[This is part four of a series on John Eldredge’s medievalism—specifically his use of the figure of William Wallace—in his popular book Wild at Heart. To recap:
In Part One, I lay out the broad point of the whole series, which is that, via the figure of Wallace, Eldredge, in his search for a more authentic Christian masculinity, essentially replaces one potentially destructive fantasy with another.
In Part Two, I examine Eldredge’s use of the figure of William Wallace in the text of Wild at Heart.
In a small Interlude, I explain why I respect Eldredge’s purpose in Wild and Heart, and see this work as at least as much of a continuation of that work (a search for a more authentic way of being) as it is a critique.]
In Part Three, I look at what little we know about the historical Wallace to show the degree to which the Braveheart film is a Hollywood-generated fantasy. That fantasy, however, is one that is intentionally designed to register with audiences as historically “authentic.” The sense of historical authenticity—and especially of a more authentic sense of masculinity–in the film is really part of the film’s fantasy.]
Part three of this series ended with the following paragraph, which is worth repeating:
It’s not so much that Wallace as portrayed in the film is a representative of a historically authentic masculinity as it is that the film uses the the techniques of filmic fantasy-building to create the idea that Wallace represents a historically authentic masculinity and make it seem to be true in the absence of any historical reality. The Wallace of Braveheart is not an example of such masculinity, but rather a vehicle to lead audiences to believe that the brand of masculinity the film’s creators wish to promote carries an authenticity that it really lacks. Put more succinctly: the film is designed to make fantasy seem like reality. And it is this fantasy, primarily, for which Eldredge seems to fall in Wild at Heart.
Recall the point made above that the film elides Wallace’s (historically very important) diplomatic activity: Wallace, in other words, was a literate politician as well as a fighter. The “literate” characters (that is, the ones who seem concerned things like texts and diplomacy), in Braveheart, however, are invariably coded not only as the “bad guys,” but, as Michael Sharp points out, sexually “deviant” as well: both the Sheriff of Lanark and Edward I attempt to sexually coerce both of Wallace’s love interests in the film, and the character of Edward of Caernarvon (the son of “Longshanks”) is portrayed—quite anachronistically—as a simpering, present-day stereotype of an effeminate gay man. This would not have been the historical reality: we know, for example, that Edward of Caernarvon was a successful contestant in tournaments, which means that, like any male of his social class, he would have been trained from his seventh year to be comfortable fighting on horseback for long periods of time while wearing several hundred pounds of body armor; he hardly would have appeared effeminate to a modern eye, even though some period sources do suggest that he had sexual relationships with male “favorites” (it is, however, impossible to determine with complete certainty whether this was really the case or simply an instance of his political enemies attempting to discredit him after the fact). And, while not much of a tactician (Edward famously blundered at the Battle of Bannockburn, allowing the canny Robert Bruce to win the day), Edward was known to be both proficient and and vigorous in individual combat.
Canitz further explains that
The directors’ verbal and visual statements create a forceful impression of incontrovertible authenticity and apparent historical accuracy, suggesting to viewers that this “simpler age” when villains were clearly evil (and members of the social, political, and economic elite) and when the heroes were clearly good (and politically and economically underprivileged), provides “a role model” for the contemporary little guy whose noble fight for the greater good of all will be validated by later history, provided it is “inspired” by the celluloid heris of the oral tradition of mass culture. False truth claims are used to further substantiate this naively idealistic notion that cultural regeneration depends on the true (though illiterate) bearer of the chivalric spirit, namely, the peasant armed with ethical and spiritual weapons and fighting overwhelmingly powerful opponents, who not only control the economic and political resources but also know how to manipulate the written word and can bury the record of history “deep in the archives” or otherwise prevent it from being “written before.
For Canitz and Sharp, in other words, the film intentionally aligns authentic masculinity with illteracy and sexual behavious the film codes as deviant. Braveheart’s vision of the “real man” is characterized as the one who is illiterate, violent, unwilling to negotiate, and sexually hetero-normative. The “villians” of the film are literate, engage in diplomacy, and coded as sexually deviant. Yet, historically, Wallace was an accomplished diplomat as well as a fighter; Edward of Caernarvon, though not as effective a monarch as his father, was a trained warrior; Edward “Longshanks” wielded diplomacy, law, and violence equally well, and his twenty-year marriage to Eleanor of Castile was known as a happy one.
