Story: William, Earl of Douglas, has struggled since the death of his father to keep his lands intact and in the hands of the Douglas family. But he has enemies at every side. King James II of Scotland wants the lands, while his uncle James, the Red Douglas, covets his titles. When an emissary from France arrives on scene it sets in motion a series of events that will change the political landscape of Scotland forever.
Review: I need to make it clear why I read and am reviewing a little-known book first published over a hundred years ago. It all starts in an unlikely place: “The History of the Hobbit” by John D. Rateliff. I should point out that I am a big fan of “The Hobbit” (even more than its sequel), so the two-volume history of its creation was a must-have for me. But I found that work to be far too opinionated and simple-minded for my taste. Among other issues, Rateliff had a tendency to denigrate any author he did not feel worthy of association with Tolkien. One such author was S. R. Crockett and his novel, “The Black Douglas”.
According to Rateliff’s notes, Tolkien had said that the scene in “The Hobbit” where the party is trapped in a tree by wolves was inspired by a similar scene in “The Black Douglas”. First, I was taken aback by the way Rateliff referred to the older book, calling it “a now justly forgotten novel”. (I’m not going to go into great depth as to why this is an utterly contemptible thing to say. It will be enough for me to say that I would not even refer to Rateliff’s work as “justly forgotten”.) Rateliff goes on to insist that “The Black Douglas” couldn’t have inspired “The Hobbit” because the scenes are not the same. (Apparently, in his mind, unless a scene is identical, it can’t “inspire” another.) He then goes on to describe the scene in “The Black Douglas”, referring to the Scot’s “idiotic bravado”, concluding that “The only points in common are a wolf-attack in a forest clearing, the uncanny fire (magical but real in Tolkien’s case, merely illumination from distant lightning in Crockett’s), and the idea that the wolves are a lesser evil in service or allegiance to the real enemy.”
Well, insulting comments about a book and its characters, followed up by three clear connections between two scenes he had identified as unconnected. Given Rateliff’s obvious lack of scholarship, I had to read “The Black Douglas”. If this guy thought it was “justly forgotten”, it was probably pretty good. And it is.
Now, of course, there’s a reason it has been pretty much forgotten. For one thing, it was what would now be referred to as “popular fiction”. You know, the stuff scholars don’t want to talk about, but people actually want to read. Crockett was a popular and successful (“Author of ‘The Raiders,’ ‘The Stickit Minister,’ etc.”, says the title page), but his works, like so many others, failed to live on as tastes changed. Within fifty years, of course, it was a different world. His works would have no doubt been filmed or turned into television serials and he may yet be remembered. Based on “The Black Douglas”, it would seem that Crockett was a solid storyteller who knew how to spin a good yarn and never let the facts of history get in the way of a good story. This last point is important because the novel, in fact, tells of real people and a real political struggle. It just throws vampires and werewolves into the mix.
The “Black Douglas” of the title is William, Earl of Douglas, who is beguiled by a beautiful French noblewoman. He falls into the hands of Gilles de Retz, a French ambassador with ties to the occult. Much of the second half of the novel concerns the repercussions of his being overpowered by the French, particularly the activities of Douglas’ loyal soldier, Sholto and Sholto’s fractious relationship with the maiden, Maud Lindesay.
It’s all very melodramatic stuff, but “The Black Douglas” also provides a fascinating look at the way popular culture of a hundred years ago looked at its past. Everything that happens in the book has an analogue in the real history. De Rentz (real name Gilles de Rais), for instance, is here portrayed as a devil-worshipper, who uses the blood of innocents to appease his dark lord. The real de Rais was, in fact, a mass-murdering child killer. It’s clear that the notion of someone just killing hundreds of children was so unthinkable that only the occult angle made it something people could understand. Killing children is unfathomable. Killing children for Satan is, of course, evil, but at least it makes sense.
So Douglas must get credit for presenting a vision of history as the people of his time would understand it. He makes it all more thrilling and engaging than the simple (if bloody) political intrigue that was the real cause of much of the Douglas’ woes. And I give him credit, too, for a plot twist halfway into the book that I (not knowing the particular area of history at all) did not see coming.
And what of that particular scene in which John D. Rateliff found so much offense? It’s actually quite exciting. One could easily see why Tolkien would be inspired to write a similar scene. The sparse locale, the gnashing wolves attacking by moonlight. Good stuff. The characters do not engage in any “idiotic bravado” and Rateliff’s statement can only indicate that he didn’t actually read the entire scene before passing his judgment.
As I said near the beginning, “The Black Douglas” is a pretty good read. (You can get it from Project Gutenberg here.) Don’t expect anything approaching a modern sensibility and there’s a lot you can get out of it. Some thrills, some action, some romance, some politics. A little bit of everything that makes an adventure story worth reading, actually. If nothing else, it will help make sure that the book is never truly forgotten.
Author: S. R. Crockett
Publisher: Doubleday & McClure Co.