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.


Sir Walter Scott: Bonnie Prince Charlie and Scotland’s Romantic Age

Scott, Sir Walter.  From Montrose to Culloden: Bonnie Prince Charlie and Scotland’s Romantic Age. ed. George Grant. Nashville, TN: Cumberland House, 2001.

The survey of this history of Scottish romantic chivalry can be ended with a meditation on “tradition vs. discipline.”  All the heroes and villains are here: Whigs, Tories, Covenanters.    The Tories opposed the accession of King George I.  Scott faults George I for listening to his Whig advisors and unnecessarily antagonizing otherwise noble Tories (Scott 11).

Scott, however, is realistic about what romantic life in feudal Scotland would have been like.  He writes, “[F]ew modern readers would desire to exchange conditions with a resident within the romantic bounds” of those times (29).

The main problem for the Scots in 1715 was the delayed raising of the western clans (46). And in what can only be a bizarre turn of events, the Scottish outlaw Rob Roy was just as likely to support those who supported the Hanovers (71). Rob Roy might have been a Jacobite, but he felt he should be loyal to his patron, the Duke of Argyle.

1715 might seem a sad ending for those with a romantic bent.  The Chevalier de St George was more inclined to “the intrigues of court, not the labors of a campaign” (113).

Scott praises the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge for establishing chapels and schools, which did more to enlighten “the people of that country than had been achieved by any prince who had yet reigned in or over Scotland” (124).

The uprising of 1745 is the heart of the story.  It tells of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s secret landing in Scotland, his raising of a highland army, his initial successes, and his inevitable failure. The Bonnie Prince never had a chance, but not for military reasons.  His stunning victory at Prestonpans allowed him to march deep into England, perhaps on London.  This was a fatal move, as England eventually marshaled two armies to cut him off.  His army did make good a retreat, allowing the later (and doomed) battle at Culloden.

Even then he wasn’t completely doomed.  He had 9,000 Highlanders under his control, roughly the same as the English.  Desertion was a problem, though, and he never could bring all of his forces to bear.

Could things have been otherwise?  To a degree, perhaps.  He certainly could have retained control of Scotland and left England alone.  That would have given him a few years.  Charlie thought he deserved England and wouldn’t settle for less. 

Scott suggests that even if Charlie won every battle, he still would have lost the war.  Scotland’s standard of living had improved due to English rule.  The Highlanders represented a small minority, and Charlie himself represented that line that was opposed to Presbyterianism.  He would never have had popular support, and his problems would have multiplied in England.

Still, there is something haunting and compelling about the old ways.  While it was good to see the last remnants of feudalism dissolve under modern developments, one wonders–perhaps for our own times–if there is a way to hold to both modern economics and a vision of that way of life which isn’t reducible to economic factors.

Old Mortality (Sir Walter Scott)

Sir Walter Scott. Old Mortality.  New York: Oxford Press.

This book isn’t as anti-Presbyterian as one might expect.  He isn’t making fun of the Covenanters. Indeed, if internet Covenanters today are the standard to go by, Scott is quite gentle.  As far as Scott’s novels go, this is acknowledged to be one of the better ones. The reason is quite simple: the story just flows better.

Like the rest of Scott’s novels, it’s important to pay attention early on.  If you get a good grasp on “who’s who,” his writing style is easy to follow.

Protagonist: Henry Morton.  Morton fights for liberty of conscience.  That’s what drives him, even more than love.

Love interest: Edith Bellenden.  Lady Margaret’s granddaughter.

Lady Margaret Bellenden: arch-royalist.  She’s funny. Back in the day King Charles I visited her castle.  She never fails to remind everyone of “that one day when his most sacred Majesty….”  Her servants can usually see this coming so they have devised ways to head her off.

Whigs vs. Tories

Initial Problem

In order to weaken the stricter Presbyterians, the law said that local communities had to train their militias on the Sabbath.  Furthermore, each laird had to meet a quota. Our story starts at one such militia gathering.

The “change” that happens to Henry Morton is perfectly captured.  Scott notes, “Desperate himself, he determined to support the rights of his country, insulted in his person” (160). Many god-fearing citizens throughout history aren’t really fanatical.  And this is a warning to the Deep State today: there is a limit beyond which we will not be pushed. Don’t go there.

