The Edinburgh Companion to Sir Walter Scott

Robertson, Fiona. Ed. The Edinburgh Companion to Sir Walter Scott. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Fiona Robertson presents us with some outstanding essays by noted writers.  These essays clarify both key themes in Sir Walter Scott’s thought as well as the limits of placing him in a larger Romantic context.

While Scott does promote the idea of a Romantic national culture, he dissociates it “from notions of authentic lines of descent or innate national culture” (Ferris 15).

While Kenneth McNeil’s essay, “Ballads and Borders,” is of limited use to the Scott reader today, if only because few will have access to Scott’s poetry, he makes some interesting remarks, including writing the most postmodern sentence of all time–more on that later. He suggests that Scott’s “balladry” illustrates an “in-betweenness” of cultures.  Very Heideggerian, that.  He writes, “The ascendancy of the border in the contemporary disavowal of the Manichean structure of colonial discourse paradoxically provides the context for one of the most influential and interesting returns to Scott’s formulation of the borderlands as the topographical sign for a particular ethnic identity” (McNeil 33). I have no idea what that means, but it sounds fascinating.

“What constitutes Romantic Poetry?”  Alison Lumsen and Ainsley McIntosh ask this question in order to answer why Scott’s poetry, so famous in his own day, is unknown in ours. Romantic poetry became focused on nature whereas Scott wrote about social issues.

Romanticism has a movement that is intensio, not extensio. Classical man looked upward to the heavens.  According to Frye, Romantic man, by contrast, looked inward where “the creative world is deep within, and so is heaven or the place of God” (quoted in Robertson 93).  If this is true, then Scott really isn’t a Romantic writer.  He’s largely uninterested in the conflict of a divided self (except for monarchy), nor do a hero’s brooding emotions factor much into his stories. Romanticism represents a great leap “inward,” which is largely absent from Scott’s corpus.

Scott and Monarchy

Theme: Scott shows us how to avoid choosing between doomed alternatives, allowing us to steal away and live (McCracken-Flesher 47). An initial reading of the Waverly novels imagines the reader as having to choose between the Stuarts and the Hanovers.  It’s not simply that the wrong choice will get you killed.  It will, but there is more to it:  you are forced to make a choice without being able to think about it. That’s the danger.  A deeper reading of Scott shows characters who elude these false dualities.

Scott “stresses the necessity and impossibility of relating oneself to a world of easy oppositions, fatal results, and no real choices” (50).  In other words, ideologies don’t work with Scott. Rather, “At the heart of each Jacobite novel lies a gap…in which a secret works” (53).  This gap allows the rather unimportant hero to not choose, and therefore not die.  Each of Scott’s heroes move from naivete to complexity, which mirrors the philosophical view of the self then current in Scotland: a complexity of experience and association (55).

Tara Ghoshal Wallace has an important chapter exploring Ernst Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies concept in Scott’s novels.  She correctly summarizes the essence of the concept but fails to dissociate it from its later degeneracy.  According to Kantorowicz, “There is a composite or ruler and realm” within the head of the monarch (Wallace 107).  This allows for the distinction between the king’s royal body and his personal foibles.

The point of this conception, pace Wallace, was not to justify the extreme decadence of later Stuarts.  Rather, it avoided a political Donatism which would render a king without authority because he wasn’t pure enough or august enough.

The book ends with final essays on Scott’s economics and the afterlife of Ivanhoe.  This is a welcome addition to the dearth of literature on Sir Walter Scott.

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