Outlander 1.4: The Gathering

I give you my obedience as kinsman and as Laird and I hold myself bound to your worth so long as my feet rest on the lands of the clan MacKenzie.

The more I watch Outlander, the more I am made aware of how the show is conditioned by the marketplace of cable fantasy television. This week featured the pageantry of feudal political networks, another attempt by Claire to escape the castle, and a boar hunt. Of the last I want to make a particular point, as it is a plot scenario made much of not only in this episode to evolve the relationship between Claire and her jailor, Dougall, but also a scenario that fundamentally changes the brain chemistry of Henry VIII in The Tudors, fractures a nation into many ‘thrones’ by the death of Robert Baratheon, and provides a cover for the marriage of a king to a widower in The White Queen.

Claire (Caitriona Balfe) runs from a wild boar as much as she is running toward the injured during the clan’s hunting festivities.

All three of these deaths are thigh wounds, which in English chivalric literature often connotes infertility or a fundamental displacing of the knight’s moral compass. Ripped from the War of the Roses, this seems pretty clear in the case of Game of Thrones. Having lost his will to rule and the ability to see beyond his own cares, Rob’s proclivity for drink is taken advantage of: a spy cup-bearer supplies him too well and he is killed while on a boar hunt with his ambitious brother. The event is heresay however, both anesthetizing viewers and allowing an interpretation for murder to stand. In the case of The Tudors, the thigh wound is more metaphorical than literal. Overseeing a celebratory joust, Henry can’t help but get involved. Jousts were meant to be displays of military prowess and skill, not a battle to the death as A Knight’s Tale would have you believe. In fact, to kill another jouster was not only seen as depriving the kingdom of a Seal Team 6-grade military asset, but a great personal disgrace by demonstrating the criminal knight not to have the appropriate skill and precision joust participation demanded. And like in true battle, the monarch was expected never to participate at the risk of death and civil war that inevitably follows. Young, impetuous, and in love, Henry wants to play along and of course is injured. Based on real events of 1536, he remained unconscious for more than two hours, suffering what many expect was a certain amount of brain damage that changed his disposition along with a thigh wound that continually festered causing him great pain for the rest of his life.

Where Rob’s material tusk wound is a reaction to his moral decay, Henry’s is as a contributing factor to his increased inability to rule (or love appropriately, faithfully, for that matter) that arises again and again, not in the script but in Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ performance. In The White Queen, it is under the auspices of a hunting injury that Edward marries Elizabeth Rivers, consummating their love in a hunting lodge. The conditions of their marriage is a bane to his rule, in the first place that her legitimacy as queen is questioned by his court when a blame needs assigning, and in the second causes her to be forever in doubt having heard from his brothers that Edward had married and reneged for lust many times before. The hunting injury is a metaphor that organizes the show, referring to the damages marriage for love rather than alliance could inflict in early modern England (although the show stacks an equal amount of evidence on the opposite side of that scale as well).

The challenge of standing for all of the oaths in light of his disability was clearly intended to make Colum (Gary Lewis) seem even more regal and courageous as ‘laird’ of Clan MacKenzie.

So in early modern fantasy drama, injury produced by a boar hunt has come to signify a moral displacement, especially when political leaders are involved. Moreover, the lasting effects of the injury, a product of uncensored or ill-managed behavior, are unforeseen and widespread. The correlation does not seem so neat, however, in Outlander. Kept from escape by Jamie (only to have his life threatened in return), Claire goes on the hunt at Dougall’s request to tend to the usual injuries. Barely dodging the boar herself, an old friend of Dougall’s named George suffers both a thigh and mortal stomach wound by the pig. Understanding the psychology and fear about to set in on the man, Claire and Dougall silently agree to let the him die quickly by bleeding out of the artery in his leg rather than suffering for days by his gut. As a friend, Dougall holds George but is clearly suffering himself at the immanent loss of his friend. Claire, with experience and presence of mind, knows the right questions to ask—about his home, its beauty—to both preoccupy George with a verbal task and bring to mind scenes of peace to ease his passing.

In the context of its most immediate competitors, what do we make of the use of the boar hunt and the death that Claire helps to ease in this last episode of Outlander? That the sufferer of these injuries is nearly always a man is problematized by Claire as the primary protagonist. Injuring her would simply not have the same biological resonances that a thigh/groin injury to a man does. And unlike its predecessors, Outlander depicts the reality of the gore and risk that early modern boar hunts posed in the immediacy. In this light the show seems to be commenting tangentially on the universality of the effects of war and military life using Claire’s field nurse skills as a bridge through time. (I am beginning to love this show for the fact that the only thing it seems to be choosing to romanticize is romance itself, and nothing else.) However, the near-threat to her life immediately preceding George’s wounding suggests Claire had nearly misstepped her own path, nearly neglected her own moral compass and the needs of others. This is thrown all the more into stark relief if we consider Jamie’s rather constant self-sacrifices, including the complex sacrifice of his clan oath. As nephew to the laird, to take the oath would have doomed himself and his uncles according to Scottish politics. But not to would suggest disloyalty. So Jamie creates a new oath for himself: rather than repeating the oath of the clan, he interprets the stakes of that oath to articulate his loyalty and obedience outside the vow framework.

Series author Diana Galbaldon cameoed in this past week’s episode as a member of Clan MacKenzie.

The smartest bit of script here, then, may be the phrase: “bound to your worth.” The syntax evokes the same chivalric set of codes from whence the thigh injury metaphor derives. Men were not expected to marry for love, but for alliance. A “beloved” was a woman with which no sex was had, but in her chastity, her purity and all that was good in her, did the lover stake his own worth. In the beloved object were knights expected to see a physical embodiment of their own personal ethics, an impossible perfect in which to aspire but in whose perfection never attain. Sexual relations would only bring the ideal of that beloved—Laura, Beatrice, etcetera—back to the imperfect and attainable. Courtly love as a political mode was about inspiring ideal, lawful, and just behavior in male society. But Jamie does not dabble in the unattainable, binding his sense of worth and morality in Colum, his uncle and lord, and not Claire, who as the boar indicated, seems slowly but ever-increasingly attainable.