Outlander and Culloden: Finding Truth in Representation

Featured image: Claire & Frank walk Culloden Battlefield, grave markers center, memorial cairn right, Outlander Ep105, “Rent,” credit: STARZ/Sony Pictures Television

Warning: Possible spoilers from Voyager, book #3 in the Outlander series

The Heart asks Pleasure – first –
And then – Excuse from Pain –
And then – those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering –

And then – to go to sleep –
And then – if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The privilege to die –

– Emily Dickinson, 1890

On the cusp of our long-awaited Season 3 of Outlander STARZ, starting this Sunday in the U.S., some readers and viewers renew in their minds, if not through talk, the age-old debate over the quality of a show’s adaptation of the book it’s based on. But not me.

Since I have yet to enjoy a book in the series more than the first, this season’s treatment of book 3 matters less to me than those of the previous two books. By re-watching and closely studying Seasons 1 and 2, I’ve become accustomed to expecting improvements, surprising differences, and lackluster elements in adaptation, and I’m prepared to accept the show more fully on its own terms, independent from the books.

Admittedly, I found this easier after reading of Diana Gabaldon’s endorsement of Season 3, particularly in how closely it follows Voyager. But I never needed exactly identical details to cross the format threshold, anyway; the essence and soul of the story are what matter most to this fan. Besides, absolute mimicry would be both impossible and, if it were possible, a detriment to both book and show. The unique entertainment value of each would decline the more alike they became.

So I won’t be re-reading the book for the purpose of comparing and scrutinizing the show’s third season, and I advise both book and show fans to refrain from the activity as well. Any dipping back into the longest of the first three books for me will be piecemeal and most likely to satisfy curiosity or just enjoy reading.

As a fan who returned with her husband from an Outlander-focused Scotland vacation almost a year ago, my interests in the series relate more strongly to Scottish cultural authenticity, the romance of the saga’s milieu, and the richness of history permeating both series. The people, the places, the times.

During the latter half of our trip, we went to the Culloden Visitor Centre and Battlefield near Inverness and purchased a guidebook there. The impressiveness of the museum, enhanced by my familiarity with the Outlander series and Culloden’s role in it, and the sobering experience of walking the battlefield all made a deep impression on me.

Now I’ve been reading the gargantuan Tolstoy novel War and Peace since May, a month after my president bombed war-ravaged Syria. With lesser eruptions of political violence in my own country and North Korea’s recent missile launches escalating Kim Jong-un’s threats of nuclear war, the power and propensities of my government and others naturally darken my thoughts these days.

At the intersection of fiction and cultural history, then, my current and greatest interest in Outlander STARZ Season 3’s first episode, premiering this Sunday night, is their representation of the Battle of Culloden. With the formidable Sam Heughan leading the cast of Jacobite soldiers, making war look sexy is inevitable, but I hope a healthy dose of realism also accompanies the depiction—a rendering of the oft-obscured losing side of history and the consequences of that loss through the season’s first half.

Between the Lines

On the cover of Culloden, the National Trust Scotland’s official guidebook to the battle and field, appear two lines of identical length and thickness. Like railroad ties not on a map but in a picture, they recede at one end, seeming to reach forward and down to the right on the surface, toward some common point of interest—where the pages open. Separated by a word, their other ends point at diverging angles to the sky of the background image.

They nonetheless come from the map, these lines, the red above, the blue diving into the brown straw grass of the funereal field. A blue line, a red line, divided by a clash of cultures, red representing the government, blue the rebels. Blue underscores the beige Gaelic word “Cùil Lodair.” Red upholds the death knell in beige English type: Culloden.

Red rising into the sky, above the fray, above the dead grass of the haunted moor. Blue sinking into the nameless land of burial, of death from final battle in a year-long, lifelong, centuries-long conflict. A conflict said to have been between either English and Scottish, Highland Gaels and Lowland Scots, Jacobites and Hanoverians, or two peoples in a global power struggle for the imperialist upper hand. Shades of each dichotomy fall on the weathered pages of history, but, the guidebook says, none of these alone is strictly true.

So simple, these two little tracks of primary color. So complicated, turbulent, ironic, intriguing, and dark the history they bespeak. Separation, divergence, oppression, progress, strategy, integration, interdiction, imperialism, diaspora—such abstractions are some of the closest we can come to accurately labeling these mysterious, Hydra-headed developments. Mere words, single words, no better than colors, flags, or battle lines for explanation, inadequate to forge understanding.

The causes are many, serial, circuitous, and complex, rendering king, commoner, historian, novelist, and film-maker alike unable to capture fully the why, the how, and, to some degree, even what made this single battle, the Battle of Culloden, what it was. Despite its being the first British battlefield to see archaeological excavation, as with all of history, no one can ever fully know all of what really happened.

Story and History

Do the details matter? All of them? Every last moment, word, object, event, and item? Recorded history is never 100% true, just as works of fiction, even when not historically based, are never 100% untrue. One could also argue that history itself is an art form, not an exact science. Certain things such as names, events, and objects can be objective elements, fact. The rest is nearly, if not in some ways just, as subjective as the politics and fiction surrounding it. All lines blur at the intersection of life and its representation, where writers and readers or viewers connect.

What is war, after all, but a stamp of failure, the failure of people–clans, nations, and their leaders–to solve problems fairly, honestly, and peaceably? At best, it’s a self-serving grab for power and land, glory and good standing. At worst, fratricide, genocide, evil. Occasionally, it is a pure demand for deserved freedom, but that purity is never uniform across the hearts of those who fight. Generally, war is far less romantic than either fiction or history or current events media portrays, though some things do remain worth fighting for.

This was not my war that I should weep for the lost or for those still suffering its reverberations through the collective consciousness. So many conflicts and disasters are not mine, thank God, not ours, yet they merit no fewer tears. I am human and can empathize with my fellow humans.

To paraphrase Tolstoy from War and Peace, which I’m nearly finished reading, history is the habit of focusing on great leaders’ military conflicts as defining lands and their peoples, whereas it is the individual person going about everyday life, both in waging war and in tending to private affairs, that has most influence on a country’s fate. It is discrete human consciousness and conscience that matter most, not the “hive mind” of collectivism, of self-sacrificing glory and patriotic heroism.

In solemn honor, reverent pride, and moist-eyed commemoration of great public figures, military commanders, and extraordinary patriots credited with ingenious tactics, singular vision or instinct, and pivotal acts of bravery and skill, we write books, erect monuments, fill museums, name streets, and conduct ceremonies.

Yet the greatness of great leaders lies not in their human empathy, but in their ruthlessness, singular focus, and emotionless problem-solving skills. Commanders of armies, Tolstoy claims, cannot allow compassion, mercy—in short, human conscience—to cloud their tactical judgment if they are to be effective warriors. His example is Emperor Napoleon, but the principle applies equally to queens, colonels, dukes, generals, and princes.

It is regular people instead, Tolstoy argues, the common man and woman toiling anonymously and focused on their own lives and families—those who fight, suffer, bleed, and die not for a cause but as a matter of course—who deserve greatest praise and emulation. Better that each does for himself than for the public good; as a result, the public is better served.

Based on direct narrative arguments, characterization, and plot in War and Peace, I think Tolstoy’s belief in the importance of these actions lies in how they preserve people’s lives, loves, and souls. Let your life be a beacon so that others avoid the grandiose, power-hungry, cruel, machine-like, nationalistic, and imperialistic ambitions that only ever result in countless acts of evil.

It is this individual human lens on infamous past conflict that Outlander, too, affords us. In short, though it flies in the face of conventional military discipline, be like Jamie Fraser. Follow your prince as far as you can, and then when it’s clear the cause is lost, save your people if not also yourself.

Adoption and Adaptation

Although they’re neither my books nor my monuments, museums, or people, I attend the story. And why? Why do I choose to focus on this history and these people over others, including those one could say are more rightly mine? I cling with a sense of loyalty in having adopted threads of a culture not native to me. Why have I selected Outlander, its stories, and Scotland in which to invest my time, money, energy—in short, my conscious presence as an American?

Why did a science academic from Arizona, with no Scottish heritage and who had never been to Scotland, choose a 250-year-old version of that setting for her first novel? Inspired whimsy as much as anything else. An image of a Highlander in a kilt on an episode of Dr. Who pretty much started it all, along with the desire to learn how to write a novel “for practice,” one that became only the first of an international-bestselling series. In short, because she could, and excelled at it.

Now, in more than 35 posts, my blog explores Diana Gabaldon’s imagined saga and its Scottish origins.

The following can all be found through this blog’s menu tab “Outlander.”

