Author Tags: Essentials 2010, Fiction
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A dozen or so highly successful commercial novelists have arisen in B.C. during the past three decades. Of these, with the publication of The Forest Laird: William Wallace (2010), the first novel in his new trilogy about the Scottish Wars of Independence in the 14th-century, Jack Whyte stands a good chance of having the most enduring canon.
Jack Whyte’s preceding two series of novels about King Arthur and the Knights Tempar have reputedly sold more than a million copies. Simply put, his novels are gripping, well-researched entertainment, often overlooked by overtly “literary” types because they are so popular. He doesn’t win prizes, he wins readers.
At age 52, Scottish-born Whyte burst onto the writing stage with The Skystone (1992), the first of a projected quartet of Arthurian novels in a series called A Dream of Eagles (and called The Camolud Chronicles in the U.S.). Nine Arthurian titles later, in 2006, he launched a trilogy about the original nine Templar Knights, commencing with the madness and cruelty of the First Crusade in 1088.
A Bard for the Calgary Highlanders, a founder of both the Burns Club of Calgary and the Burns Club of Vancouver, and a former corporate communications consultant, Whyte is also an avid golfer and stage performer who sings in eight languages. His poetry-laden memoir Jack Whyte: Forty Years in Canada (2007) steers clear of intimate information.
Other unabashedly commercial novelists of B.C. who have gained far-flung readerships include Jo Beverley (romance), William Deverell (mystery), Vanessa Grant (romance), Kay Gregory (romance), Naomi Horton (romance), Daniel Kalla (medical thriller), Spider Robinson (sci-fi), Michael Slade (horror), Ian Slater (disaster) and Chevy Stevens (thriller).
At the opposite end of the scale, sophisticated do-it-yourselfer Ernest Hekkanen of Nelson, B.C., is a literary outsider by temperament and necessity, but probably not by choice. With more than 40 fiction titles, Hekkanen has done too much, too well, too fast, too independently, too far away from Ontario, to be fashionable.
The 880 pages and 73 stories of Volumes I and II of The Collected Stories of Ernest Hekkanen: Naturalistic, Modern Gothic & Postmodern (2010) represent an astonishing range and depth of over 40 years of highly original storytelling. His work has been seriously comic, absurdist, theatrical, iconoclastic, psychologically probing and shrewd. Along the way, the Seattle-born Hekkanen, of Finnish descent, has rivalled Adolf Hungry Wolf as B.C.’s most prolific and dedicated self-publisher.
At age 52, Jack Whyte burst onto the writing stage with the Penguin Canada release of The Skystone, the first of his projected quartet of Arthurian novels in a series to be called A Dream of Eagles. His work has subsequently been published in more than a dozen countries with far-flung commercial success.
Entering the fictional field of Thomas Mallory and T.H. White, Jack Whyte was determined to trace, in his own way, the origins of the sword Excalibur and the formative years of King Arthur. "Arthur is the quintessential hero who surrounds himself with other heroes of equal stature--Lancelot, Merlin, Percival," he said. "The story of the Holy Grail contains in and of itself the nucleus of man's search for the unachievable." Whyte's tales of violence, romance and heroism have since led to a twin-volume novel, The Sorceror, in which Arthur, at 16, makes his first journey to Gaul and meets Lancelot. Returning to England with his mentor Merlyn, Arthur must prove himself on the battlefield while Merlyn transforms himself from soldier to powerful mystic. Ultimately Arthur must gain the unified support of his people by declaring himself Champion of the Christians and famously pulling the sword from the stone. With this event the dream of the original 'Eagles' (Caius Britannicus and Publius Varrus) had come to fruition. Whyte's published-in-Canada series was repackaged for the United States, with new artwork and a different overall title--The Camulod Chronicles instead of A Dream of Eagles--after U.S. rights were sold to St. Martin's Press of New York and his novels came under the control of the marketing division of Forge/Tor, a subsidiary of St. Martin's. Jack Whyte moved from Vancouver to Kelowna and published several more Arthurian novels including Uther, a saga about Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, cousin of Merlyn. This was followed by Clothar the Frank, the story of King Arthur's friend and betrayer Lancelot during the reign and downfall of Riothamus. Clothar (Lancelot) dedicates himself to reclaiming his birthright and avenging his parents' deaths. The series of nine novels and eight books [see list below] concludes with The Eagle [see review below].