There is even more to Morton’s development.  He finds himself on the opposite side of the war with his girlfriend.  She can’t forgive his “treason,” yet he knows he simply can’t lay down his arms and come back to her.  This is what Scott calls a new “Manly” moment in Morton’s life. Manly for Scott, and for the ancients, meant something like a firm resolve.  Morton wants to be with his girlfriend, but other things have to change first.

Scott doesn’t pull any punches.  In some ways this is the best argument for the non-establishment of religion.  The Covenanters are persecuted, and there is one tough scene of torture at the end of the book.  However, Scott, through Morton, reminds us that if the roles were reversed, the Covenanters would not allow freedom of religion to the so-called prelatists.

Henry Morton is a hero because he steers the middle course. Scott has created the problem perfectly.  Morton can’t just abandon the Whigs and join his lover because that would also abandon his principles–and she knows it.

I can usually anticipate how Scott will end a story, but this ending caught me completely off guard.

CS Lewis: Selected Literary Essays

Lewis, C. S. Selected Literary Essays.  Cambridge University Press, reprint 2018.

Before all else Lewis was a literary critic.  Here we see him in his element. He covers the area between early English poetry (and these are his most technical essays) to the 19th century novel. Throughout we are treated to his devastating wit.

Even in his most technical essays (usually concerning how a meter in some obscure medieval poem should be read), we still get his wisdom.  He notes, contrary to many “rad trad” Catholics today who paint the Reformation as a parasite upon a “happy medievalism,” that such a view never existed.  “[Sir Thomas] More would not have understood the idea, sometimes found in modern writers, that he and his friends were defending a ‘Merry’ Catholic England against sour precisions” (Lewis 116).

On Jane Austen.  Lewis points out that Austen writes with the same manly style as Samuel Johnson.  Indeed, she has a “firmness,” using the “great abstract nouns of the classical English moralists…. ‘Good sense, courage, contentment, fortitude” (178).  Lewis concludes, “Contrasted with the world of modern fiction, Jane Austen’s is at once less soft and less cruel” (179).

On Poverty of Style: Lewis notes that bad style isn’t failure to conform to a priori rules.  In fact, listing what makes “good style” is often hard to state. The reader can intuit it, nonetheless.  An example of bad style is when something like strong emotions are called for yet the author “is content with a vague approximation of emotion,” so that the “banality is spread all around” (269).

Bad style is insensitivity to language.

The Literary Impact of the Authourised Version

We know the King James translation had an impact of English literature.  Lewis suggests that the real influence might not be where you think it is.  Its style is exalted by today’s standards. It was not always so. The concepts, especially the historical form, were often embarrassing for ancient writers.  Tyndale, by contrast, has a much healthier approach. He loves the Bible for “its grossness. ‘God is a Spirit,’ he writes, ‘And all his words are spiritual. His literal sense is spiritual’” (quoted in Lewis 131).

The greatest English prose writer of the age, Tyndale’s enemy, Thomas Moore, agreed with Tyndale, ironically, but came to a different conclusion: it’s not good prose (by the then current standards). Writers of high English prose in the 18 century agreed. Edward Harwood wrote a more pristine translation of the English Bible.  Why would he have needed to do that if the King James style was always considered exalted?

Lewis’s argument is that the Romantic movement saw that the King James style fit neatly with key motifs that were found both in the Bible and in the Romantic imagination: shepherds, shepherd-kings, etc.

The Vision of John Bunyan

Bunyan’s chief point of greatness is his mastery “of perfect naturalness in the mimesis of ordinary conversation” (146).  Of course, given that Bunyan wrote in allegories, Lewis explains to us how to read and not read allegory in Bunyan (or Spenser). If we see a green valley, “We ought not to be thinking ‘This green valley represents humility;’ we ought to be discovering , as we read, that humility is like that green valley’” (149). We move into the book from concept to image.

It’s best to read this as a guidebook rather than cover-to-cover.  This text contains hard-to-find essays and gives the reader some insights to Lewis’s social vision (e.g., see his essay on William Morris’s socialism).

Redgauntlet (Sir Walter Scott)

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I am going to be using the format recommended by Susan Bauer in this review.

Grammar Stage Inquiry: The What

What is the most important event in the book, in which the character(s) change? The most important event is when Darsie decides to leave the stability of Joshua Geddes’s house and join with the blind fiddler.  Darsie does that because he isn’t very smart (none of Sir Walter Scott’s heroes are smart).

Logic Stage Inquiry [The Why and How]

Is this novel fable or chronicle? This is a chronicle.  Sir Walter Scott invented the genre of historical fiction.

