A Question of Truth: Barbour’s Bruce, Hary’s Wallace and Richard Coer de Lion
International Review of Scottish Studies, 34 (2009)
How do we define Bruce? It is the oldest surviving poem of any length in any form of Older Scots; it is also the earliest surviving extensive narrative source for the life and deeds of Robert Bruce, King of Scots. It is, thus, both a literary and a historiographical landmark; it might also be described as anomalous, however, since the most frequent critical question asked of it is whether it is best regarded as romance or as history. While it might be argued that such a question arises primarily from modern concerns with taxonomy, nevertheless while the poem constantly foregrounds matters of truth and ‘suthfastness’, it also associates Bruce and his confederates with romance figures, and illustrates heroic character with almost superhuman deeds. Away from the purely taxonomic question, then, we are presented with a further question: what models did Barbour have in writing and his original audience – the court of Robert II – have in reading the poem?
Hary’s Wallace raises the same questions: although its literary influences are easier to identify, it crosses the same generic boundaries, yet was composed in a different context. Because of its status as the first identifiable Older Scots poem, any search for models for Bruce necessitates a search outwith Scotland. Even after moving beyond Scotland, however, it becomes apparent that the peculiarities of Barbour’s subject matter and approach mean that obvious models are scarce; indeed, the occasional critical practice of reading Bruce as Hary’s only model and the regular omission of Bruce and Wallace from discussions of insular romance and chanson de geste suggests their individuality.