In 2006 Jack Whyte launched a new trilogy about the original nine Templar Knights, commencing with the madness and cruelty of the First Crusade in 1088. His opening novel Knights of the Black and White follows the fortunes and misfortunes of Hugh de Payens, who, as a disenchanted member of a powerful, secret allegiance of French knights, decides to dedicate his military skills to protecting pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem, so he founds The Poor Fellow Soldiers of Christ. The final volume Order in Chaos follows the plight of Templar Knight William St. Clair after Philip IV arrests every Templar in France, seizes the Order’s assets and launches the Inquisition. St. Clair escapes to the island of Arran in Scotland where he trains his comrades for a return to France. After a final battle with his Templar Knights, he becomes disillusioned and leads survivors to consider a search for a fabled land that lies beyond the Western Ocean.
A follow-up trilogy, The Guardians of Scotland, will recall the Scottish Wars of Independence in the 14th century. The first novel, The Forest Laird: William Bruce (2010), opens in the pre-dawn hours of August 24, 1305 A.D., in London's Smithfield Prison, where the outlaw William Wallace, who is to be executed at dawn, is visited by a Scottish priest who has come to hear his last Confession. Subsequent volumes will outline the lives of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots; and Sir James Douglas, known as The Black Douglas.
Born in Scotland, Jack Whyte was educated in England and France. He taught Speech and Drama in England for five years prior to immigrating to Canada in 1967. He has had a variety of jobs in business, advertising, public relations and the arts. In the early 1970s he wrote, performed and toured a one-man show entitled Rantin', Rovin', Robin -- A Night With Robert Burns. In 1974 he composed a patriotic ode, A Toast to Canada, Our Adopted Land, which he performed at various exhibitions and sold on parchment scrolls. He wrote several television specials for CBC, including a Remembrance Day program with the Irish Rovers. In 1978 he began to write fiction and came to Vancouver in 1986 to work as Director of Corporate Communications for Johnston Terminals Limited. In 1991 he collaborated with singer/producer Terry Jacks to narrate an award-winning documentary for Jacks' Environmental Watch organization. A Bard for the Calgary Highlanders, a founder of the Burns Club of Calgary, a founder of the Burns Club of Vancouver and a former corporate communications consultant, Whyte is also an avid golfer who sings in eight languages.
Whyte's poetry-laden memoir Jack Whyte: Forty Years in Canada includes ruminations about Canada’s “two solitudes”; Pierre Trudeau; heroes and feet of clay; Alberta oil; multiculturalism; fast food; Canada’s military; health care; and a broken education system, while steering of intimate information.
A Dream of Eagles (The Camolud Chronicles in the U.S.)
I. The Skystone (1992)
II. The Singing Sword (1993)
III. The Eagles' Brood (1994)
IV. The Saxon Shore (1995)
V. The Sorceror (Vol. 1): The Fort at River's Bend (1997)
The Sorceror (Vol. 2): Metamorphosis (1997)
VI. Uther (2001)
VII. Clothar the Frank (2004)
VIII. The Eagle (2005)
Knights Templar Trilogy
Knights of the Black and White (Penguin, 2006)
Standard of Honor (2007)
Order in Chaos (2009)
The Guardians of Scotland Trilogy
The Forest Laird: William Wallace (Penguin, 2010) 9780670068463 $36.00
Jack Whyte: Forty Years in Canada (Heritage, 2007) 978-1-894974-22-6
Mummery’s the word
Fast forward thousands of pages to the conclusion of Jack Whyte’s four-generation epic of Arthurian England and you’ll discover who gets the girl and the sword.
