Waverley

Waverley, Sir Walter Scott, 1814

Waverley Sir Walter Scott

Waverley is an odd novel that kind of captured my heart.  Sir Walter Scott was a prominent Scottish poet before he published his first novel anonymously.   It was immediately crazy popular.  Waverley is often called the first historical novel, which I guess it might be, if you choose to ignore Gothic novels.  I suppose you could argue that Gothic novels are their own genre and Waverley launched the historic novel genre.  It certainly is not the first novel with a historical setting.

Scott set his first novel during the Jacobite Revolution.  Briefly, in 1688 England deposed King James II in favor of the much less Catholic King William of Orange.  As you can imagine, not everyone in Great Britain was on board with this decision.  The Scots mostly remained loyal to King James as he was part of the Scottish Stuart dynasty.  In 1745, James II’s grandson, who went by the adorable name Bonnie Prince Charlie, landed in Scotland and made an ill-fated attempt to take back the throne.  Waverley is set during this exciting time.

The main character is Edward Waverley and he is the silliest main character I have encountered so far.  I have so many problems with his personality, but I am smiling while I think about them.  His silliness doesn’t ruin the novel for me; it just makes me laugh.  Edward is a naïve, young English nobleman who joins the King’s army and sets off to Scotland to fight the Jacobites.  The Jacobites were loyal to the House of Stuart.  Apparently, if you were a nobleman in the army at this time, you could just take off whenever you wanted and go visit your noble friends.  Who knew?  Edward goes to visit his uncle’s dear friend the Baron Bradwardine, a Jacobite.  Baron Bradwardine.  Such a great name.

While visiting the honorable Baron, Edward learns about his arrangement with a certain Highland chief.  Get ready for the best name of any literary character ever.  Are you ready?  Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr.  Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay!  Oh, I love him.  I love Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr so much.  He is the chief of Clan Ivor.  As Edward learns, Scottish chieftains were basically mafia bosses.  Baron Bradwardine paid Fergus Mac Ivor a fee for protection from other chieftains.  Basically, if Bradwardine pays up, Mac Ivor wont steal his cows.  If another chieftain steals Bradwardine’s cows, Mac Ivor will fight them and get the cows back or he will go steal cows from one of his enemies and give them to Bradwardine.  When Edward hears about this he thinks exactly what you are thinking right now: “That’s awesome!  I want to go visit this awesome guy.”  So, he sets out into the rugged highlands to pay a visit to the local chiefs.  That is the best idea that Edward has in the course of the book, and the only decision he makes for himself.  Everything else that happens is someone else’s idea.

Edward is quite passive, like a female character from this era of literature.  Also like a female, he constantly needs assistance from men.  Every time he tries something manly, he gets injured or sick and has to be rescued and nursed.  At one point he gets a nasty letter which “filled him with such bitter emotions, that after various attempts to conceal them, he at length threw himself into Mac-Ivor’s arms, and gave vent to tears of shame and indignation.”  Adorable, right?  I would like to fling myself into Mac Ivor’s arms, cuz that guy is manly and effective.  The only emotions he gives vent to are pride and loyalty.  Like a man.  (Ok, I know, reinforcing the gender binary.  Sorry.  Whatever.)

The bromance between Fergus and Edward can only be attributed to opposites attracting.  Fergus is a man of conviction.  He believes in the restoration of the Stuart monarchs SO HARD.  I started to believe in his cause too, that’s how powerful Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr’s convictions are.  Edward, on the other hand, is a freaking turncoat.  Really!  No foolin.  He joins the English army, cuz, whatever, he didn’t have anything better to do.  Then he changes sides, but not because he believes in Mac Ivor’s cause.  He joins the opposing army, because his original army is mean to him.  I am not kidding.  Also, they kind of kick him out.  Then when he is fighting with the highlanders he gets all upset when they try to kill British noblemen (you know, because it doesn’t matter if you kill a commoner, but it’s just a terrible shame to spill blue blood) and tries to save them.  Make up your mind, Edward Waverley!  This may be a result of indoctrination during American history classes, but there is something in me that hates a turncoat.

Anyway, Sir Walter Scott’s style is dense and often dull.  He includes many obscure references that only a highly educated British reader from the early 1800s would get.  Also, he makes the fatal flaw of writing a boring character.  Baron Bradwardine is notorious for telling long, boring stories.  Walter Scott includes many examples of those long, boring stories in Waverley.  I don’t think I need to explain to you why that’s not a good thing to do as a novelist.  Honestly, the book is pretty boring overall and the characters have incomprehensible motivations.  Waverley is basically unmotivated.  I can’t relate to Mac Ivor’s royalism.  It’s completely out of my realm of understanding to want to give up your life to make another man king of somewhere.  Just don’t get it. I do admire Mac Ivor though.   I did enjoy the book, mostly because of the incredibly romantic setting.  I got super excited about the highland Scots.  They have a loyalty to each other that I do understand.

Despite its faults, I actually enjoyed reading Waverley quite a bit.  Scott hides a unique sense of humor within all those extra words he uses.  I got swept away by his romanticized vision of 18th century Scotland.  His descriptions of Clan Mac Ivor in their cave hideout are so vivid that I could smell the damp wool of their kilts.  I never liked the main character even a little, but I fell head over heels for Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr.  Heeheehee.  Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr.  Delightful.

You might like Waverley if:

  • you went to St. John’s College or some other Great Books school and are trying to get your money’s worth out of your education by reading literature that references all those great books.
  • you yearn for tales of old Scotland so fervently that you don’t mind slogging through some incredibly dense prose.

You might not like Waverley if:

  • you have a low tolerance for pretentious literary references. 

 

Final Thoughts: Fergus Mac Ivor Vich Ian Vohr!  That is all.

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The Lady of the Lake

The Lady of the Lake

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.