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The Bruce Poem

A poem in twenty books and 13,550 lines, by John Barbour, completed by circa 1375. It concerns the life and struggles of Robert I, Robert the Bruce, to free Scotland from the domination of England. The intention of the poem was patriotic and it is suffused with Barbour's portrayal of Bruce's moral and physical defiance; but Barbour was also at pains to depict Bruce as a real man and not as a mythical hero. Although The Bruce draws on the marvellous story-telling tradition of the Middle Ages, Barbour extended that tradition by telling his 'romanys' in the octosyllabic couplets more usually suited to the telling of straight history.

Barbour relates most of the main events of Bruce's life in the early books of the poem, and in his descriptions of the military campaign he shows a sure eye for detail, especially in his spirited record of the Battle of Methven and the taking of the castles of Linlithgow, Roxburgh and Edinburgh. The poem reaches its zenith in the vigorous account of the Battle of Bannockburn, as Barbour builds up layers of atmosphere, with cross-references from the minutiae of the soldiers' trappings to the overall plan of battle. But The Bruce is famous above all for Barbour's immortal expression of individual freedom, which man should value above all else. Into the account of the Wars of Independence Barbour inserted several anecdotes which betray both the temper of the times and a grim, sardonic humour: for example, when the Irish king O'Dymsy tries to drown the Scottish guests, Barbour remarks that at least they had had plenty to drink; and
Douglas's larder is a mixture of meal, malt, wine and the blood of beheaded prisoners. The other hero of The Bruce is Sir James Douglas, the Black Douglas, Bruce's lieutenant, who, in the final stages of the poem, carries the dead king's heart with him on his crusade
against the Saracens. While there may be some doubts about the historical accuracy of the poem, The Bruce remains a monumental retelling of a famous period in Scottish history and a patriotic account of the life of the hero, king, Robert the Bruce. Barbour's love of action and his sharp eye, both for detail and for the nobility of his protagonists, was to have no parallel in Scottish literature.

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