In The Eagle (Viking $35), the eighth and final volume of Jack Whyte’s expansive Arthurian opus about the origins and exploits of the Brotherhood of Knights Companion to the Riothamus—aka the Knights of the Round Table—Arthur Pendragon’s closest friend and admirer, the Frankish knight Lancelot du Lac—aka Sir Lancelot of the Lake, or Clothar—returns to Gaul and gets the last word.
Lancelot, the “lover, adulterer, deceiver and very perfect, gentle knight,” reveals Merlyn’s fate and hears King Arthur confess as to how he inspired his troops by pulling his famous sword Excalibur from the stone. “There was nothing miraculous involved,” he says. “It was mere mummery, designed by Merlyn for effect, no more than that.”
Fascinated with 5th Century history ever since his school days in Scotland in the 1950s, Jack Whyte immigrated to Canada in 1967 and first imagined a probable solution to the Sword in the Stone mystery in 1978.
Entering the fictional field of Thomas Mallory and T.H. White, Whyte was determined to also trace and imagine the formative years of King Arthur. “Arthur is the quintessential hero who surrounds himself with other heroes of equal stature,” he said in 1992. “The story of the Holy Grail contains in and of itself the nucleus of man's search for the unachievable.”
And so the Scottish-born high school teacher-turned-actor and advertising writer proceeded to re-write British history ‘on spec’. At age 52, in the literary equivalent of pulling a sword from a stone, he acquired Penguin Canada as his publisher after sending his manuscript ‘over the transom’ (without an agent). Re-published and re-packaged in the United States, his series has consistently gained starred reviews in Publisher’s Weekly.
His next series will re-invent The Knights Templar, a medieval order of military monks who, according to Whyte, became “the most powerful and influential organization on earth” within fifty years of their formation by nine obscure knights in the Holy Land in either 1118 or 1119. Also known as The Poor Fellow Soldiers of Jesus Christ, they were expunged less than 200 years later when King Philip IV ordered the arrest of their senior leaders of the Order in France and they were imprisoned on Friday, October 13, 1307, giving rise to the superstition that Friday the 13th is an unlucky date.
According to Whyte’s website, “The novels will look at the Templars as they were at three stages of their growth—the beginnings, from 1119 through 1129, when the nine founders were searching for the treasure that would make them famous; the peak, during the Third Crusade when the Templars were at their strongest as a fighting force, campaigning with King Richard the Lionhearted against Saladin, the Sunni Moslem sultan of Syria; and the very end, with the arrest of the French Templars on Friday 13th and the flight and legendary destiny of the few who escaped the fate suffered by the others at the hands of the Holy Inquisition.”
Forty Years in Canada
from Joan Givner
In his foreword to a recent biography of Robert Service, the successful and prolific novelist and former actor Jack Whyte described the magical day in his childhood when he heard a recitation of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” From that moment on his literary taste was set, and his heroes were Robert Service, Rudyard Kipling, and later his fellow-countryman, Robert Burns.
Now Whyte has detoured from his two series of novels based on the Arthurian legends and the Knights Templar for an upbeat memoir of “personal, often trivial reminiscences” to showcase his prolific talent for versifying. This is not a compelling tell-all confessional work; Jack Whyte’s Forty Years in Canada (Heritage $29.95) is much lighter fare to give reign to his life-long passion for popular ballads, folk-songs and story poems with their satisfying rhyme schemes, repetitions and refrains that are easy to memorize and fun to perform. “If a song strikes me immediately as being wonderful,” he writes, “I can learn it within minutes—the lyrics and melody practically burn themselves into my mind.”
We learn that when Whyte immigrated to Canada in 1967, his luggage contained a multi-volume set of Child’s ballads, and he eventually launched a one-man crusade “to rescue narrative verse from postmodern oblivion.” In fact, some of the few lapses in his unshakable good humour occur when he is reminded that “literary pretentiousness” has consigned his favourite verse form “to the garbage can of history” and caused it to be excommunicated from the literary canon.
