One Man’s Hero is Another Man’s Villain: The Execution of William Wallace

The is an episode of Star Trek (Original Series) called “The Enemy Within” that’s stuck with me since I was a kid. The premise is simple – “A transporter malfunction splits Captain Kirk into two halves: one meek and indecisive, the other violent and ill tempered. The remaining crew members stranded on the planet cannot be beamed up to the ship until a problem is fixed.” The message inside the story, however, is anything but simple. Once split, it turns out the ‘Bad’ Kirk is a monster, a classic psychopath with no human empathy, while the ‘Good’ Kirk is a sweetie-pie with so much empathy he cannot take risks. As expected, Bad Kirk can’t lead the Enterprise out of a paper bag. What surprised me, as a child, was that no ability to take risks meant Good Kirk could not make a decision or lead the ship either. Too much empathy, too much goodness, therefore makes for a piss-poor captain.

enemywithin_startrek

The idea that really effective, strong leaders had to have a large streak of bastard in them was unknown to me. Didn’t good guys always win? Wasn’t good axiomatically … good?

Not according to Spock, who warned Good Kirk what would happen without his bad qualities.

Mr. Spock: …what is it that makes one man an exceptional leader? We see indications that it is his negative side which makes him strong, that his “evil” side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength … Your negative side removed from you, the power of command begins to elude you.

Captain James T. Kirk: What is your point, Mr. Spock?

Mr. Spock: If your power of command continues to weaken, you’ll soon be unable to function as captain. You must be prepared for that.

-Space-Dog-The-Enemy-Within-star-trek-the-original-series

In the end, to be the best captain possible then Good Kirk would have to let Bad Kirk, the beast that repulsed all that was decent in him, back inside himself.

Captain James T. Kirk: I don’t want to take him back. He’s like an animal, a thoughtless, brutal animal, yet it’s me… me.

Lt. Cmdr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy, M.D.: We all have our darker side. We need it! It’s half of what we are. It’s not ugly. It’s human … A lot of what he is makes you the man you are. God forbid I should have to agree with Spock, but he was right. Without the negative side, you wouldn’t be the captain – you couldn’t be, and you know it. Your strength of command lies mostly in him.

original-star-trek-enemy within

It was, in the end, a man’s intelligence that kept the animalist part of himself in check, harnessing the evil within and using only as much of it as was needed to be an excellent commander. This was big news to a little girl watching reruns on the couch with her Daddy in 1978.  

Which brings me to King Edward I of England, known as Longshanks, and the execution of William Wallace.

William Wallace is an internationally famous champion of freedom, representing the fierce independence and indomitable spirit of the Scots. He is, perhaps even more than Robert the Bruce, an icon of the Wars of Scottish Independence. For most people, he is a hero. So whomsoever tortured him to death — which is what happened on 23 August 1305 when Wallace stripped naked and dragged through the city of London by a horse to the Elms at Smithfield where he was then hanged, drawn and quartered – the person who did that to a hero has got to be the villain. Right?

Well, it depends.

From King Edward’s point of view he wasn’t slaughtering a patriot; he was executing a shameless, morally-bankrupt, and greedy rebel who had cost countless English lives. We cheer when the Good Guy kills the Bad Guy, and Longshanks doubtlessly cheered for himself as Wallace’s intestines hit the fire.  

Anyone who is familiar with this blog knows I have had many a harsh thing to say about King Edward, from his pogrom against the Jews, to his attempted ethnocide against the Scottish and Welsh. Some things are an ahistorical evil – genocide being one of them – and all the whinging about “context” in the world will not excuse them. It just makes you look like a racist douche when you try, so don’t do it here. Also, don’t give me any bullshit about how Edward’s pogrom against the Jews wasn’t so bad without checking that the reason so few people were affected was because he had murdered and allowed the murder of most of Jews in England in the preceding decades. That kind of blind reliance on ignorance chafes my tender nerves.

 

Edward I did some truly, astoundingly evil things. He invented being hanged, drawn and quartered for the Welsh leader, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, in 1283 and then he imprisoned Dafydd’s youngest son in iron-bound cage from the age of 8 until he died 40 YEARS LATER. Edward was also happy to put young girls and women into cages after he invaded Scotland.

Longshanks did things that would make a Roman Emperor exclaim, “Harsh, dude. Way harsh.”

That ability to commit evil in pursuit of a goal — which Edward believed to be good even when it was horrid – was also what made Edward one of the best kings of Medieval England. He was an able lawmaker and administrator, doing his best to restore justice in England. From the moment he first came to the throne, he “replaced most local officials, such as the escheators and sheriffs  … in preparation for an extensive inquest covering all of England, that would hear complaints about abuse of power by royal officers”.   He also spent his reign strengthening England as a country by establishing a permanent Parliament and coalescing power for the state by taking it  away from the fragmentary and rebellious barons. He made England a better, safer place for most of his population and those who followed him loyally were well rewarded. From a personal perspective, he was also a loving husband, and a devout Christians from his point of view.  

He was clearly capable of being Good Kirk, but his Bad Kirk aspects were exceptionally foul. Yet that is what it took to be a strong king. Nice men who became king in the days of yore lost their crown fairly quickly. Those without savagery in their hearts could not stay on the throne. Edward had plenty of savagery.

One thought on “One Man’s Hero is Another Man’s Villain: The Execution of William Wallace


  1. Very perceptive commentary. I loved ” The Enemy Within” as well. The problem with our modern media is they love dealing with simple stereotypes. Every man or woman is either good or bad; there are no gradations. The media want every new biography to either be an exercise in hagiography or melodramatic villainy. Binary choices are in; complex ones are out. I have always felt that any biography that paints any great person as entirely admirable or completely detestable is terribly flawed and poorly researched. McCoy is right; the bad parts make us human.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *