Fair Helen: A Thrill, a History Lesson, and Some New Vocabulary

Andrew Greig
Quercus Publishing, 384 pages
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If you want to immerse yourself in some challenging and rewarding reading, download Scottish writer Andrew Greig’s Fair Helen. (You’ll probably wish to download it as only hard cover copies have made their way to our shores.) Beware: Although the novel is written with Greig’s customary elegance, many of the terms that appear are from the Lowland Scots dialect and you’ll need to consult the book’s glossary for many of them. (I did a cut-paste-printout for the ones I was having trouble remembering.)

Is the effort worth it? I think so. Fair Helen is a 17th century historical drama/romance based upon a tragic ballad as filtered through Sir Walter Scott’s second volume of The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Got that? Let me explain. James VI of Scotland has just ascended to the English throne as James I and, in 1603, brought about the union of the two crowns. If you think this brought peace, think again. We’re still 200 years from the birth of modern nation-states, which means that regional identities trumped any sort of nationalism. That is to say, not only did people view themselves as Scots or English– the Crown be damned–they also subdivided.  A Lowland Scot knew he was different from a Highlander or a Glaswegian, just as he knew he wasn’t a Northumbrian or a Cumbrian (English). Since no one agreed on where the borders between any of these places lay exactly, vast tracts of the Borders were known as the Debatable Lands. Moreover, local power on both sides of the questionable divides lay in the hands of powerful families and clans, with lesser folk allying with whomever they thought could offer the best patronage and protection. 

Greig takes us inside a world of treachery, bloodshed, and shifting loyalties through an likely means: he imagines the back-story of Helen of Annandale, an Irvine family beauty about whom history knows next to nothing other than she is the tragic subject of a Scots ballad known as “Helen of Kirkconnel.” If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, Helen of Kirkconnel was the fair lovely face that set hundreds of horsemen and soldiers into bloody glens. The book is narrated by her cousin, Harry Langton, a scholar and writer more comfortable in Edinburgh than among the unwashed, unlearned, sanguinary warriors of the Borders. He’d not be there at all, were it not that he was born in the Debatable Lands and his boyhood friend Adam Fleming is on the cusp of becoming a laird. Adam is also one of the rivals for Fair Helen’s hand, the other being the violent and even more powerful Rob Bell.  In Greig's telling, Helen may have been fair, but chastity was not among her virtues. Within the patriarchal world of the 17th century, Helen is not at liberty to choose her future husband—acquisition of land, power, and patronage trumps love.
The novel is a complex tale of scheming, double-dealing, spying, politics, and shifting alliances involving Border families such as the Irvings, Bells, Scotts, Armstrongs, and Grahams. Each thought themselves noble and exalted, though history’s judgment is that most were petty tyrants with grandiose ideas. In short, Helen a pawn in a big game played by small men. Call it love, lust, and mayhem in a place where borders are abstractions and rights are asserted by the thrust of a blood-tipped sword. Fair Helen isn’t an easy read for those unfamiliar with Lowland Scots but, then again, neither is Sir Walter Scott. Wade through this—the thrills outweigh the required language lessons.      Rob Weir

Postscript:  Music plays a big role in this novel, as it does in many of Greig’s works. If you’d like some instrumental background accompaniment, secure a superb CD from Kathryn Tickell titled Debatable Lands. (Topic PRKCD50).  Tickell is a talented fiddler and is considered one of the foremost virtuosos of the Northumberland bagpipes, a much buzzy, sweeter, non-blown cousin of the Highland pipes. As this suggests, she hails from the English side of the Debatable Lands though borders remain hazy. When I visited Berwick-upon-Tweed a few years back I wasn’t certain if I was in England or Scotland. The answer? It depends on whom you ask!

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