Author Jack Whyte near his home in Kelowna, B.C., Aug. 17, 2009.
JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail
Jack Whyte had a passion for the English language, its suppleness and its music, that was formed in his childhood when his regular task was to read aloud to his blind father. Mr. Whyte was many things – poet, singer, teacher, performer, advertising copywriter, kilt-wearing Scottish patriot – but his greatest success came relatively late in life after he turned to writing popular historical fiction. His sequence of nine hefty historical novels began to appear when he was 52, and recreated in vivid detail the life and times of the legendary King Arthur and his lineage, starting with his great-grandfather. Known collectively as A Dream of Eagles, the series sold more than a million copies in Canada and was translated into 10 languages, enjoying particular fame in Italy.
Historians and archeologists have found no evidence that the wise and just King Arthur ever existed, but the force of Mr. Whyte’s imagination and the research he adduces into British life in the era of the dissolution of the Roman Empire persuaded his readers to suspend disbelief.
The books featured heart-stopping battle scenes, strong characters and dramatic dialogue that propelled the reader forward. His fans clamoured for more.
Story continues below advertisement
A Dream of Eagles was followed by two historical trilogies, one about the Medieval Knights Templar and another (named The Guardians) about three warriors, William Wallace, the Braveheart; Robert the Bruce and Andrew Murray, who had shaped the history of Scotland.
“Jack was a storyteller, first and foremost,” recalled Catherine Marjoribanks, who edited his first book The Skystone for his Canadian publisher and went on to edit 15 subsequent books by him, including his last, Yesterday’s Battles, a book of short stories published in 2020. He is credited with 23 books in all.
“He wanted to research and think and imagine until he could clearly see how event and character and destiny came together to create history and legend and myth, and then write that in a compelling, convincing way, so the reader could see and feel and believe it, too.”
Jack Whyte died on Feb. 22 in Kelowna, B.C., of liver cancer after a long illness, aged 80.
John (Jack) Whyte was born in Scotland, in the small town of Johnstone, in Renfrewshire, near Paisley on March 15, 1940, the eldest of 11 children of Francis and Sadie (née Grodin) Whyte. His father, known as Frank, had fought in the Second World War until an explosion on D-Day cost him his sight. When he returned home he trained as a physiotherapist and appointed Jack to read Gray’s Anatomy and other textbooks to him.
“There was always a lot of noise and confusion in the household because of all the children,” said Mr. Whyte’s wife, Beverley. Reading provided a respite.
In his Scottish elementary school, the boy found excellent teachers who taught him about grammar, sentence structure, scansion and prosody. In his 2007 memoirs, Forty Years in Canada, he paid tribute to three women who taught him from ages 8 to 11 and fostered his love of precise English. “Syntax was my overriding passion as a preteen boy,” he said.
Story continues below advertisement
The Whyte family eventually moved to England where his father found more work opportunities. Jack attended St. Mary’s College in Twickenham, in south west London (now St. Mary’s University), taking a degree in English and drama. In his early 20s, Jack married Helena Grace Kirkham, the daughter of a former Supreme Court Justice in colonial Burma, and soon found himself the father of two small children. When he received a job offer in 1967 to teach high-school drama, English and French in Athabasca, northern Alberta, the young family immigrated to Canada.
At the end of his first year teaching, his colleagues entered his name in a talent contest to sing at the opening of the Calgary Stampede. Wearing his kilt, he auditioned for the Grandstand show and got his big break. So compelling was his performance that agents vied to represent him. Mr. Whyte chose an agent and went on to work as a singer, actor, raconteur and all-round entertainer in cabarets, hotel lounges and bars. He also developed a one-man show impersonating the poet Robbie Burns, which he toured around the country.
Later he worked as an advertising copywriter and took a job in the oil industry in Calgary writing speeches and promotional copy.
Meanwhile, his first marriage ended and he met and fell in love with Beverley Martin, whom he met while performing in Red Deer. She, too, was divorced; they married in 1976.