  1. Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy
  2. Adapted Bawdy Lyrics: Outlander TV Series, Episode 114, “The Search”
  3. Happy Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day!
  4. Response to Outlander Post, “Episode 115: ‘Wentworth Prison’ (SPOILERS)”
  5. Review: Outlander Season 1’s Ironic Chilling Effect
  6. Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
  7. 3 Quick Book Reviews: Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager
  8. Outlander, 2015 San Diego Comic-Con: Binge On
  9. Five-Phrase Friday (9): “Slings and Arrows . . .”
  10. Five-Phrase Friday (10): Outlander Grammar
  11. Golden Globes for Outlander Starz!
  12. Outlander “2”: Dragonfly in Amber
  13. Five-Phrase Friday (36): Comic Relief in Outlander STARZ Ep201
  14. Five-Phrase Friday (37): No “Callow” Craft
  15. Outlander STARZ: Season 2 Review, Eps 201 and 202
  16. Review: Sandringham in Outlander STARZ – Beyond Adaptation
  17. Live Event Review: Diana Gabaldon Skype Session
  18. Outlander STARZ: “Faith” and Patience

Posts of our Scotland excursion are linked below and through the far-right, top-menu tab “Scotland” on the Philosofishal home page.

Before the trip:

  1. Book Review: Fodors Travel Essential Great Britain
  2. The Labor of Learning to Set Limits
  3. Five-Phrase Friday (38): Scotland

After the trip:

  1. Morning Fog, Loch Long, Arrochar – photo, the Trossachs (Oct 11, 2016)
  2. Scottish Color: A Photo Essay – overview of sensory highlights (Oct 12, 2016)
  3. The Paps of Jura – sea-and-mountains vista; language lesson (Oct 15, 2016)
  4. Linlithgow Palace, a.k.a. Wentworth Prison – profile of a lesser-known Outlander STARZ filming site (Oct 20, 2016)
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 5: Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns – reading “To a Mouse” & The Writers’ Museum (Oct 24, 2016)
  6. Kurdish in Edinburgh – restaurant review (Nov 4, 2016)
  7. Dial up the sun – original poem, plus photos, National Museum of Scotland (Nov 9, 2016)
  8. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 1 – my take on Outlander tourism, starting with film sites in Central Scotland (Dec 1, 2016)
  9. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 2 – Central Scotland cont’d, Glasgow film sites, south to Ayrshire coast, Dumfries & Galloway (Dec 23, 2016)
  10. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 3 – wraps up orientation to Highland sites from Perthshire to Ross & Cromarty to Inverness; Outlander STARZ & my museum/field photos of Culloden Visitor Centre, with commentary  (Feb 11, 2017)
  11. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 4 – story of my trip-planning process, snapshots of our itinerary, our experience, and improvements (Mar 11, 2017)
  12. Wildlife TV Programs This Week – a heads-up for Wild Scotland on NatGeoWild. See the end section about select Scotland nature and wildlife tourism options with brief descriptions and links to resources. (Mar 27, 2017)
  13. Review: Slainte Scotland Outlander Tour + Outlander Tourism Resources – (a.k.a. Part 5) our Outlander tour, Slainte Scotland company review, notes on OL sites we visited alone, profiles of most popular OL film sites, list of 40 OL film sites, resources for OL book and inspiration sites, other OL tour co. links, articles on the show, plus how to survive Droughtlander (Apr 11, 2017)
  14. An Outlander Tourist in Scotland, Part 6 – the final post in the OL tourism series, focused on Scottish and more general travel tips and resources, based on our Scotland trip experiences (Jun 15, 2017)

And I keep coming back to it—because I’m fascinated, captivated, intrigued, provoked in thought and feeling and spirit. It’s Gabaldon’s masterful storytelling that made all this possible and Outlander STARZ that elevates my interest even further. I write because I want to, because I can, and why the hell not? I daresay Tolstoy would approve.

My husband recently informed me that two Icelandic airlines have started direct flights from Cleveland to Reykjavik. “Wanna go to Iceland?” he asked. My coy reply? “Sure, as long as we can stop in Scotland on the way.” We spent our first vacation of any real length and substance since our 2008 honeymoon on a two-week Scottish excursion last fall. Some day, I hope to go back. For our 10th anniversary next year, I cannot think of a better, more romantic way to celebrate than reprising the trip we both so loved.

Outlander Season 3

Until then, there’s the third season journey of the STARZ adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s currently 8-novel series called Outlander. The premiere of the TV show’s return based closely, we have now been told, on Gabaldon’s third book Voyager airs in the United States on Sunday, September 10, 2017. Catch the show on STARZ at 8pm EDT or on the STARZ app.

It’s a 13-episode adventure through 1940s-60s Boston, 1960s and 1740s-60s Scotland, and various parts of the Caribbean Sea in the 1760s after our epic romantic heroes Claire and Jamie reunite in an Edinburgh print shop after 20 years and two centuries apart. I know it’s a lot of numbers to parse. . . . Stay tuned.

That separation, made possible by Claire’s time traveling ability, occurred as a direct result of the Battle of Culloden in 1746. In the Season 2 finale, Claire acknowledges to Jamie her new pregnancy and agrees to keep her promise of going back through the standing stones at Craigh na Dun, taking herself and their unborn child safely back to the future (Sam Heughan’s favorite movie, by the way).

While the battle itself is not part of the book’s plot, the TV show’s premiere features Jamie’s version of recalling the battle. The first several episodes then explore the separate, parallel lives of these time- and ocean-divided lovers, wife Claire and husband Jamie, as they struggle to learn to live and find purpose without one another.

As pivotal as it is to Scottish history, so is the Battle of Culloden to the Outlander STARZ drama. And because occasions for artistic representation of the battle are as rare as a total solar eclipse, I’ve chosen this niche topic as we prepare to watch a fresh rendering of parts of the battle in living color.

I have written previously about the anticipation of a TV representation of the Battle of Culloden in Part 3 of my six-part series An Outlander Tourist in Scotland. Key points are excerpted here:

Culloden Battlefield, a.k.a. Culloden Moor, Inverness-shire. “The Outlander action is all leading up to the bloody Battle of Culloden in 1746. More than 1,200 [Jacobite Army] men were killed [and nearly as many wounded] in the defeat of the Jacobite [side].” Source: photo caption excerpt. This final battle, while not depicted in the book, will be portrayed in the STARZ show during series 3, which is based on the third book Voyager.

Culloden Visitor Centre stewards, battle and Jacobite scholars, descendants of Scotch soldiers and their families, British historians, Outlander fans, Outlander STARZ cast and crew, and Scots citizens–in short, many, many people no doubt all eagerly anticipate this unique project coming to fruition.

I know it will be unforgettable, and I hope it will bring even more people to this historic site that has long been at the center of Scottish cultural identity and its dramatic transformation.

Previous Reenactments

Although this project is unique, the Battle of Culloden has been depicted in film before. Early during the Vietnam War, the 1960s brought us Culloden, Peter Watkins’ 70-minute docudrama, or “mockumentary,” of the battle in black and white, told as if modern TV cameras were present interviewing participants in the battle. Although I have not seen it, the film appears to have garnered some very positive reviews and has been described as “seminal” in its style and substance.

There is also The Great Getaway, a recent film about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight from British justice in the wake of the Jacobite defeat at Culloden, a production in which the battle plays a role. Although a trail of articles tracked its development, I was unable to discover whether this project ever saw the light of day or if it is still forthcoming; if you know anything about it, feel free to leave a comment.

Farther back, in the silent film era, 1923’s Culloden Avenged uses that historical turning point as a pretext for a rematch done archery style between the King’s Scottish Archers and the Woodmen of Arden in an International Archery Contest. Black and white, 60 minutes.

Beyond explanations and images in history books, there are available at the Culloden Visitor Centre museum dozens upon dozens of first-person accounts, artifacts, letters, poems, reenactment recordings, songs, artwork, and other representations of the battle in part or whole. I don’t plan to take my expertise on this subject further than reading all the articles in my Sources section at the end of this post. Perhaps I’ll watch Culloden or The Great Getaway at some point in the future, but history books about Culloden I leave to other readers.

Truth in the Balance

If we accept that history is as subjective as fiction, questions about how and how well Outlander, or any production, portrays history pale in importance to other questions focused separately on history and on fiction. We may be tempted to ask whether something has been misrepresented and how that alteration matters, and we are free to do so. The verdict is up to each individual consumer, however, and there should be no criminal indictment, just literary criticism. Art is for everyone to make of what they will.