Whyte’s own exercises in the genre include pieces for public performance before large crowds, and for private occasions among friends. One of his most popular works resulted from a 1973 invitation to propose the toast To the Immortal Memory at the annual Robbie Burns Supper of the Royal Canadian Legion in Lethbridge. It was a daunting assignment because the year before Tommy Douglas had proposed the toast. Whyte decided to adapt the bard’s own verse from “Tam O’ Shanter” and in two 45-minute sessions produced “A Toast to Canada—Our Adopted Land,” a fifteen stanza poem, of which this is the tenth stanza:
Oh, Robert Burns, could you but see
This mighty and superb country,
I think your Muse would hide her heid,
So great would be your bardic need
To capture, with an image terse,
A different scene in every verse,
For here’s a country that demands
Fair play, Rob, at the poet’s hands.
A friend who witnessed the enthusiastic response of the audience created an illuminated scroll of the poem, and 20,000 copies of it were eventually sold. Whyte was called on to recite the piece on many occasions. The most memorable of these was at the Canadian National Exhibition’s Scottish World Festival, where he stood alone on a field before thousands of people.
The forty-five narrative poems, which form the core of this memoir, are linked by sections of prose that describe their genesis and place them in the context of Whyte’s career in Canada. For a wedding anniversary party he wrote “Thank God for John and Betty Stein,”
Most men today, they will snidely say,
On a scale of one to ten,
Are as prone to cheat as to eat red meat
And reduce their wives to tears...
So thank God for John and Betty Stein
And their forty years...
For his step-son’s coming of age, he wrote, “For Mitch, at Twenty-One,”
Congratulations, Mitch, your first lap’s run;
You’ve left boyhood behind, you’re twenty one;
A formal, legal adult, fully grown
And from this day forth, son, you’re on your own...
After visiting his wife’s native province, he wrote “Saskatchewan,”
Only a few, a loyal few
Endured and stayed to learn and grew
To love Saskatchewan and knew
The beauties of her face;
For, when she smiles, her countenance
Is open, loving, and her glance
Will melt your heart and brace your stance
With pride, and strength, and grace.
Along the way, Whyte describes his arrival at the Edmonton airport to take up a teaching post in the town of Athabasca, ninety miles north of the city. His disillusionment with the educational system is specific to Alberta where the response to his Universite de Poitiers diploma was “we don’t talk French in cattle-country.” Nevertheless it will resonate with every teacher who immigrated to North America from Britain, Europe, and Australia only to find their qualifications from major universities called into question and found wanting. Some made up the perceived deficiencies with courses from departments of Education; many simply found other work.
Whyte, who was clearly a gifted and inspirational teacher, was one of the latter. He turned first to singing and entertaining in such venues as the Calgary Stampede show and the Tradewinds Hotel in Calgary. Then, benefiting from that experience, he moved on to a successful cross-country tour with a one-man show “Rantin,’ Rovin’ Robin—A Night With Robert Burns,” that he wrote and performed himself. He became a television scriptwriter, had a successful career in communications and, more recently, wrote a dozen internationally best-selling novels.
The many fans who have witnessed Whyte’s skill as an entertainer will, no doubt, relish every last rhyming couplet of his narrative verse, no matter how banal, but, in the opinion of this reviewer, the prose sections are the strongest part of this memoir. Details of his private life and his career as a novelist are not forthcoming, but it’s clear Whyte has a lively intelligence to go with his exuberant behavior on stage.
by Joan Givner
Order in Chaos, Book Three of the Templar Trilogy
from Cherie Thiessen
Order in Chaos, Book Three of the Templar Trilogy by Jack Whyte (Penguin Group $38)
The Knights Templar was a union of fighting monks, founded by Hugues de Payens in 1118, ostensibly with the aim of protecting Christian pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land.
