’s advice.

    He was among the most generous writers I have ever known, and his friends and students owed him a great deal. He was also a gifted story teller. Once in Rockford, we were driving him to the airport bus when my assistant’s car ran out of gas. In the event, we got gas and drove him to O’Hare. He started a story about Fred Chappell at the beginning and just brought it to an end at the turn-off to the airport. When I made the mistake of alluding to the story–which included Ol Fred being arrested by mistake for an armed robber–Fred said dismissively, “You can”t believe everything George says.” Actually, I did and do, including the tale he eventually put into his last collection of stories. It was the tale of a group of young men who rented house on the beach next to where the Garrets were staying. The polite young amused themselves by shooting guns off on the beach. After they left, the sheriff came looking for the Dillinger gang, whom he had just missed.

  4. Sam Dickson says:

    As you say Scott respected the heirarchy of life and society but he was not a snob and not a fan of snobbery.

    The marxists have seized upon snippets expressing this attitude in Scott’s writings just as they have tried to appropriate Dickens.

    “A man’s a man for a’that…”

    “High though his titles, proud his name,
    Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
    Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
    The wretch, concentred all in self,
    Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
    And, doubly dying, shall go down
    To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
    Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.”

    I attended a dinner party in a Scottish club in London one evening. Scots nowadays are much further to the left than the English. It’s hard for me to fathom how the people of John Knox have become leftists but it has happened and happened quickly in our own short lifetimes.

    The speaker was a cultural attache at the Soviet Embassy. “Impressive” doesn’t begin to describe this man. His command of English and his knowledge of English literature exceeded 99.9% of living English-speakers.

    A Scottish lady with a title gave the response after his talk. Title be damned! The lady recited IN RUSSIAN a perfect translation (even though it rhymed in Russian) of “A Mans A Man for A’That.”

    When she came to the end phrase that man for man the whole world over shall brothers be for all thtt, the audience and the Soviet diplomat erupted in delirious applause.

    And I clapped too.

  5. Michael Strenk says:

    I should probably be submitting this to “Ask the Doctor” (let me know if I should make a formal application), but Garrett and Raleigh and Filmer have been on my mind since I finished reading the Patriarccha and Other Political Works (yes, I read them all) by Robert Filmer, ed. Peter Laslett, late last year. Filmer makes mention of Raleigh a number of times in his works and I was surprised by Laslett’s footnotes in that they reveal that the collective works of Raleigh runs to a number of volumes. All that I know of Raleigh comes from reading Garrett”s Death of the Fox many years ago, that and a few poems of his that were part of a collection. My question is, what is the value of Raleigh as a political thinker, poet, writer? Are his written works in and of themselves worth reading/studying?

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Raleigh was the proverbial jack of all trades who is master of none. His poems are probably his best writing, though some of his personal accounts are interesting. He appears to have been the sort of person that both men and women tend to admire, and his tastes and interests were those of his time. One subject that interested him, not much discussed by GG, is the occult, and he is said to have brought with him to the tower and entire library on alchemy, magic, astrology. But this was a popular subject in Elizabethan England, as the influence of John Dee and the great welcome given to Giordano Bruno would indicate. Philip Sidney’s mother was, as I recall, one of Bruno’s patrons, and Shakespeare’s somewhat puzzling reference to the “school of night” probably points to a widespread interest in upper class writers like Sidney and Spenser. If one throws in plays like Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, The Alchemist, and Doctor Faustus–and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis–they shed a lurid light on the age. The odd men out would seem to be Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, who both seem to take a dim view of such goings on. So, basically, there are more original writers like Coke the lawyer (evil as the tendency of his thought was) and, later, Clarendon. Garrett was right to see in Raleigh an extraordinary subject for a novel, in part because he was an exemplary representative of a ruthless generation of men who might have been created by Machiavelli.