As long as, and to the extent that, history’s facts, to say nothing of its general aura, remain incompletely known and in dispute by the descendants and scholars of opposing sides in the conflict (as well as of purportedly neutral persuasion), the question of accurate representation proves rather subjective, if not altogether moot.

Acknowledging this lack of necessity for accuracy leads us to ask a different kind of question. Which elements of story have the most impact on reader perspective? Should certain aspects carry more weight than others?

If we grant that readers and viewers of the Outlander series love it primarily for one, a few, or many of the following qualities—and these are all present, in my humble opinion—then historical correctness takes a farther seat back in the stretch limo:

  • intriguing premise and sweeping scenery
  • engaging plot and dramatic conflicts
  • compelling ensemble of characters, including seminal villains
  • high-quality writing, with sharp turns of phrase and vividly descriptive details
  • 20th-century English combat nurse’s narrative perspective, intelligence, insight, rash courage, ironic wit, loyalty, compassion, sense of justice (Libra), sharp memory, sharper-tongued sauciness, resourcefulness, ingenuity, medical skills, hardiness, sexual confidence, sense of adventure, large heart, steady determination
  • 18th-century Scottish Highlander’s physical strength, resilience, hot-headed stubbornness (Taurus), decisive leadership, clever intensity, educated virility, romantic sensibilities, controversial brutishness, forward-thinking adaptability, uncanny intuition, and unimaginable tenderness, i.e., “king of men”
  • centuries-spanning heroic couple’s beautiful transcendent love and at-times shocking sexual relationship
  • sci-fi/fantasy elements of time travel, folk superstition turned real, and the generally supernatural

At any rate, the best fiction, and the best art more broadly for that matter, sets out first to inspire, entertain, intrigue, or provoke thought. It is not, and should not be, the novelist’s job to “tell the truth” beyond what is true to the essence of the story itself. It’s fine to educate and enlighten, but that’s not the top priority with fiction.

Still, as someone whose interest extends beyond Outlander’s fiction into the culture and history of the Scottish Highlands, as well as Scotland, the UK, and the Scottish diaspora more broadly, I find value in examining the intersection of history and story.

In Good Faith

Besides the numerous, varied aspects listed above and despite our relieving historical fiction authors of the responsibility for absolute factual precision, this kind of accuracy is no less part of Gabaldon’s critical praise. As a former college professor and editor, as well as a keen and tenacious mind, the author has really done her homework. Readers note her extensive, intensive research of settings, customs, clothing, technology, medical expertise, weaponry, household goods, conveyances, animals, plants, and all other specific details she has selected.

In her first volume of The Outlandish Companion, Gabaldon describes her research precepts, what she tells audiences during lectures on the topic of historical fiction, and the process she pursues to balance authenticity with storytelling.

It is true, on the one hand, that a degree of accuracy, plausibility, and internal consistency are essential to author credibility in the telling of a story if the author is going to keep readers interested and not distracted by errors, suspicion, or confusion.

On the other hand, perhaps we should aim to focus our inquiry instead on the fictional representation of historical themes and settings as fiction—how the book series author imagines contextual history in order to serve a fictional story and how the STARZ TV production imagines its own version of Gabaldon’s use of history.

For, in truth, despite their impressive efforts to create an authentic milieu, both Gabaldon and STARZ’s crew would seem to have made some historico-factual errors toward the end of Dragonfly in Amber (DIA) and in Outlander STARZ Season 2’s penultimate episode, “The Hail Mary.” In different ways, they both diverge from what the National Trust Scotland official guidebook Culloden represents as accurate historical fact concerning the events leading immediately up to the battle. I’ll present each creative choice, compare them to fact, and then discuss implications.

Creative License or Misrepresentation?

Gabaldon changed the timing of the night march. STARZ changed the reason for its being aborted.

In DIA‘s Chapter 46, Gabaldon writes that the night march, historically represented to have occurred the night before the Battle of Culloden, happened two days earlier than it actually did. I would like to give this highly experienced, research-skilled author of numerous historical novels the benefit of the doubt, but I am curious to learn her reason or reasons for making this rather noticeable change in historical timing.

While STARZ/Moore got the moment of its occurrence correct, they more than implied that it was primarily lack of sufficient troops leading to the attack’s delay, rather than solely the projected timing of the army’s arrival at the Cumberland encampment in Nairn, that made Lord George Murray turn his troops around and head back to Inverness.

Fact: The night march did occur on April 15, the night before the Battle of Culloden, and those troops that did return came back exhausted, starving (more than they had been), and barely in time to form up for the noon-time battle.

Fact: There was no errant set of lost Prince Charles troops who never showed to meet up with Murray’s troops, as represented by the show (perhaps to give Jamie Fraser a larger role in the action?). By 2am on April 16, Murray’s lot, delayed instead by darkness, rough terrain and weakened bodies, were still four miles from the encampment and would lose all advantage with the sunrise.

Both of these seemingly unnecessary errors for the story or production create alterations that substantially improve neither dramatic effect nor characterization. Furthermore, pacing could have been preserved in the same way it came out if they’d left well enough alone. An aspect of history that was not in dispute has, under each author, become a thing, so to speak, needlessly increasing potential for controversy where before there was none.

It leads one to wonder whether these differences are accidents or intentional deviations, and if the latter, deviation for what purpose. But the key question is, “Whether purposeful or not, is the misrepresentation problematic, in any substantial way, to either history, story, or present society?”

The answer will, of course, depend on whom you speak with about it. For example, perhaps historians, modern-day Jacobites, Culloden-warrior descendants, fans of Bonnie Prince Charlie, today’s nationalistic Scots, and those sympathetic to people they perceive to be oppressed Highland Scots and Gaels will be none too pleased to see even fictional characters and their circumstances casting Prince Charles and his troops in an unfavorable light.

Omitted also from the show and book is the historic fact that, even before the night march, the over-eager prince formed his lines on Culloden Moor on April 15, the day before the battle actually took place, anticipating Cumberland’s forces that never arrived. Adding this fact to the fictionalized representation would legitimately portray the troops as being as thoroughly exhausted and unprepared as they really were.

Combine the two false starts of previous-day non-battle and aborted night march, and in some respects Charles Stuart appears even more foolish and the Jacobites more imperiled in the 24 hours leading up to the battle than either Gabaldon or the STARZ crew conveys.

Specifically with respect to those few days prior to the battle, however, the TV adaptation proves more historically accurate than Gabaldon’s use of history in the book, and in so doing, the show restores some of the pitiable absurdity of those desperate last moments of build-up to combat.

Perspective and Picking Your Battles

Motives aside and changes in detail considered, what are the effects of each creative choice?

For most readers and viewers, probably none. If you never learned (from a scholarly historical text, for instance) the detailed history of Culloden or the Jacobite Rising of 1745, you wouldn’t know what you missed, except that now I’ve told you.

Those who’ve paid a little more attention, perhaps visited Scotland, including the Culloden Visitor Centre, as well as some Scotland- or UK-based fans of the show, may notice a vague dissonance between scenes watched and history lessons recalled. Perhaps a few will “mark me” that those sequential details don’t wash.

We who notice errors, discrepancies, unintended anachronisms, or timescale flubs in film and television productions, and are bothered by them, can take solace in the fact that almost everybody does it at some point. For story’s sake, a production’s budgetary constraints, because they feel like it, or because they simply don’t know any better, mistakes happen in any endeavor involving human action. Culloden itself is, in a large number of respects, a seminal example of that truth.

Yet again, the Battle of Culloden is “merely days away,” as Claire says in ep212 to Black Jack Randall of his day of death, referring to that same fateful date of April 16, 1746. Our first Outlander-filtered experience of the battle will occur on September 10, 2017. Last April marked the 270-year anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, and the final Outlander Season 2 episodes, representing the eve of that battle, aired for the first time last summer.

Now at last come the battle itself and its aftermath through the eyes of our hero Jamie Fraser. His narrative filter replacing Claire’s usual perspective (complete with voice-overs), along with the combined writer-producer lens, greatly erodes the importance of accurately representing the events Jamie “reports.”

Fictional aims take priority. So, while past error may presage future error (or, in a time-travel story, vice versa?), the author can stand confidently at least behind the acceptable claim, if not the essential trait of fiction, that no character’s or narrator’s viewpoint is ever equivalent to the author’s.

Anyone who reads novels on a semi-regular basis also should know that the narrator is never 100% reliable and, in fact, this is even a large measure of the fun of exploring literature. I’d say the thoughts of a severely injured, exhausted, starving, and love-sick survivor of a major battle having flashbacks of said battle slot him neatly in the category of unreliable limited, first-person narrator, at least in that moment. No offense to James Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser.