As an entertainer, Mr. Whyte worked evenings but had his days free to write. He wrote poetry at first then began to write about Arthur Pendragon and the sword Excalibur, though he backed up and began his story many years before Arthur’s birth. He had a theory about how Arthur might have created the illusion of extracting the sword from the stone with no magic involved.
After writing for his own pleasure for about 14 years, he was persuaded by Beverley to try to have his work published. The couple were then living in North Vancouver, and he was working at Johnston Terminals, a cartage company, in corporate communications.
He wrote in Forty Years in Canada that by 1988, he had three complete 1,000-page manuscripts and was working on a fourth but he nevertheless did not think of himself as an author. Writing was “a minor obsession of mine and a private, personal thing that only my wife and a few close friends were aware of.”
He had become acquainted with Alma Lee, then in the process of creating the Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival, which she ran until 2005. Johnston Terminals became the festival’s first corporate supporter.
“Jack gave me the manuscript of his first novel and explained it’s going to be a series and asked me what he should do with it, who might want to publish it,” Ms. Lee recalled in an interview. “I suggested he send it to Doug Gibson, then publisher of Macmillan.”
Mr. Gibson was interested but could not persuade his firm to take on such an expansive publishing project by a rank unknown. He recommended that Mr. Whyte take his manuscript to Penguin Canada, where he received a warm welcome. The Skystone, which takes place during the last days of the Roman empire in 5th-century Britain, was published in 1992 and introduced the precipitating event of the Arthurian legend: the fall of a meteor out of the sky that would provide iron for the mythic sword Excalibur.
Mr. Whyte was knowledgeable about ancient weaponry and felt that inventions such as the long sword and the horse’s stirrup had enormous impact on history.
As his fan base grew, Ms. Lee invited Mr. Whyte four times to her book festival, where he proved a big draw. She also introduced him to Diana Gabaldon, the popular Arizona-based author of the bestselling Outlander series who became his friend, supporter and provider of persuasive jacket blurbs.
“From the building blocks of history and the mortar of reality, Jack Whyte has built Arthur’s world and showed us the bone beneath the flesh of legend,” Ms. Gabaldon wrote.
Although his books were bestsellers in Canada, it was not until they were picked up by an American publisher, Tom Doherty Associates in New York, that Mr. Whyte was able to make serious money and quit his day job. (In the U.S., his signature series was called The Camulod Chronicles.) In 1996, he and his wife moved to Kelowna, where he bought a house on a golf course and drove a Mercedes.
Mr. Whyte was irked by what he saw as the lack of respect for his genre of books, and was frustrated by the way his work was sometimes shelved under fantasy or science fiction. He thought of himself as a historical or speculative novelist – categories that bookstores, he wrote, did not emphasize.
“Why am I not part of the CanLit scene? … I’m not recognized by the literary community in Canada,” he told journalist Fiona Morrow in a 2009 interview in The Globe And Mail.
In his later years, he worked to create a more inclusive writing community as an active participant in the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, held annually in Surrey B.C. There he mentored writers in all genres including romance, crime fiction and sci-fi.
“We are a large annual professional development conference, and we bring in distinguished writers, agents, publishers from the U.S. and Canada,” said award-winning Vancouver author JJ Lee, a member of its board. “Jack was a huge part of the ethos.”
Mr. Whyte never gave up poetry. He was appointed regimental bard of the Calgary Highlanders and continued in that role even after he left Calgary.
He preferred poetry that scanned and rhymed and could have been written in the 19th century. One of his most quoted poems was a toast to his adopted country, whose concluding stanza is:
Each lad and lass,
Take up your glass
And let your mind’s eye roam
Across this country, proud and vast
Our Canada, our home.
He leaves his wife; children, Jeanne and Michael; step-children, Jode, Holly and Mitch Martin; four grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; and eight of his siblings in England.