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Nigel Tranter


I wish I could say that the prolific historical novelist Nigel Tranter left us with a rich and readable lode of historical novels set in Scotland. Unfortunately, I cannot say that, having just finished Sword of State.

Sword of State opens in the year 1214, when the young Patrick, the 5th Earl of Dunbar, is sent by his father to take a message to the even younger King Alexander II of Scotland, who has just ascended to the throne. The two young royals immediately become fast friends. For the remainder of his life, Patrick was friend and fixer to King Alexander.

Tranter cranked out something like 90 novels in his long life. He died in 2000 at the age of 90. Sword of State has a 1999 copyright. Tranter wrote this novel when he was approaching 90 years old.

As a novel, Sword of State fails. Many of the most important ingredients of a good novel — mystery, subplot, suspense, emotion, complexity — are missing. What kept me going is that I greatly liked the characters, and it mattered that they were once real. Tranter’s career as a writer started with an interest in castles. So there is plenty of castle atmosphere. Clearly Tranter also was fascinated with maps and terrain, and my guess is that he visited and was familiar with most of the settings. Detailed topographical maps of Scotland would make a handy guide when reading Tranter. As with Tolkien, I learned new words for types of terrain and water, such as “mull,” “kyle,” and “burn.” This novel would be quite rewarding to a reader whose main interest is what life might have been like in 13th Century Scotland. But its weakness as a novel is that the narrative, long on exposition and short on action, follows a simple and single trajectory as Tranter checks off the main events in the lives of Patrick and Alexander. Characterization, and some of the dialogue, is pretty good, though.

According to the Wikipedia article on Tranter, his novels are “deeply researched.” No doubt that is true, though I wonder what his sources were. This taste of Tranter left me wanting to know more about early Scottish history.

If this novel has a villain, it’s the church. This does not surprise me. My guess would be that Tranter would agree that the Celtic world would have been vastly better off if the church had never existed. Tranter’s churchmen are greedy for land, money, and power. Popes should have names such as Avarice III or Ruthlessness VI rather than, say, Celestine IV.

I was angry when I finished this book, because of how Patrick died — miserably and uselessly, far from his Scottish home. He was killed in the Seventh Crusade. This crusade was sponsored by Pope Innocent IV, who pressured kings, including of course Alexander, to send money and men to fight “the infidels.” This particular bit of madness and genocide by the church cost 1.7 million lives.

Pope Innocent IV, by the way, was executing a decree written by Innocent III, Quod super his: “Innocent decides that if a non-believer refuses to accept and adopt the teachings of Christ, he is not truly a full human being and therefore is undeserving of humane treatment and subject to force.” This decree was used in the 19th Century to justify American genocide against native Americans. Some kinds of people never change. Today’s politics and the theologies that go along with it didn’t just come out of nowhere, did they?

6 Comments

  1. Henry Sandigo wrote:

    Goodness!
    I recently watched two specials on American History, one on American Indians (all tribes) and American Mexican, specifically Tejanos. From your article I realize that this rule kept from the time you specify to be used in Americas history in the 1800’s, from Texas to California and most if not all the USA. The tragedy for me is when I was growing up and listening to the stories of General Vallejo weren’t true, he was persecuted as well the Tejanos of Texas and Mexicans of Southern California. Damn them to hell!

    Wednesday, September 18, 2019 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hey Henry… One of many things that I find galling about church people is that, knowing no history of the church other than what the church tells them, and knowing no history of theology, they presume to possess some power to “save” the rest of us, and to morally instruct us, and to consider themselves and their church very superior and very fine. They’ve even invented new theologies — dominion theology and “prosperity gospel,” whole new ways to bring out the very worst in bad people. I once tried to honor the unwritten rule of not criticizing people’s religion. But anyone who gets in my face these days with their religion had better stand back. They need to be told what they are.

    Wednesday, September 18, 2019 at 5:07 pm | Permalink
  3. Charmaine wrote:

    Dave I LOVED YOUR VIDEO of Scotland and all the great pictures you have posted!! Very interesting, its beautiful there. I just might take Ken up on visiting in December.

    Monday, September 23, 2019 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  4. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Charmaine… The world is a crazy place, so it’s particularly comforting that a place like Scotland exists. If you have not been there, you’ll want to explore Edinburgh. You’ll love Dunbar. And, if you have time, take the train at least as far west as Oban.

    Monday, September 23, 2019 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  5. Henry wrote:

    My wife recently returned from Scotland. She said ”it was sort of eerie for the lack of trees. And that the wind constantly was present. One of the guides did explain that most trees were destroyed due to the need of fire for cooking and warmth, as well the introduction of Sheep that the sheep eat below the root line. I was watching a PBS presentation of how conservationists are planting acres of trees, surrounded by fencing until the trees mature. So someday trees will glorify the beauty of Scotland

    Thursday, October 24, 2019 at 5:43 pm | Permalink
  6. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Henry… That’s right. Deer destroy young trees before they can get a start. For a tree to survive, the deer must be fenced out. Scotland is working on what to do about this. The E.U. has financed some reforestation projects with high fences. Maybe someday…

    Thursday, October 24, 2019 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

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