Characters, if they are realistically drawn, get lots of things wrong—not only details but also the essence of their experiences—with imperfect, incomplete, biased, and sometimes wholly fabricated remembering. Memory, as I learned recently through my memoir writing class, is at best a reconstruction of partially formulated experiences that change in some way inevitably each and every time the mind revisits them. There are no pure, objective memories, and that’s just in real life.

With a first-person narrative pervading the fictional Outlander series, and given the degree of detail we are meant to imagine that fiery, intelligent, love-driven Claire recalling for the reader, such a saga, even as a work of fiction, must necessarily allow for the main character-narrator’s flawed memory. In other words, yes, sometimes in telling her story, Claire could be almost lying, even to herself, though that’s clearly not Gabaldon’s overall intention.

It’s not only just a story; it’s a tale told by a completely manufactured character, who, as some of the best writers and musicians argue, has a mind of its own. Conversely, in a way, we must suspend our disbelief to allow Claire’s memory to be far too intact for realism, thanks to Diana’s meticulous research and writing.

Lines Blurred and Crossed

Where does all this leave us in our questions on the relationships between history and story in the case of Outlander? Is there a red line on misrepresentation or creative alteration? Has Outlander already crossed that line? In world building, no. In some specific events, actions, and sequences, it’s possible.

So, what is a reader or viewer to do with that? My recommendations follow.

Where the creator’s conscious intentions of a certain type of portrayal of a historical figure, event, period, or atmosphere are evident, it comes down to a simple choice. As a consumer, you either accept it or withdraw support by refusing to read or watch.

Where accident seems more prominent than purposefulness, you can criticize or chalk it up to fallible humanity. If it’s unclear and not easily learned one way or another, then be confused if you must, but reserve harsh judgment for greater, more obvious crimes. With Outlander, Gabaldon and STARZ/Moore got the vast majority of things right.

Truly accurate nonfiction representation of history would mean that the red and blue lines on the battle maps of Culloden (and of most conflicts) should in fact both appear as rainbows, multicolored pixel grids, or gradient color bars with mildly contrasting shade tendencies, rather than starkly contrasting, completely separate, solid, single-color areas. In the end, complete accuracy might be both rare and indecipherable and, thus, practically pointless.

And, besides, if you’re already an Outlander fan for any or all the aforementioned non-historical reasons, and some of the historical ones, how likely are you, really, to throw the baby out with the bathwater now?

If I am to keep reading a book or watching a show, you could say my only hard-and-fast rule for soundness beyond good narrative grammar and general readability is internal consistency. By this measure, Gabaldon definitely has a leg up on STARZ and Ron Moore, due to their series of time-scale errors bridging the second half of Season 1 through the opening of Season 2. (The one I don’t discuss in the above-linked post is the “typo” on the screen caption to ep201 when Claire, Jamie, and Murtagh land in France: it would have to be 1744, not 1745, folks.)

Producers of the STARZ adaptation chose a different seasonal starting point of autumn instead of spring of the respective years of 1945 and 1743 to start the series, which in itself might not have been problematic. However, perhaps for this reason but probably also others, the time line chips fell (apart a little) from there. But again, just check the IMDB.com entry of your favorite movie or TV show, and you’re sure to find errors in the “goofs” section of the page.

Imperfect Fondness

Even knowing all that I’ve learned through close examination and a little research about both the timescale issues and the pre-Culloden discrepancies, and feeling troubled by them, I don’t plan to stop watching the show or reading the books (I’m on book 5 of 8, soon to be 9). That’s just how good it all is.

As an English teacher and a student of philosophy, I’ve always believed in the power of fiction to reveal truths of human nature and to raise valuable life questions. Both book and show of the Outlander saga have proven their worth to me by excelling in this art. I’m also curious to see how closely the story follows the battle in this first Outlander representation of scenes from it. Note that Gabaldon chose not to depict the battle, probably to keep focused on Claire’s perspective and to emphasize Jamie’s individual story over the larger context, as is fitting.

The book and TV series have made us laugh, gasp, hold our breath, stare in horror or fascination or infatuation, cringe, look away, and generally become obsessed with the story and its characters. Perhaps most of all, Outlander makes us weep, and the battle depiction may indeed prove to be another major trigger for tears–and cringing.

The infamous Battle of Culloden has been talked about in the script since the first season. It is the reason for our heroic couple’s separation, and it changed the course of history.

The real, horrific general slaughter of Jacobites in battle, their defeat, and that of the rebellion precipitated the great suffering of Scottish survivors and innocent civilians alike. As part of a campaign of punishing traitors, the Duke of Cumberland allowed government soldiers to hunt down fleeing Jacobites, pillage and burn property, torture, rape, and murder in the hours and days after battle.

Later that year, rebel leaders were executed, others including Prince Charles fled the country, and mass exodus followed. New British laws brought more formal economic and cultural suppression of Highland Gaels, and even Scots who had fought for the government, through decades of humiliating, famine-stricken aftermath. Culloden was the last battle fought on British soil.

Inevitably, then, Culloden in Outlander STARZ will be the ultimate tragedy of the entire series so far, a series that has delivered multiple, regular nightmares and personal tragedies, as well as the most hair-raising encounters, rescues, reunions, and journeys.

Till next time, enjoy—and endure in solidarity—the journeys of mind, heart, and soul that these Outlandish art forms, in their peculiar cross-dialogue, give us all. They fuel our obsession and reward our curiosity with such overarching respect, dedication, talent, hard work, and passion for the Outlander story and its cultural and historical inspirations.

I hope this post has offered fans, those on the fence, and those about to jump off some meaningful perspective on the nexus of culture, history, historical fiction, and artistic adaptation. Perhaps Outlander can teach us something about the nature of truth and fact, the variable gap between efforts and results, the wonder of resilience, the supreme importance of love, or the inescapable folly of war. In art as in life, you cannot control all the outcomes, but the choice of which most valuable lessons or beautiful impressions to take with you is no one’s but yours.

And Happy Season 3, Sassenachs! We made it—we conquered the longest Droughtlander yet. Catch the show’s return September 10 on STARZ at 8pm EDT or on the STARZ app.


Sampling of Sources Consulted or Considered, a.k.a. Almost a Bibliography

Recent History

Headlines

Wandering Educators, Dr. Jessie Voigts, 2009: Culloden: From Battle To Exile

BBC News, 2011: Apology sought for “war crimes” in Culloden’s aftermath

I wonder if the show’s success (2015-17) at all contributed to their story selections:

History Scotland, June 2016: The Battle of Culloden – new research dispels three long-held myths. This article reviews a scholarly publication addressing myths about (1) the choice of battleground, (2) types of weapons the Jacobites used, and (3) identities of the opposing sides involved. Includes video of the professor’s views on his findings. The book is Culloden. By Murray Pittock. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Works by Pittock on Stuart and Jacobite myths listed in NTS’s Culloden.

Daily Mail, Richard Gray, April 2016: Holey skull gives a glimpse at the brutality of the Battle of Culloden: 3D model of soldier’s remains shows he was shot in the top of the head in 1746 | Daily Mail Online

Daily Mail, Mark Duell, July 2016: Bonny Prince Charlie’s vanquished troops were NOT an army of Highland savages | Daily Mail Online

Outlander News

Daily Record, Carla Callaghan, June 2015: Outlander’s Sam Heughan on his excitement over Battle of Culloden plot and what writer Diana Gabaldon emails him

Cinemablend, Jessica Rawden, August 2016: Why You Should Be Excited About Outlander Season 3’s Battle of Culloden

IGN, Terri Schwartz, April 2016: Outlander: The History vs. Fiction of Bonnie Prince Charlie

Literature

Nonfiction

Culloden, National Trust Scotland, 2016, official guidebook on sale at Culloden Visitor Centre. Writers/contributors: Lyndsey Bowditch, Dr. Andrew Mackillop, Dr. Tony Pollard. Edited by Hilary Horrocks. See also the “Further reading” section opposite the inside back flap of the guidebook.

The Tears of Scotland, Tobias Smollett, 1746 (referenced in the NTS guidebook).

Culloden, John Prebble, 1961. Pimlico, 2002.

The Outlandish Companion, Diana Gabaldon, 1999. Delacorte Press, Random House.

Novels

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

Novels of the Eighteenth Century, Historicalnovels.info/Eighteenth-Century.html lists 1700s novels in English, including all of Diana’s. Sections include British and Irish, Continental Europe, North America, and mysteries in thrillers from these settings.

