Brave – a medievalist’s take

A pedant-medievalist could have drawn up a list of anachronisms a hundred items long within the first half hour of Brave. But the only impropriety that really grated – the thrum of Hollywood cicadas in the Highland dusk – was geographical rather than historical; and faced with such an exuberant delight in Scotland’s history and landscape, it’s difficult to take that kind of thing too seriously.

There is a lot in Brave that will please anyone who appreciates medieval Scotland – double discs, z-rods and other Pictish symbols, a battle-horn which looks very like the Deskford carnyx, and settlements built in the shadow of older, stranger landmarks (like the standing stones beyond the village, a superbly crafted version of the Ring of Callanish on Lewis). The clan chief is distinguished by his almighty belt buckle, just as the archaeological record tells us he should be; people hunt with deerhounds, one of the oldest breeds in existence; some of them paint their faces with woad; and, if they need to go anywhere further than the next glen, people travel by sea.

Things don’t always come in the right order. The carnyx seems to have been disappeared from use by the middle of the first millennium, when Pictish symbol stones were just beginning to appear. The film’s chief castle looks suspiciously post-Norman, while the clan system on display seems largely early-modern. And Highland games were a Victorian invention, developed in their current form after the Clearances and the end of the clans. So really it’s impossible to say when Brave is actually set, except that it is in the past.

But if one accepts this kaleidoscopic approach – and why shouldn’t we, since history functions so well as a playground for the imagination – the experience is a rewarding one. There are some fine touches. One young nobleman speaks in Doric – a good way of establishing regional complexity, notwithstanding the reality that all Scots dialect postdates the arrival of the English language north of the border. Excellent use is also made of the Lewis chessmen, the ivory figures (probably carved in twelfth-century Norway) which, more than anything, represent the history of Scandinavian Scotland. The chessmen are used to tell the story of a line of old kings, one of whom overreached himself in his pursuit of power and ended up bereft of his kingdom – a poignancy which the chessmen, an inheritance from the vanished Kingdom of the Isles, capture very well indeed.

The supernatural elements are fittingly vague. There are will-o-the-wisps, living deep in the woods, fleet of foot, unintelligible of speech and disconcertingly ambiguous of allegiance, much like the aes sídhe or the kelpies of Gaelic mythology. The makers of Brave did well not to go into too much detail in this respect, as everyone seems to have their own ideas about what these beasties were really like.

And most of all there is the landscape, animated (if that is still the right word) with truly exceptional craftsmanship. At times it rose almost to the standard of Princess Mononoke and some of the other Studio Ghibli films, which is high praise indeed. Last but by no means least, there’s skirling and hooting aplenty in Brave, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that.

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3 Responses to Brave – a medievalist’s take

  1. Lady of Winchester says:

    All well and good perhaps, but what about a few more movies which wax romanctical or exuberantly celebrate Medieval England? Or are we just ‘boring’ because we don’t have kilts and Highland accents?

  2. Philip Dunshea says:

    Of course, inherently so.

  3. Philip Dunshea says:

    PS Brave is not to be taken seriously as nationalist propaganda.

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