The wonderful thing about knowing very little about literature is that one can, every now and then, have a totally new reading experience. This happened to me last week as I made the very drastic change from Dostoevsky to an early 19th century novel in verse. I have not in the past taken to poetry very much so it was with hesitation that I opened Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake; however, curiosity about other works by the author of Ivanhoe overcame my hesitation. Surprisingly, not only was it readable (unlike most poetry) it was enjoyable.
The story is set among the lochs of the Scottish highlands. A lost hunter is entertained at Loch Katrine by Ellen, daughter of the exiled James of Douglas. This stranger, who calls himself James Fitz-James, pursues his way after being refreshed but is so impressed with his hostess that a short time later he returns and proposes to Ellen. She refuses because she is having trouble enough with two other suitors: Roderick Dhu, the haughty chief of Clan-Alpine and Malcolm Graeme. These two become estranged as Roderick forces Clan-Alpine toward war against the lowland King James.
The disappointed Fitz-James, thought to be a spy of King James, is waylaid on his return from Ellen and fights Roderick Dhu in single combat. The fight goes well for Fitz-James who wounds Roderick and takes him prisoner. They proceed to Stirling Castle where King James is about to hold a festival. At the games of strength and skill held that day is Ellen’s father, the Douglas, come to surrender himself to King James and so somehow (I am a bit unclear how exactly) avert war for Clan-Alpine. Now suddenly, with both rebel leaders in captivity, King James can quell the rebellion of Clan-Alpine.
Hearing of her father’s capture and having the king’s signet ring in gift from the noble Fitz-James, Ellen goes to ask leniency for her father, Roderick Dhu, and Malcolm, (also a captive). Upon arriving at Stirling, Fitz-James leads her to the audience chamber of the King. Here:
On many a splendid garb she gazed,
Then turned bewildered and amazed,
For all stood bare; and in the room
Fitz-James alone wore cap and plume.
To him each lady’s look was lent,
On him each courier’s eye was bent;
Midst furs and silks and jewels sheen,
He stood, in simple Lincoln green,
The center of the glittering ring… (Canto VI. 731-39).
Yes, fair; the wandering poor Fitz-James
The fealty of Scotland claims.
To him thy woes, thy wishes bring;
He will redeem his signet ring.
Ask nought for Douglas; yester even
His prince and he have much forgiven (Canto VI. 753-58).
To Ellen’s plea for Roderick Dhu comes the news that he died from his battle wounds. Lastly, for Malcolm Graeme the King declares that justice must have its course:
Fetters and warder for the Graeme!
His chain of gold the king unstrung,
The links o’er Malcolm’s neck he flung,
Then gently drew the glittering band,
And laid the clasp on Ellen’s hand (Canto VI. 837-41).
The Lady of the Lake was a record-breaking bestseller in 1810. In the 8 months after its first publication it sold 25,000 copies, no small number by the standards of two hundred years ago (Pearson 89). According to a Walter Scott biography I perused in search of information (it unfortunately only had two pages on The Lady of the Lake), when one of Scott’s daughters was asked if she liked the poem she replied: “Oh, I have not read it! Papa says there’s nothing so bad for young people as reading bad poetry” (Pearson 88). If bad means not filled with obscure allusions to classical antiquity, not employing a succession of unknown and archaic words in every line, or not having a rhyme scheme so complicated the mind could not possibly remember its arrangement, then The Lady of the Lake is bad poetry. But these for me are the very things that make it readable. It may not be overly profound, but it is a good tale and who could ask for better than that? I replace it on my shelf knowing it won’t collect too much dust before it is taken down again.
Pearson, Hesketh. Walter Scott: His Life and Personality. The Quality Book Club, London.