Scholarly Articles and Books

Joseph Knight: Scotland and the Black Atlantic. Michael Morris. International Journal of Scottish Literature, Issue Four, Spring/Summer 2008. ISSN 1751-2808. Terms used to find this source: “books battle of culloden fiction nonfiction history depictions descriptions explanation”

The “Outlander” Experience: Time-Travel, Literary Tourism and North American Perceptions of the Scottish Highlands, Dr Amy Clarke, (N.d.), University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. Retrieved on Academia.edu. Good bibliography with some selections below.

Bueltmann, T., Hinson, A. and Morton, G. (2013). The Scottish diaspora. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP.

Currie, H. (1997). Diana Gabaldon breaks the rules: best-selling author knew nothing about Scotland before writing Outlander series. Kitchener-Waterloo Record, 31 January.

Devine, T. M. (2004). Scotland’s empire, 1600-1815. London: Penguin.

Finlay, R. J. (1994). Controlling the past: Scottish historiography and Scottish identity in the 19th and 20th centuries. Scottish Affairs 9, 124-140.

Gold, J. R. and Gold, M. M. (1995). Imagining Scotland: tradition, representation and promotion in Scottish tourism since 1750. Aldershot: Scolar.

McCrone, D. (1992). Understanding Scotland: the sociology of a stateless nation. London: Routledge.

Fine Art

Painting: An incident in the rebellion of 1745, by David Morier

Film/TV

Culloden Avenged, 1923

The Battle of Culloden (TV Movie 1964) – IMDb

Culloden (The Battle of Culloden) (2003) – Rotten Tomatoes

Epic battle to star in Bonnie Prince Charlie film – The Scotsman (The Great Getaway, 2016)

Historical Movies in Chronological Order. Patrick L. Cooney PhD, Rise Education Resource Center.

Outlander

Episode 212, “The Hail Mary,” Outlander STARZ TV series

Aggregate of Season 1 and 2 episodes

Book Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

Although this one wasn’t for my classics book club, I have wanted to read it for years. As a play, it’s a relatively quick read, so I was able to tuck it in among other readings.

Spoilers possible.

A Streetcar Named Desire may be a better, more entertaining play than The Glass Menagerie, but together they suggest a pattern of playwright fixation on the destruction of fragile, helpless women at the hands of hapless or hostile men. Yet, although critics claim that Stanley is the catalyst for Blanche’ s tragedy, I see undeniable, culpable shades in the sorrows of sister Stella and would-be husband Mitch. Besides these influences, a case can be made that Blanche needs little nudging by anyone to plunge her into her ultimate abyss, a place she seems headed for from the start. Either way, the question is posed clearly before the tragedy is complete: Who is to blame?

The tragic arc is a twisted tree root. Plunging through the rich soil of clever, careful staging, eerie overlays of music and echoed sounds, and crisp, character-making dialogue, the reader (not just the playgoer) falls irrevocably into the suffocating depths of a taut, primal, sensual plot. With his usually detailed stage directions, Williams also leaves nothing in the production plan to chance, while his storytelling strikes a delicate balance by revealing just enough both to engage and to mystify his audience.

The emotional effects of these elements for Blanche are a haunting by the past that cannot be shaken and a shackling by her imagination that stunts her growth. Her character is static in the course of the play as the distance between the danger and the fall proves all too short. Stanley, likewise, is static, and so they come together like immovable object and unstoppable force. The intriguing question for me is what change must occur in Stella beyond the play’s ending as a result of this close family tragedy, with one member the victim and the other, the perpetrator. Stella, at least, has dynamic potential as collateral damage.

cover_A-Streetcar-Named-Desire_images.duckduckgo.com

Penguin Modern Classics edition book cover

Still, none of the main characters reads as a monotone stereotype; they themselves get to play with those concepts as they size each other up. The tension permeating the play stems from perceptions of class differences, ethnic backgrounds, sexual attraction, and affectations brought into sharp relief by the visit of Blanche DuBois to her sister and brother-in-law’s small apartment during a typically oppressive New Orleans summer.

The result is a smoldering tragedy without a clear path as to how it might have been avoided. Remarkable paradox comes through Williams’ writing: Stella, Stanley, and Blanche all prove to be decent people even as their inflexible selfishness, by turns, renders them on many levels indecent–and ultimately inhumane–to one another.

Raw, obvious character flaws, especially Stanley’s, do contribute to the mess, however. His inherent roughness of manner, speech, action, and mere presence directly feed and elicit Blanche’s carefully constructed delicacies, charms, snobbery, and veneer of the victim. They could hardly be more different, and as foils, these opposites both attract and repulse.

Like the down-to-earth Stanley, the reader knows upon meeting her not to take Blanche at face value, but as we get to know her, we begin to empathize with, if not believe in, Blanche DuBois. When Stanley finally exposes her past sins, the whole truth of them is doubtful, they are inextricable from her suffering, and we see that both Stanley and Stella can be right about her sister in their opposing views.

Blanche is a menace being treated unfairly.

An emotional atmosphere of steamy New Orleans chaos reigns over the play. Ripples of racist overtones, sexism, raw sensuality, crime, vice, and class prejudice collide and reinforce one another to disrupt the characters’ moral compasses. Danger vibrates constantly just beneath the surface, and I kept expecting brawl, beating, or suicide around the next corner. Peripheral scenes foreshadow ultimate conflict as violence escalates, but it’s all very restrained, held in check for the bulk of the story, which makes each scene all the more intriguing.

The shock of the penultimate act of violence, committed between active scenes, can resolve into either the satisfaction of poetic justice or an indignation against grave injustice, a verdict that rings loudly through the end. The ensuing resolution is also unequivocally sad, and we even get a moral from the perfect, trembling lips of Blanche DuBois. Coming from her, the line “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is both ironic caution and sad testament to a frail psyche.

This is one of the few plays I’ve read besides Shakespeare that so strongly compels me to seek out a production to watch this very minute. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams exposes seedy corners of mid-twentieth-century American society and equally dark corners of its minds and hearts. First, he is the realistic, impartial painter of human coarseness, failure, beauty and love. Then, in affecting lyrical form, he hints at judgment of all these through their close, unflinching examination. In his complex process, Williams has crafted a true literary and theatrical treasure.

Five out of five stars.


Learn about the 1951 film version at A Streetcar Named Desire.

Book Review: Rose in a Storm

Rose in a Storm by Jon Katz

I’m ambivalent about this one.

The novel Rose in a Storm uses an omniscient third-person narrator to switch back and forth between the farmer Sam’s and his border collie Rose’s viewpoint, but most of the story is Rose’s. The novel is better than the few non-fiction books I’ve read that attempt to convey the canine perspective, and the descriptions of farm life and tasks ring true.

Taking a scientific outlook, though, I found it difficult to settle on what I thought of Katz’s portrayal of the dog’s thought processes and feelings. The depiction straddles anthropomorphism and restrained observational reporting of animal behavior, though still through her eyes. Although most of the book succeeds in avoiding implausible sentimentality in the dog, focusing instead on her straightforward efforts to adapt to and navigate her changing world, there are some sappy tropes involved. The notion of the dog’s spiritual vision is the most blatant of these.

BookCover_RoseInAStorm_Katz

As a story, this is a fine read–simple, fluid, plot driven. It’s suspenseful, interesting, descriptive, and engaging. The book also refrains from tying things up in a neat little bow, preserving some of the realism of imagined canine perceptions, if one can call such a thing realism.

I have read no other Katz books to compare it to, but I think I detect his non-fiction roots coming across in this try at a novel. His style lends both a dryness that bored me and a grounded feel that I appreciated. Katz seems to overextend his anthropomorphism with his portrayal of other farm animals’ viewpoints, and some explanations of Rose’s behavior become repetitious in the book’s latter half.

Where the author succeeds is in communicating the complex relationship between Sam and his working farm dog. Rose is not in any way a pet, as she shares no affection with him, though she did with Sam’s late wife Katie. Nor is she strictly a regular working dog. The reader comes to know Rose as extraordinary among herding dogs–obedient and focused on her specific management role when Sam’s in charge and able to take the initiative to care for the farm’s animals in a devastating blizzard when Sam is unable to guide her.

Yet, Rose does not ascend to superdog status and escapes being made ridiculous in the process. Katz portrays her limitations as fairly as he demonstrates the stretching of her giftedness into innovation when faced with new challenges. This is a difficult balance, and he struck it well.

Full of description, the novel uses little dialogue, which both limits its interest for the reader and seats it fittingly within the speechless realm of the dog. The simplicity of the book, however, leaves little room for other layers to admire. There’s no underlying symbolism, no literary boosts of irony or genre bending or a greater lesson, and I saw no transcendent merit in it. It’s just a largely plausible story of a great dog’s experiences, which dog lovers will likely enjoy.