This brings the discussion back to Eldredge, because it is precisely this image of Wallace—the aggressive, wronged commoner who eschews the “pharisaic” niggling of the diplomats—that Eldredge not only lionizes but sacralizes. In Eldredge’s account in Wild at Heart, the Scots begin to because of the weak Scottish leaders to want to negotiate “a treaty with England that will buy them more lands and power. They are typical Pharisees, bureaucrats…religious administrators.” Then the pharisaic nobles begin to flee, Wallace “rides in with his band of warriors, blue warpaint on their faces, ready for battle.” Finishing his description of Wallace as the underdog leader who “picks a fight,” Eldredge asks “Now—is Jesus more like Mother Teresa or William Wallace?” answering his own question by arguing that Jesus is only like Mother Teresa toward the helpless and oppressed, whereas he is a Wallace-like character toward the pharisaic and hypcritical. Eldredge supports this with a story from the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus heals a crippled woman and is criticized by “the leader in charge of the synagogue” for doing so on the sabbath. Jesus, of course, calls out the leader for his hypocrisy. This, for Eldredge, aligns Wallace with Jesus: they both call out the hypocrisy of the sanctimonious bureaucrats and, instead, take action. It might be noted, however, Wallace’s action is somewhat different than Jesus’, despite the one similarity Eldredge notes. For one thing, Jesus, for one thing, doesn’t kill his enemy; Wallace kills his in droves. In fact, the same passage in Luke, which Eldredge quotes completely, shows Jesus using argumentation in order to shame the synagogue leader: he says, “You hypocrite! You work on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from their stalls on the sabbath and lead them out for water? Wasn’t it necessary for me even on the Sabbath day, to free this dear woman from the bondage in which Satan has held her for eighteen years?” Jesus, in this passage, certainly acts, but he acts precisely by exposing a contradiction in the synagogue leader’s logic. Jesus, here, does not kill his enemy; he teaches him.
Nevertheless, the single similarity between Jesus and Wallace (action in the face of hypocrisy) is enough for Wallace to become Eldredge’s poster-child for what it means for a man to be authentically Christ-like: the one who picks a fight. Immediately following this discussion in Wild at Heart is a section entitled “A Battle to Fight,” which identifies that ideal as a primary component of Christian manhood. Eldredge’s overall idea, to be fair, is that Wallace is an ideal for Christian men because he’s an alternative to the simpering, “Mr. Rogers” stereotype that, in Eldredge’s view, many men feel pressured to become in present-day American Christian culture. Many men, Eldredge relates, feel great fear of failure, identifying with the film’s version of Wallace and wanting to be that kind of hero, but feel more like the niggling aristocrats and bureaucrats. Eldredge’s purpose, I think, in using Wallace in this way is primarily to affirm that identification with a man who acts, who eschews a falsely-lived life. This, however, is where Eldredge—quite possibly unintentionally—wades into dangerous waters: the image of Wallace, after all, comes freighted with much more than the simple idea of a life lived honestly and directly. And the image of Wallace that brings all that baggage into play is every bit as unreal, every bit as much of a cultural creation, as the “unreal” brand of masculinity Eldredge wishes to counteract. The quest to be like Wallace does not end in greater authenticity; it ends in an even greater illusion. And that illusion brings with it elements that have their own consequences.
The problem, then, is not so much that Eldredge lionizes action, even aggressive action, but rather that he uses the Wallace legend in conjunction with what becomes a sacralization of aggression. This is a central message of Wild at Heart: aggression is a God-given masculine trait. Bless that aggression. Use it. Act. Don’t be the niggling artistocrat; be the Wallace who picks a fight. But there’s something telling about Eldredge’s use of that fight-picking scene: in the film, that scene is followed by a massive battle, which, though graphic, is still a much-whitewashed rendition of the carnage of medieval combat. Even so, the film acknowledges that when Wallace picks a fight, he picks a fight with someone. And that someone is not a disembodied concept; it’s a very embodied national army. Eldredge, however, skips the combat, emphazising Wallace’s action over and against not the English, but the niggling Scottish aristocrats, his aggression overcoming their hypocrisy. Even in the film, though, Wallace’s fight against Scottish hypocrisy leaves quite a mound of English and Scottish bodies in its wake. The idea that Eldredge misses, then, in this passage and elsewhere, is that aggression is a transitive condition, requiring not only a subject but an object. Eldredge deals only with aggression in terms of its subject, the desire on the part of the aggressor, never quite acknowledging the reality that aggression has to land somewhere, must be enacted against someone. Whether for just reasons or no, aggression, in other words, necessarily entails a real human cost. And if aggression needs an object, and if Eldredge, in his sacralization of aggression, does not consciously supply an object, where is that sacralized aggression most likely to land? Where is it most likely to find its object?
The most obvious answer to this is the object supplied not by scripture, but rather by the objects of aggression encoded in the mythic story of Wallace that Eldredge invokes. In the film, Wallace fights for two things: vengeance for his (fictional) murdered wife, and for Scotland’s independence from English rule. In other words, the object the Wallace story supplies for masculine aggression is a national Other. By default, it is a political and ideological enemy that enters in to Eldredge’s narrative as the threat to authentic Christian masculinity. What Eldredge winds up sacralizing then, is not simply an illusory image of masculinity, but a politically loaded and directed illusory image of masculinity. The use of Wallace as an icon of Christian masculinity does not simply recommend action over inaction, but action against a political enemy (represented in the film by the niggling Scots nobles and simpering, sexually deviant English aristocrats) that threatens to emasculate the “authentic” male subject. What it might mean to assert that brand of masculinity in the context of a present-day community of Christians is perhaps a subject for another essay. Suffice it to suggest, here, simply that Eldredge’s invocation of Wallace as a model for authentic Christian masculinity is not only an illusion, but a violent one, directed against an emasculating other that is presented as an ideological enemy. With whom, one might wonder, will Wallace’s present-day Christian imitators choose to pick a fight?