Traditionally, the Scottish poet Robert Burns is associated with Haggis, a good drink and all things associated with the national spirit of Scotland. However, there is a darker side to Burns’ poetry that often gets overlooked that is embodied in his longest poem, “Tam O’Shanter.” There is more of the supernatural in Robert Burns’ poetry than is commonly known.
Renegade Arts’ fanciful portrayal of Scotland’s favourite son taps deeply into this vein that lovers of Burns the Poet would enjoy along with readers of this new fantastic interpretation. The creative vision of Gordon Rennie and Emma Beeby is a delightful and innovative presentation of the Ploughman Poet that brings him out of the 18th century and into the 21st.
“Tam o’Shanter” is the story of an unfortunate ne’er-do-well who, after a rousing night at the local pub, is attracted by a clamorous din at an abandoned church. Upon investigation, our man Tam is transfixed by the sight of a witches’ gathering, celebrating a dark mass under the musical direction of Satan – “Auld Clootie” playing the bagpipes. Tam cries out – in near-rapture, at the sight of a fair witch in a short shirt dancing seductively (“Weel done, Cutty Sark!”) and is then forced to flee for his life after they give chase. Fleeing for the safety of a running stream, he manages to reach it, for faery lore tells us that spirits and the servants of evil cannot abide running water. Tam lives, though his horse’s tail is savagely ripped off by one of the chasing demons.
“Tam o’Shanter” is the basis for the adventure of this story. It begs the question: what if Burns had more experience with the supernatural than anyone thought? 18th century Scotland was a land rife with superstition it is conceivable that Burns could have either heard of a similar story… or fun to speculate that he had experienced an adventure of his own.
Rennie and Beeby have entertainingly served Burns up as a philanderer and a drunkard – to our amusement. Historically speaking, this part is actually fairly accurate. Burns’ poem “The Fornicator” gives much credence to this perspective and lends itself very well as the character basis for our hero. Both Rennie and Beeby have woven historical facts into a lattice of supernatural details. Poor Robbie faces a mixture of Christian religious beliefs along with Celtic faery lore, which not only adds to the fun of the story but to its authenticity.
The dialogue is extremely rich. Much like Burns’ poetry, it is written in a combination of English and Gaelic and stylishly rendered by letterer Jim Campbell. Many a child of Scottish ex-pats would smile in nostalgic reverie at seeing words like ‘bairn’, ‘ken’ or ‘heid’. This, by itself, makes this book a joy for any Burns fan let alone any loyal child o’ the thistle.
Tiernen Trevallion’s art is simply lovely. Drawn dark and bold, it perfectly suits the nature of the story and the character of the lands it is set in. The Scottish moors are dank and dreary and are perfect for a tale of the supernatural. Trevallion’s work is well-known in the U.K. and is poised for future comic-star status in North America. His work is perfectly geared to the fantastic and is a beautiful thing to see.
If you look at the construction of the book, it is also, as editor Alexander Fenbow puts it, “a thing of beauty.” Along with the story, selections of Burns’ poetry (including “Tam O’Shanter”) are included, accompanied by gorgeous illustrations and a historical biography of Burns written by co-author of Robert Burns in Edinburgh, Jerry Brannigan. Moreover, the cover is a tactile thing of sensory delight. Rugged and scuff-resistant, this is a quality book, in form, function and fun.
This is Burns for a new century. Not only is this book informational and entertaining, but it also serves to elevate. Robert Burns is an underrated poet and this book does proper homage to this son of Scotland’s talent and appeal. Known as the People’s Poet, this story takes Burns to a new level of entertainment by making him the focus of the story instead of his poetry. Though elements of his poetry are included within the story, they are there to add foundation to the tale along with being included separately in the appendix at the end.
This is a book that readers can have a conversation about. It is a wonderful story on a variety of levels and is one that lovers of Scotland, poetry and witch-hunters can agree upon. A tale of supernatural adventure for sure, to make sure you remember Tam o’Shanter’s mare in the 21st century.