Overall, I liked Rose in a Storm, loved some parts but not many, and was not sorry to have read it. It helped that the book was not very long at a little over 200 pages. It was a pleasant if underwhelming experience, good but not great. 3 stars.

Book Review: In Cold Blood

I gotta give a shout-out to my book club–I probably never would have picked up this book otherwise. Thanks very much, S.


In Cold Blood

by Truman Capote

Gush, gush, gush! No blood but my praise for this amazing book spills freely forth.

Murder mysteries, thrillers, and dark novels I have read in sufficient number to have a base of experience for this book’s fair assessment. Fitting into, indeed creating, a genre that has come to be known as true crime, this story of the 1959 mass murder of the Clutter family in a small, quiet Kansas town is a definite, though perhaps surprising, page-turner. It may aid reader enjoyment (is that the word?) not to be a seasoned reader of true crime or crime fiction, as I am not. I am confident the book will satisfy the hungers of realists and the detail oriented, which I am.

The content isn’t nearly as gory as I anticipated, which I suppose is understandable for the dulling effect of the countless atrocities and violent entertainments our culture and I have consumed since 1959. (Vainly, I must add, no, I’m not quite that old.) Still, I expected greater emphasis on and more pages devoted to the details of the killings themselves. Perhaps the resistance to reading it that a close relative who lived through that time expressed—recalling her upset from seeing it in the news—fuelled that impression before my reading. I’m more than glad my expectations were not met. The writer understood that other details matter more.

Author Truman Capote presents in engaging style the fruits of what must have been dozens of incisive interviews and extensive research: an unflinching, comprehensive portrayal, seemingly bias free, of the paths and minds of two murderers and all the people they made relevant to the nation. Situated at the fulcrum of a truly horrible crime—angering, saddening, dumbfounding—the book is more about the killers than the killed. The backgrounds, personalities, and peculiar psychologies of the perpetrators and the victims are all made flesh, as Capote is meticulous and masterful with character detail. Reinforcing the injustice of it all, however, the only available hindsight on this apparently motiveless extinguishing of four human beings inevitably comes from the two death bringers. They claim the real fame, and it is profound infamy.

Capote’s impartial journalism lies at the root of some of the story’s most disturbing effects; he spends pages and pages portraying events through the eyes of the murderers themselves. Such intimacy with his subjects actually made mInColdBlood_covere wonder uncomfortably about Capote’s own moral compass. Maybe I’ll watch Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of the author in the 2005 film Capote to gain more insight on that. Be reassured: Many sections and closing sentences do frame the story from the moral high ground, and at least a dozen community voices help the non-homicidal reader relate, including those of the case’s lead detective Alvin Dewey and of the family’s closest friends.

Another remarkable literary aspect is the discernible, suspenseful plot that emerges for a story you may be predisposed to know in distillation from start to finish before picking up the text. A chronological time line of events begins with character backgrounds and the discovery of the victims. Then, the story continues with a period of investigation and the adventures of the perpetrators after the murders, which lasts for most of the book. At last, we flash back to the crime’s detail from the two murderers’ viewpoints and learn what becomes of them. I experienced the added suspense of not knowing the killers’ fates in advance. The reader partners with Detective Dewey, discovering the facts as he does.

I admit the prolonged suspense in the last twenty pages or so became irritating where Capote digresses in telling the stories of other famous murderers of the surrounding years. This section read as extraneous humanizing of the Clutters’ killers after so much of that appeared earlier in the book. I can see the interest, if not the modern-day necessity, of imparting that perspective, though: These were not the era’s only sociopaths who didn’t need motive to kill or remorse to move on. This type of person belongs to a breed. Having become partially desensitized from repeatedly viewing multiple seasons of Law & Order: SVU, my personal response to this education was dismissive.

The shock value hardly lessens, even so. Divided into four parts titled “The Last to See Them Alive,” “Persons Unknown,” “Answer,” and “The Corner,” the book has impressive fluidity and depth. With the jarring content, its vastness and detail, superb storytelling, and the narrator’s subtle wit, I barely noticed the underlying structure. Third-person omniscient narration dominates the text, and the author’s distant, objective position contributes to its smoothness. The reader remains immersed within the story from start to finish. As a writer, my jealousy and admiration of great storytellers arises when I read books like this one.

Equal parts psychosocial (and sociological) study and compelling artwork, the rendering of In Cold Blood seats it squarely in the category of “classic.” The intricacies of several members of the immediate and surrounding areas of Holcomb County and Garden City, Kansas, emerge in the spirit of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, another literary work I deeply love. Engrossing, fascinating, frightening, and vivid are just a few of the adjectives suitable to describe both stories’ effects on this reader, though in different ways. The common denominator is the way the lesson of life’s preciousness echoes achingly from the pages.

So, I’m on the bandwagon. From concept to print, a model for novel, memoir, and biographical writing, In Cold Blood proves Truman Capote to have been a praiseworthy observer, investigator, journalist, and “non-fiction novelist.” As emotionally draining and psychologically disturbing as it is, I would read the book again. To try again to understand the incomprehensible, to hold onto the endearing Clutter family, and to behold the artistry their deaths made possible. Here come the tears . . . .

I told you: Gush, gush, gush. Five out of five stars.

3 Quick Book Reviews: Outlander, Dragonfly in Amber, and Voyager

While doing some housekeeping the other day, I unearthed my brief, off-the-cuff reviews of the first three books in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, originally posted on LinkedIn. Clearly, my enthusiasm persists.

Outlander_coverICYMI: Last week, I shared a longer, more formal Outlander book review posted on Goodreads.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I’m a little at a loss for words on this one. Despite its 850-ish pages, I found myself wanting to re-read most of it right away. Stunning! Historical fiction, romance, rich detail of the Scottish Highlands culture and landscapes of the mid-18th century, excellent writing, complicated but thoroughly absorbing characters, first in a series. I’m finding it very hard to move on to anything new. Love it, love it, love it!


BookCover_DragonflyInAmber

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

The fastest read for me so far of any book ever–950 pages in less than a week! The saga continues mainly in France with political intrigue, grave misfortunes, triumphant rescues, secrets revealed, ultimate heartbreak, and enduring questions leading to the next books. War-torn love, time travel, and the mysteries of existence. Details so vivid, characters so real, a complex story worth re-reading. It’s hard to believe it took me 20 years to hear about this series! Thanks so much, recommending friends! The best advice I’ve had in ages.


Voyager by Diana GabaldonBookCover_Voyager

Well, I just HAD to know what happens next to Jamie and Claire, especially with Dragonfly in Amber ending on a note of despair, if also of questioning. In this third installment–adding another hundred pages beyond the second book’s length–Gabaldon enriches the traditional swashbuckling Caribbean adventure tale with her own fate-twists and interesting new and well-established characters, and the ending is a more hopeful one. But mixed emotions are a standard part of the ride with this series, and the emotional roller coaster keeps the pages turning through the end and on to the next. . . . Yet, at this point, there’s still something about that first book, Outlander, that keeps calling me back to it. . . .

Review: Outlander Season 1’s Ironic Chilling Effect

Qualification: I really am one of those “rabid” Outlander fans of both books and TV show (see the links to other Outlander posts at the bottom of this one), but I call it as I see it. I took most of the adaptation’s departures from the book in stride and appreciated the season finale’s brilliant aspects at face value. It was lovingly deep thinking about this last episode and the season as a whole that made me aware of the issue I discuss here. Since everyone else is talking about character journeys and actor performances, which I, too, find fascinating and impressive, I thought I’d approach from a different angle: the show’s story structure. Spoilers ahead.


Pained, visceral reactions to the horrors of the Outlander Starz season 1 finale testify to Black Jack Randall’s icy impact on Claire and Jamie’s relationship. That is as the story and the show intended. Unintentionally, Jamie’s oddly rapid recovery from fever and mental anguish further cools the blood.

But it’s the beginning of Claire’s confession in the chapel that drops a treacherous icicle spear into the structure of the show’s first season. For such an engaging, steamy, now-classic story and its vastly entertaining TV adaptation, the resulting damage saddens me–though not quite as much as do Claire’s attempts “To Ransom a Man’s Soul,” with tearful pleas to Jamie not to give up on their life and love.

But the source of this cold stab may not be what you think.

During the season finale of Outlander, protagonist “Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser” begins her story to Father Anselm at the monastery by saying she arrived in the eighteenth century from 1945 “eight months ago.” Not “several,” not “last fall,” not simply “months ago.” Exactly eight. Hearing this immediately struck me with surprise and confusion, and I don’t think I’m alone here.

