[Note: This is a sort of side-project I’ve been tinkering with for a while. I’ve decided to publish it here in brief installments–partially because it seems to want to defy categorization in any of the normal publication venues I’d consider (too focused on issues in present-day evangelical pop subculture for something like Studies in Medievalism, too medievalist for something like Christian Scholars Review or Christianity and Literature). So what the heck–here we go…]
“I want to love with much more abandon and stop waiting for others to love me first. I want to hurl myself into a creative work worthy of God. I want to charge the fields of Bannockburn, follow Peter as he followed Christ out onto the sea, pray from my heart’s true desire.” John Eldredge, in Wild at Heart (199)
The above passage appears near the end of Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul, John Eldredge’s popular evangelical manifesto for recovering an authentic masculinity he feels is lost to contemporary American Christian men. It appears as a summation of much of what has come before in the book–themes of embracing risk, blessing “natural” masculine aggressiveness, and living honestly from one’s own divinely-implanted core desires. One of the items on this list, however–to borrow an axiom from Sesame Street–is not like the others: the first item concerns loving without expectation of reward; the second, creativity; the penultimate item is an image of an act of pure faith in Christ; the last conveys a desire for authentic prayer. All very noble–and very spiritual and personal–goals. The consistency of these items makes the remaining, third item–the reference to the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn–seem oddly out of place. What have the other items to do with a seven-hundred-year-old, bloody conflict between English and Scottish armies?
In the context of the rest of Wild at Heart, the image of Bannockburn can only invoke the host of earlier references Eldredge has made throughout the book to the character of the legendary Scottish national hero William Wallace as portrayed in the 1995 film Braveheart. Eldredge frequently invokes Wallace as his poster child for authentic Christian masculinity, the man who fought for what he believed in when the other “pharisaic,” conciliatory Scots nobles would not. The reference is, however, problematic: For one thing, Wallace had been dead for nine years when the Battle of Bannockburn took place, and the one who led the charge at Bannockburn was Robert Bruce, whom Eldredge (along with the film) sees as one of the conciliatory nobles mentioned earlier. For another, the reference adds an unsettling political valence to a list of items presented as spiritual equivalents. For Eldredge, the image of charging the fields at Bannockburn represents a leap of faith equivalent to Peter’s. But Bannockburn, even in the world of Braveheart, was not a matter of spiritual faith; it was a matter of political sovereignty. And even if Wallace had led that charge, the reference still endangers Eldredge’s point in ways he doesn’t seem to recognize. Eldredge identifies the ideas of a “battle to fight” and a “beauty to fight for” as two of the deepest, most authentic desires of the Christian man–desires that, by strong association if not direct reference, Wallace embodies. In the film, however, Wallace’s wife is killed early on, her murder a significant motivation for the Wallace character’s continued fight against the English. While Wallace, then, certainly has a battle to fight and a beauty to fight for, Wallace’s battle, even in the film, is a nationalist rather than a spiritual one; his test of faith is not about faith in Christ but in a partisan political identity, and the beauty for which he fights is revenge. The Bannockburn reference thus points away from the spiritual authenticity indicated by the other items in the list and toward a very human–not to mention post-medieval–construct (the idea of political loyalty to a nation-state) and toward a brand of masculine desire that is, to be sure, deeply authentic and deeply human, but hardly laudable or Christ-like.
The figure of William Wallace, as I will argue, is central to Eldredge’s program in Wild at Heart, and his use of Wallace is emblematic of nearly all of Eldredge’s many references to films and popular culture throughout the book. For Eldredge, Wallace is more than just a comic-book ideal, and more than just an example of the kind of figure to which men respond (and as such an indicator of “real” masculine desires). Wallace in Wild at Heart is a central figure of authentic masculinity itself, the embodiment of what, for Eldredge, modern Christian masculinity has lost and what it must recover. But what, exactly, is being recovered in the figure of Wallace, and what are the consequences of that recovery? I would like to suggest, via a reading of the medieval origins and history of the legend of William Wallace, that what Eldredge sees as an authentic masculinity worthy of recovery is anything but authentic, but rather an almost entirely created—and always politically interested—fantasy. I will also argue that the fifteenth-century poet Blind Hary, whose poem The Actis and Dedis of the illustere and vailyeand campioun Schir William Wallace, Knight of Ellerslie, is the source of most of the Braveheart narrative, actually expresses an awareness and a pointed critique of precisely the use of the Wallace legend that Eldredge employs. Hary undermines as a dangerous and destructive fantasy precisely the version of Wallace Eldredge wishes to recover as honorable and authentic. By examining what we know about the historical Wallace, by reading Hary’s Wallace against Wild at Heart, and by adopting as critical tools both historiography and the strategies by which Hary undermines the “authenticity” of the character of Wallace in his own poem, we can see more clearly both the politically-loaded constructedness of the Wallace legend and the potential consequences to the faith—and humanity—of Eldredge’s audience of recovering Wallace as a figure of authentic masculine desire.