The Lady of the Lake, Sir Walter Scott, 1810
The Lady of the Lake is an epic poem set in medieval Scotland. Surprisingly, the title is probably not a reference to Arthurian myth. When I got to this poem on the list, I really thought I was going to have to jump in a lake in the middle of February and hold up a sword. I would have done it too, but fortunately the titular Lady simply lives near, not in, a lake.
I had a hard time following the plot of this poem, but I’ll do my best to lay out the scenario for you. A knight is out hunting and gets lost in the mystical Scottish wilderness. He sees a beautiful maiden (he can tell she’s a maiden, because Scottish maidens at this time braided ribbons into their hair to indicate that they were unwed and. . .unspoilt) paddling a little boat on a lake. She is wary of him at first, but noble ladies do not allow noble men to go without food and shelter, so she invites him back to her abode. Don’t worry, there’s an old bard and some other servants there too.
What follows is not so much a love triangle, but a love square with three men competing for the hand of our maiden. Oh, and hidden identities. The knight is King James V. The maiden is Ellen Douglas, the daughter of his former friend and advisor turned enemy. Roderick Dhu, a bloodthirsty highland chief who has been helping Ellen’s fugitive father, thinks he’s earned her hand in marriage. However, Ellen only has eyes for Malcolm Graeme, a lithe young whippersnapper in Roderick Dhu’s retinue.
In my opinion, Scott does a poor job of introducing characters. By the end of the poem, I had a solid grasp of the temperaments of all our main guys and gals, but it was difficult to understand who was who in the beginning. “The Lady of the Lake” is not my favorite epic poem, but it does have some highlights. There is an exciting battle scene involving boats sneaking up on a dear little island. Canto IV describes a very spooky Druidic sacrifice committed by Roderick Dhu’s priest. That canto is a strong and entertaining bit of poetry worth reading on its own.
Here’s a quote of Ellen Douglas sarcastically explaining why she does not admire Roderick Dhu:
I grant him liberal to bring,
When back by lake and glen they wind
And as in the Lowland leave behind,
Where once some pleasant hamlet stood,
A mass of ashes slaked with blood.
You might like this poem if:
- you are one of those Scots who is obsessed with romanticized Scotland of yore.
You might not like this poem if:
- following narratives in poetic form is difficult for you.
Final thoughts: “The Lady of the Lake” is not the greatest poem in the English language, but it’s an enjoyable romantic vision of medieval Scotland.