But it’s quite possible its agenda also included the recovery of treasures stored beneath the ruined Temple of Solomon by fleeing Jews after the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD.
These were not your everyday trinkets and treasures. We’re talking about the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, objects the Catholic Church would have been desperate to uncover or possibly cover up.
No wonder Jack Whyte couldn’t resist. The Templar knights have always fascinated, and dozens of books of fiction, history, fantasy and mystery have been written on the subject, long before Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Heroic characters, mysteries, quests for hidden treasure, secret rituals, battles and betrayals… Of Scottish origin, Whyte may have been drawn to speculate that the surviving knights took sanctuary in Arran, a remote area of Scotland, loosely under the rule of the excommunicated King Robert the Bruce, a famous warrior and Scotland’s greatest king (1274-1329).
Much of Order of Chaos is based on possible fact. The Templars’ exile could have been real, for example, as carvings in Scotland’s Rosslyn Chapel seem to depict certain Templar rituals.
Jack Whyte’s Knights of the Black and White, released in August 2006, and Standard of Honor, released one year later, have chronicled the Templar origins through its founder, Hugues de Payens, and the ongoing Crusade adventures of three members of the St. Clair family.
Those who have read the first two books will be eager for this final novel.
In Book Three, Sir William St. Clair has a lot on his shoulders. France’s greedy and devious King Phillipe IV has pounced on the Templar, seized its assets, and imprisoned its knights.
Grand Master Jacques De Molay has been snatched and is now at the mercy of the Inquisition. After more than two hundred years of prosperity and service to church, king and country, the Order of the Temple of Solomon is about to come to an end.
Not all is lost, however. St. Clair, alerted by De Molay, has managed to spirit away a large fleet based at La Rochelle, taking the Temple’s famous treasure with him, along with a thousand knights.
In Order of Chaos, Sir William St. Clair and his knights manage to overcome enormous obstacles and to thrive in their exile, forming close relationships with the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, and his close friend, Sir James Douglas. Both the king and Knight Templar are on shaky ground.
Robert the Bruce must oust the British and their supporters from his lands. His excommunication from the church for a perceived murder in Dumfries before the high altar has not helped matters.
Sir William must keep order and morale high within his ranks, conceal their true identity, and face an unknown future.
In spite of the ultimate death of the Templar’s last Grand Master, who is burnt at the stake, and the subsequent realization that the order is finished, and can never again return home, optimism lingers.
There is a cumulative battle in full Knights Templar regalia, during which our heroes attempt to defeat British invaders in the face of overwhelming odds. We hope that St. Clair will be able to sail off to a distant land called Merica with his ladylove, the feisty widow, Lady Jessica Randolph.
This is a meaty book, full of details you wouldn’t expect to find in an adventure so action-packed: what the knights wore, every layer down to their skin, for example, and how ladies of the period prepared their makeup and hair.
Several pages are devoted to Sir William’s solitary bathing in the sea and his convoluted preparations for drying himself. I’d rather the pages were spent in bringing me up to speed on what is happening to Tam, Sir William’s invaluable aide and the most intriguing character in the book. After such a strong entrance, he resurfaces only occasionally.
Like a Greek tragedy, much happens in-between the chapters, often the really exciting stuff, like the decisive Battle of Bannockburn.
(In 1314, the Battle of Bannockburn was won when a Templar force led by Sir William St. Clair came to Robert the Bruce’s aid; and thereafter Scotland remained an independent kingdom for 289 years.) There is also the revelation of the origins of the battered ship William spies following his solitary swim. All of it is learned second-hand, in true Greek messenger style.
But, to be fair, ‘showing’ might have made this 600-pager even weightier, and how much action can a reader withstand?
Word is that this indefatigable Kelowna author has another trilogy underway, to be called The Guardians of Scotland, set in the 14th century during the Scottish Wars of Independence. The Templars have made their fictional exit with Order in Chaos, but we can look forward to seeing more of Robert the Bruce and James Douglas.
-- review by Cherie Thiessen