Blind Harry

From Academic Kids

Blind Harry (ca. 14401492), also known as Harry or Henry the Minstrel, is renowned as the earliest surviving lengthy source for the events of the life of William Wallace, the Scottish patriot and freedom-fighter, and hero of the film Braveheart. He wrote The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace around 1477, 170 years after the death of Wallace in 1305.

Blind Harry's words were made more accessible by a translation written by William Hamilton of Gilbertfield (ca. 1665-1751) published in 1722. In this form they met the notice of poets such as Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Robert Southey, John Keats, and William Wordsworth. It was also a prime source for Randall Wallace in his writing of the novel Braveheart, the book on which the popular Hollywood film was based. Most recently, in 1998, Elspeth King published Hamilton's text amended for modern readers, as Blind Harry's Wallace.

Little is known about Blind Harry's life, but a few snippets of information are available. One source is the Lord High Treasurer's Accounts of 1473-1492, which recorded payments to him for performances at the court of James IV. Historian John Major also wrote about Harry in 1518. These sources differed on whether or not he was blind from birth, but Harry almost certainly seems to have had a military background.

Harry's depiction of Wallace has been criticised by Major and others as being full of inaccuracies. Some parts of it are clearly fanciful or at variance with contemporary sources (e.g. at one point Wallace leads an army to the outskirts of London). The minstrel claimed it was based on a book by John Blair, Wallace's boyhood friend and personal chaplain, but this may have been a literary device - the chief sources seem to have been traditional. Most historians nowadays would regard it as effectively a historical novel, written at a time of strong anti-English sentiment in Scotland. At twelve volumes, the work is also doubted to be solely his work. Elspeth King maintained that despite any inaccuracies, Harry's patriotic and nationalistic portrayal was to ensure Wallace's continuing reputation as a hero. Burns acknowledged his debt to Harry, incorporating the following lines from Harry's Wallace in his own poem Robert Bruce's Address to his Army at Bannockburn (Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled):

A false usurper sinks in every foe
And liberty returns with every blow

which Burns described as a "a couplet worthy of Homer".

Harry is often considered inferior to Barbour as a poet, and has little of his moral elevation, but he surpasses him in graphic power, vividness of description, and variety of incident. He occasionally shows the influence of Chaucer, and is said to have known Latin and French.

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