How did seven weeks of the first half of the season suddenly hurtle forward into another six months in the second half? Hearing Claire say “eight months ago” became an unwelcome distraction that raised unfortunate questions.

It almost made me wonder if this surge is meant to be the infusion of a new time-travelling element, but that’s definitely not it. Chalk this rationalization up to human nature: “When confronted with the impossible, the rational mind will grope for the logical,” Claire says in episode 101, “Sassenach.”

The time scale imbalance itself could be forgiven if the storyline somehow survived unaffected, but it doesn’t. Instead, the plausibility of outdoor actions and events strains against its crippling entrapment at the cold point of the spear, undercutting the immense care taken in the construction of historical and narrative realism in the season’s first half.

Although the starting time of year in the book differs from that in the show, surely there were ways production could be true to the story without removing major organs from the time line, even in the modified seasonal arc. The results unfortunately fail to manifest any of those presumed possibilities. Let’s examine the evidence.

In the show, Claire time-travels through the stones on the eve of Samhain, October 30. During episode 108, “Both Sides Now,” Jamie tells Claire it will be “Yuletide by the time [they] get back to Leoch.” True enough: In episode 109, “The Reckoning,” observant viewers will notice that evergreen swags with white flowers and red berries newly bedeck Castle Leoch’s thresholds, hearths, and bed posts.

Also during episode 108, Frank Randall provides a more specific indication of timing as he challenges Reverend Wakefield’s theory of Claire’s getting lost near Craigh Na Dun, being swept down a river by the current to a cave, and “living on fish and frogs—for seven weeks.” At seven weeks past Samhain, with the parallel promise of Yuletide’s approach, late December has arrived.

Then, during “The Reckoning,” episode 109, while it snows when Jamie and Murtagh relieve themselves against the castle wall, Jamie resists Murtagh’s suggestion that they escape the MacKenzie clan’s tensions and live off the land. His line gives another sign of intended, or at least written, timing: “Ye’d have me sleeping under a tree, come winter, with my wife?”

With three distinct pieces of evidence, winter has not yet arrived and Christmas still approaches as of episode 109.

Early in 110, “By the Pricking of My Thumbs,” Claire deals with Laoghaire’s episode 109 attempt to seduce Jamie as well as her placement of an ill wish under their bed. Based on the scenes done in the castle, along with the winter coats, shawls, hoods, and cape-like plaid layers worn by the cast, it’s clear that it is still Christmastime or, at the latest, early January.

The problem is–although only days pass between Claire and Geillis’ capture (ep. 110) and trial for witchcraft (ep. 111), and between the trial and Claire’s rescue by Jamie–the outdoor scenery during the last twenty minutes of episode 111, “The Devil’s Mark,” shifts dramatically from early winter to early if not mid-spring.

The tiny leaves on the trees of the hill where Jamie surprises Claire with a view of Craigh Na Dun speckle the frame around the characters in a bright, budding green. Even in Scotland’s rapidly changing diurnal weather conditions, this is spring behavior for deciduous trees. To echo Claire’s voice-over in “Both Sides Now” (ep. 108), when she first realizes her nearness to Craigh Na Dun after the redcoat deserters’ attack, “There was no mistaking it”:

The Outlander TV adaptation has skipped winter altogether.

On one hand, as a native Ohioan who has endured two abnormally brutal winters in the past two years, I can empathize with the impulse to create a more hospitable fictional world to dwell in.

On the other, Outlander‘s actors are steadfast, adventurous players. The crew consist largely of hardy Scots. A clan of unflinching producers and writers have repeatedly claimed efforts to be as authentic as possible in adapting this violent action-adventure, historical romance with sci-fi elements. Combining all these factors, one would think this TV team, if any, could withstand a single Scottish winter, especially if an out-of-season shooting schedule were to necessitate a manufactured one.

Winter’s omission marks a surprising sloppiness not evident in other aspects of the production.

Its absence might not have been as noticeable had the writers refrained from exact time references in dialogue. “Eight months ago” could simply have been “several months ago” with less negative impact, though story incongruities of seasonal climate and daylight pose a larger production dilemma.

Climate-wise, skipping ahead in the story is evident because winter conditions are just as missing from the show as the time span itself is. Another prime example: If it really were winter in episode 111, Claire and Geillis would have been much colder than they appear to be while coatlessly awaiting their fate in the outdoor, underground thieves’ hole.

To rule out the possibility of later compensations for mid-season time warping, let’s take the viewer’s perspective of the time line in reverse from the announced endpoint. A closer look at the sequence and duration of events helps to illustrate how the time problem–like Jamie’s lingering psychosexual conflation of Claire and Black Jack–remains unsolved through episode 116’s final credits.

Eight months after October 30 means the story resolves in late June, early July, come the finale. It is then, just after Jamie’s rescue from prison, when Claire tells her story to Father Anselm. Only a few days pass between the start of the rescuers’ efforts in episode 115, “Wentworth Prison,” and the success of that rescue in episode 116.

Only about two or three days from the end of episode 114, “The Search,” through episode 115 stand between Claire and Murtagh’s recruitment of men for Jamie’s rescue and Claire’s ejection from Wentworth by Randall.

After Jenny gives birth during episode 113, “The Watch,” the next opportunity for a significant passage of time is in episode 114, “The Search.” Here, the story clearly takes at least a couple of weeks, if not a full month. But even if it took as many as two months, there would still be far more than a month’s gap in time unaccounted for.

Prior to these events, only “several days” (ep. 111) pass between Claire and Jamie’s departure from Cranesmuir and their arrival at his home estate of Lallybroch, just as only a few days mark the span between their arrival home and Jamie’s capture by the British after joining the Watch on a raid. Two weeks maximum, all told.

In sum, we established earlier that episode 109 resolves in December, and now we also know that no more than eight weeks track back from the season finale to episode 110, which exists within 109’s Christmas time frame.

Thus, the approximate math from season finale back to episode 111:

1 day at the monastery (since it’s on the second morning that Claire declares her eight months’ saga) + 3 days maximum at Wentworth (surveillance plus searching plus confrontation and return to rescue) + 1 day maximum between recruitment and arrival at Wentworth + an indeterminate number of weeks searching for Jamie after his escape from British custody following their ambush of the Watch (at least two weeks, possibly as much as a month or more = say, max 40 days) + 5 days at Lallybroch (day of arrival, followed by Quarter Day, then Jamie’s next-day hangover and attempt to repair the mill, Jamie and Jenny’s reconciliation one day later, and the arrival of the Watch the next morning) + 8 days or so (4-5 days’ fleeing from Cranesmuir to Craigh Na Dun and another few days to Lallybroch) + 2 days of a witch trial =

A total of about 60 days between Christmas and early July. And I believe this estimate gives the show writers and producers the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.

Ouch.

Ironically, the truncated year of 1744 mirrors the two-month interval of the season’s first half, the end of 1743. It’s simply not possible to skip four full months of a year without accounting for the story’s arc across the gap, which the Outlander Starz writing and production team have not done.

In order to make sense of the total amount of time between episodes 111 and 116–stated by the characters as around “Yuletide” (Jamie, costumes of castle and cast) and “eight months” since October 30 (Claire), respectively–it would have to be more like early May in episode 110, “By the Pricking of My Thumbs.” Again, the second half of the season represents a total of six narrative months.

It does indeed start to look like spring as early as episode 108, especially in the woods where Claire and Willie await the return from Jamie’s meeting with Horrocks. But since the whole group has yet to return to Leoch for Christmas, according to Jamie, we know it can’t yet be spring.

Therefore, the viewer’s expectations of approximate time passage for a TV show’s seasonal arc are grossly violated in the Outlander Starz series’ first season. For one thing, the imbalance is stark: less than two months’ time for the first eight episodes, and a minimum of six months—three times the number in the first half—for the second eight episodes. But, for another, bypassing the winter season is a more egregious error.

And why make it? Writing adjustments alone could have minimized the impact, so it shouldn’t have been much of a budget issue. In production terms, because the creators made no apparent attempt to pretend winter occurs by their use of Scottish scenery in the season’s second half, noticing the lack of winter is easy for the audience to do. They must have known we would notice, and somehow the choice was still approved. Budgetary constraints might, in part, explain this fact.

Of all the issues with the book’s first adaptation, a Scotland without winter may not be the worst, but it certainly bothered me when I first saw episode 108, “Both Sides Now,” and it continued to disrupt my suspension of disbelief over the next several episodes. Add to this that, when we’re supposed to be focusing so intently on the emotional roller coaster and unprecedented drama of the final episodes, our main character Claire plainly states the exact passage of time.