What does the central character(s) want? He wants action and adventure. He isn’t very smart.

What is standing in their way? For the first part of the novel, his friends.  Granted, they have no power to stop him, but they are warning him of where his Quixotic dreams will take him.

What strategies does the character(s) use to overcome their difficulties? While Darsie doesn’t suffer from common sense, he isn’t stupid, either.  He’s able to think quickly on his feet and adapt to new situations.

Who is telling the story? The first part of the novel is a series of letters written between the protagonist, Darsie Latimer, and his friend Alan Fairford. Admittedly, it’s not the most engaging beginning. It makes some demands of the reader, given the lack of dialogue, yet it does provide a character sketch for the two gentlemen. The back and forth between the two men’s letters becomes really amusing after a while.  Fairford grants that Latimer may have had “adventures,” but he thinks he embellished the whole thing, and comes close to insulting the man.

The background knowledge of the novel suggests that Redgauntlet is some sort of Byronic satanic figure.  Scott develops this tension in a very skilled way.

Beginning and Ending:  What draws you in? What is the resolution in the end?  What is the logical exhaustion, which demonstrates a philosophy about human nature?  Sir Walter Scott’s skill as a narrator is on full display.  He takes a very dangerous and unwieldy approach by introducing the plot through letter writing.  Yet in the letter writing he uses the possible Redgauntlet character to tie both Darsie’s and Fairford’s adventures together.  I won’t say more so as not to give away anything.

The ending is about as perfectly “exhausted” as one can expect in a story. The philosophy in this work, as in many of Scott’s works, is that the heroic age ended a generation ago.

III.  Rhetorical Stage of Inquiry [The So What?]

Do you sympathize with the characters?  Which one(s), and why? I sympathize with both Fairford and Darsie, for I have been both men.  And Darsie is funny at times: One of Walter Scott’s heroes has to take up residence with a Quaker, and here is how he describes the blessing before the meal: “We settled to your breakfast after a blessing, or rather an extempore prayer, which the Spirit moved Joshua to prolong rather more than I felt altogether agreeable.”

After Darsie is captured and doesn’t know where he is, he tries to ferret out his location from the serving wench.  The wench is the archetypal dumb blonde and parries all of his rather skillful questions with feigned (or perhaps real) idiocy.

Did the writer’s times affect him? Scott’s characters in this story aren’t as affected by the Jacobite cause as others.  They are not tempted by the Bonnie Prince nor do they seek to overthrow the Crown. Quite opposite.

Is there an argument in this book?  Alan Fairford is often at pains to show Darsie that courage isn’t simply fighting bravely in battle.  There is a “civil courage” that is “courage enough to do what is right, and to spurn what is wrong–courage enough to defend a righteous cause with hand and purse, and to take the part of the poor man against his oppressor, without fear of the consequences to himself” (Scott 47).

Do you agree?  Is this work true about the human experience? Very true. We all know those who want to “overthrow the gubmn’t,” but what stops them isn’t fear or arms, but apathy in their comrades.


Review: Waverly (Sir Walter Scott)

“Under which king, Benvolio? Speak or die!”

Edward Waverly might not be the most complex character, and it seems too cheap to say he is “relatable” because of his flaws.  Rather, it might be the case that his youth and zeal for romance make him someone we can at least understand. We’ve many of us longed for heroic (if necessarily doomed) causes.   And yet Walter Scott never ridicules him. In fact, he paints him in a compelling light.Image result for waverly oxford world classics

Edward Waverly, raised on horseback riding and romance novels, joins the military and does a tour in Scotland, and then falls in with Highlanders while on furlough.  Through it all he meets several women, one complicated, one noble, and must navigate the political machinations of the Pretender, rival clans, and the English Army.


This book has all the strengths and weaknesses of a Scott novel.  There is skilled poetry, intrigue, and complex (and sometimes hilarious) characters.  Unfortunately, like many Scott novels, there is a lot of “filler” and it has the feel of being episodic.  

Could we call the Waverly novels  “Wisdom Literature?”  Perhaps.  Scott often writes in the 2nd person and makes poignant remarks about the human character.

Further, while Scott ridiculed Presbyterians and Covenanters, he didn’t pull cheap shots. It’s like Flannery O’Connor’s fundamentalist protestants.  They are actually quite fun to watch.

The story is interesting, however, and this is definitely one of Scott’s finest.