The result? Any sense of a carefully woven TV plot structure–which means viewers wouldn’t notice the structure at all–freezes up, a hardening quickened by Jamie’s miraculous recovery from Randall’s twisted form of aversion therapy on him toward Claire, and by the mysterious disappearance of Jamie’s physical fever. But it is winter’s loss that leads us into the cold.

For fans of the book, and even of the show despite these flaws, let’s hope Ronald D. Moore and company find a way not only to translate Diana Gabaldon’s second Outlander book into sound plot structure and story pacing, but also to maintain the depth, complexity, and beauty of season 1 in a completely new setting. Perhaps with much of France being filmed inside Scottish studios, the hurdle of suspending our disbelief about climate and timing will prove more surmountable.

As Claire replies in season 1’s second episode, “Castle Leoch,” to Colum’s query as to whether her journey to France involves “a joyous occasion,” so we the viewers must echo: “One can only hope.” And perhaps the northern hemisphere’s imminent entry into summer will dilute a lost winter’s ironic chilling effect.

That won’t relieve us of Droughtlander’s irksome symptoms, unfortunately. Let us be industrious, then, in seeking solutions. Perhaps our resourcefulness can inspire the making of a season 2 Dragonfly in Amber encased in a more smoothly formed and comfortable home. All of its inhabitants deserve it.

Claire holds Munro's wedding gift of a dragonfly in amber image credit: Outlander Starz, Sony Pictures Television

Claire holds Hugh Munro’s wedding gift of a dragonfly in amber, ep. 108, “Both Sides Now”
Image credit: Outlander Starz, Sony Pictures Television

Note: Filming for season 1 began October 2013 and concluded September 2014. Filming of season 2 is under way as of early May 2015, and the plan is to air the first episode in spring of 2016.


Other Outlander posts on this blog include the following (the first two are closely related):


Response to Outlander post “Episode 115: ‘Wentworth Prison’ (SPOILERS)”

The following response (spoilers included) comments on a fine post from a welcome, in-depth Outlander blog, Outlandish Observations, which has been praised by book series author Diana Gabaldon herself. I especially enjoy the detail involved in the book-to-show comparisons by this Outlander expert. Although I’ve only begun to explore the site, I already found keen insights on story elements and plenty of helpful book-related reminders. Check it out.

Episode 115: ‘Wentworth Prison’ (SPOILERS).

I disagreed with only one thing about this thorough episode response: the notion that adding the two search-party soldiers to the show (as this feature is absent from the book), to catch up with Claire in the dungeon cell, should decrease the chances of Black Jack Randall’s (BJR) “interrogation” being interrupted by other officers and possibly a superior of his.

Note: Granting that focusing on this element carries with it a chain of possibly unfounded assumptions and burrows into supposition that could rightly be seen as moot or nit-picky, bear with me if you wish. One of the aspects I so prize in this cross-genre book and TV series is the historical realism created by Gabaldon’s incredibly thorough and well-applied research. It is thus the question of authenticity and plausibility that brings me to this review.

So, what of these two soldiers?

Once Randall lets them know he’s there at all (by leaving the cell door open), let alone with a now high-profile woman and the captain’s assistant, he has drawn unwelcome additional attention to himself, which alone would risk exposing his later sadistic perversions to his superiors.

Boisterously crashing the execution yard on his mount to save Jamie Fraser from the noose, and for himself, makes at least an initial splash. The captain has saved Jamie from immediate hanging, which is entered into official record, as we know from Sir Fletcher’s reference to at least a temporary “stay of execution” when Claire inquires after Jamie, posing as a friend of his family in Fletcher’s office.

Otherwise, for all we know, up until the raised alarm brings the two soldiers to the dungeon cell, BJR’s purpose to use that space expressly to brutalize convicted murder suspect Jamie Fraser could be quite clandestine. Though I suppose this depends on, among other things, the accepted interrogation practices at a British jail in 1740s Scotland.

Among those in the know are the two jailers who bring Jamie food “compliments of Captain Jonathan Randall” early in the episode. However, at least one of them seems in full awareness of, if not collusion with, the captain’s sexual proclivities involving Scottish prisoners, given the jailer’s line to Jamie as they leave: “…have a wash, and your luck could change any minute, boyo!” Their tacit acceptance clearly poses no threat to Randall’s plans, and the only other person with any notion of the disturbing details is the literal numbskull Marley who accompanies BJR as his weapon of pure muscle.

By sending the pursuing soldiers back to their commander with the message that Randall has “the situation well in hand,” the captain might rather increase the likelihood that prison warden Sir Fletcher may subsequently send someone to check in on that situation. Any number of reasons to do so emerge, particularly considering Fletcher’s status in the prison and his recent contact with the woman involved (Claire). Here are a few possibilities:

(1) Sir Fletcher wishes to check on the interrogation’s progress, either out of curiosity or due to indignation that someone he thought was doing a good Christian deed has instead had the audacity to infiltrate his prison.

(2) To verify the facts of Claire’s involvement to his own satisfaction, perhaps to answer his doubts, Sir Fletcher inquires after the welfare of the woman who left such a positive initial impression on him as a “Christian woman.” After all, he himself has not directly witnessed any suspicious behavior on her part.

(3) Knowing even a modicum of Randall’s true character might alarm the warden enough to be concerned for Claire’s welfare even if he believes she is guilty.

So I felt the appearance of the two soldiers posed a new and special problem, but I acknowledge that perhaps this disagreement rests on a minor point regarding storyline plausibility.

Of greater concern to me in this scene is the fact that Claire–this bold, intelligent woman desperately fighting for her husband’s life and safety, as well as her own–misses an opportunity to show the two soldiers exactly “what’s going on in here.” Those words comprise the vague reality she pleads with them to help her share with Sir Fletcher, by requesting they take her to him.

Why doesn’t she ask the soldiers, and with a greater sense of urgency and horror, to look at “the prisoner’s” ruined hand for themselves? (Jamie lies unconscious on the floor at this point.) Why doesn’t she make a specific accusation against BJR while she has the chance?

Claire_gettingto_Jamie_Wentworth_dungeon

Claire finds Jamie beaten in a dungeon cell. Image by Starz and Sony Pictures Television

Why doesn’t she at least try to appeal to the humanity of these young men? Although Randall forbids them to take her into custody and back to Sir Fletcher, Claire could still make an impression, some kind of play for their empathy, which could translate into adding just enough detail to the report BJR commands they deliver to bring about some form of merciful intervention.

That she does not do any of this elicits my grave disappointment in the Claire of Outlander‘s TV adaptation and, thus, in its writers and producers.

And yet, what difference would it make? Randall could simply take that moment to say what he says momentarily anyway about Claire’s being a rebel plotting against the king. Either way, no matter what she says or however much they’re likely to believe a woman they’ve been searching for under suspicion of aiding an escape attempt, the soldiers must obey the captain. And like Corporal Hawkins of episodes 106 and 108, and presumably most of his subordinates, they’re probably (rightly) terrified of Captain Jonathan Wolverton “Black Jack” Randall.

Still, Claire has never before allowed futility to prevent her from trying. Why start now, at the most critical moment yet?

If we could stop Randall, though, what would such merciful intervention look like? Involving Sir Fletcher yet again may spare Jamie further sadistic victimization by BJR, but it may well simply ensure his death sentence, perhaps by increasing security at his cell. What a choice! A more peaceful hanging or a soul-tortured one.

I suppose at the root of this discussion is the hope-against-hope that, with the onset of another departure from the plot of the book, we as book and show fans could possibly change the inevitable horror we know is about to unfold. There’s no way out; the alternative would, with Jamie’s execution, only spell the end of the saga as we know it.

While my frustration with Claire’s reaction to the soldiers’ presence lingers, perhaps introducing them is a wise choice after all. It adds plausibility by representing the likely fact of a raised alarm, a representation absent from the book. It toys with the audience’s emotions by casting a flicker of hope into Jamie and Claire’s dark, hopeless situation. Then, rendering that hope impotent reinforces the overwhelming sense of doom and Black Jack’s absolute supremacy.

Our poor hero and heroine face their ultimate tests of survival so far–yet again for both their lives and their marriage–as we head into the season finale “To Ransom a Man’s Soul.” After escaping death but being completely broken in mind, body, and spirit, what of Jamie Fraser can be salvaged to make his life worth living again?

Episode 116 is set to air May 30, 9:00pm EDT, on Starz. Until then, all 15 episodes to date will run over Memorial Day weekend as a build-up to the end of this fascinating TV adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s first book of the series Outlander. Enjoy the marathon, and stay tuned!


Other Outlander posts on my blog include the following (the first two are closely related):