The Peaceful Warrior-King: Enemy of Progress? (More on The Lady of the Lake)

Lady of the Lake

O minstrel Harp, still must thine accents sleep?
‘Mid rustling leaves and fountains murmuring,
Still must thy sweeter sounds their silence keep,
Nor bid a warrior smile, nor teach a maid to weep?

(Lady of the Lake, Canto I)

Most wars, I suppose, are caused in one way or another by a territorial conflict between two peoples. It is simply a fact of life that to be a people requires that there be some territory that belongs exclusively to that people. Historically, the differences between even similar peoples have been sufficient to cause much bloodshed. We Americans have our own experience of civil war to show how fragile peace and national unity can be.

Walter Scott, in The Lady of the Lake (1810) (1), portrays a 16th-century conflict between James II, King of Scotland, who is attempting to bring the Border region under control, and a (fictitious) rebellious Highland clan, the Alpine, led by Roderick Dhu, vengeful and cruel, yet honorable in his way. The “lady of the lake” is the beautiful Ellen with the angelic singing voice, living in hiding on an island in Loch Katrine under Roderick’s protection. Her father is Douglas, former Earl of Bothwell and attendant to the king, who has been banished from his estate due to suspected hostile intentions towards the throne. Douglas and his daughter seek reconciliation and peace, but the volatile Roderick, hearing reports of a mustering of the king’s followers for war, summons his clan to war. Ellen is pursued by both Roderick and one James Fitz-Hugh, who has wandered into Highland territory while hunting, but she refuses them in favor of her beloved, Malcolm. After a duel in which Fitz-Hugh kills Roderick, Douglas and Ellen achieve peace by surrendering themselves to the King – where a final surprise awaits them. The king restores Douglas to his rightful position and orders an end to the hostilities.

Grounding his story in the contrast between the Gaelic-speaking, not-quite-civilized Highland Scots and the “Saxons” or Anglicized Scots under James, Scott paints a romantic picture of warriors on both sides, extolling their courage, vitality, and masculine beauty. Fitz-Hugh, for example, is portrayed thus:

On his bold visage middle age
Had slightly press’d its signet sage,
Yet had not quench’d the open truth
And fiery vehemence of youth;
Forward and frolic glee was there,
The will to do, the soul to dare,
The sparkling glance, soon blown to fire,
Of hasty love, or headlong ire.
His limbs were cast in manly mould,
For hardy sports or contest bold;
And though in peaceful garb array’d,
And weaponless, except his blade,
His stately mien as well implied,
A high-born heart, a martial pride,
As if a Baron’s crest he wore,
And sheathed in armour trod the shore. (Canto I)

Yet Scott in no way glorifies fighting for its own sake, unless in the pastime of hunting – and even here a noble stag is supposed to be given a fair chance to flee. Indeed, the most “martial” figure of all, Roderick, is rejected by Ellen for his savagery and vengefulness:

…I grant him brave,
But wild as Bracklinn’s thundering wave;
And generous – save vindictive mood,
Or jealous transport, chafe his blood:
I grant him true to friendly band,
As his claymore is to his hand;
But O! That very blade of steel
More mercy for a foe would feel:
I grant him liberal, to fling
Among his clan the wealth they bring,
When back by lake and glen they wind,
And in the Lowland leave behind,
Where once some pleasant hamlet stood,
A mass of ashes slaked with blood. (Canto II)

Although the poem’s immediate subject is the conflict between Fitz-Hugh and Roderick, it is really about the effort of King James to peacefully consolidate his rule. This rule the poet considers legitimate, although tainted by the king’s flaws – a certain rashness of character, and inclination to chase fair maids. His reign has been harmed by ambitious nobles who have falsely denounced Douglas and others to him. The king declares that his purpose is to “watch…o’er insulted laws” and “to right the injured cause.” Thus he made a fair judgment of Douglas:

Calmly we heard and judged his cause,
Our council aided and our laws….
…Bothwell’s Lord henceforth we own
The friend and bulwark of our Throne. (Canto VI)

At the same time, the reconciliation is achieved not only by adherence to law, but by a spirit of loving-kindness native to the king and personified by Ellen, who in some small way turns the heart of each man in the story away from rash warfare. Not that Ellen is a pacifist, as the last lines of this passage suggest:

Her kindness and her worth to spy,
You need but gaze on Ellen’s eye;
Not Katrine [the lake], in her mirror blue,
Gives back the shaggy banks more true,
Than every free-born glance confess’d
The guileless movements of her breast;
Whether joy danced in her dark eye,
Or woe or pity claim’d a sigh,
Or filial love was glowing there,
Or meek devotion pour’d a prayer,
Or tale of injury called forth
The indignant spirit of the North.

The lawfulness and humaneness of the civilizing order are understood to be Christian qualities, contrasted with the rougher ways of the Highlanders, still partly pagan.

A search of articles on The Lady reveals that it was being taught in middle schools in the 1930s; I am not sure exactly when it fell from favor. There is no doubt, though, that neither its content nor its style would have commended it to educators in the later 20th century. Scott’s extolling of traditional virtues like faith, chastity, valor, and honor in a hierarchical world of inherited positions did not reflect the modern egalitarian ideal. The actions of his characters were motivated largely by their given roles and their virtues or lack thereof; there was little of the psychological complexity favored in modern literature. And the flowery, descriptive style with its redundancy and its heavy rhymes was no longer considered to be good writing.

Not only that, Scott was under suspicion of being a source of dangerous ideas – of popularizing a fantasy code of honor that Mark Twain almost literally blamed for the Civil War. The famous passage, from Life on the Mississippi, is quoted in this recent, very derogatory article from The Atlantic:

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good part of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still.

There may be aspects of Scott’s writing that merit Twain’s criticism (which in any case is deliberately exaggerated and probably more applicable to Scott’s imitators); but The Lady contains nothing that can be understood as a call to brash rebellion, let alone to acts of terror. It is true that the portrayal of the loyalty-unto-death bond uniting the members of Clan Alpine remind one the “band of brothers” rhetoric of the South during the Civil War:

Hail to the Chief who in triumph advances!
Honour’d and bless’d be the ever-green Pine!
Long may the tree, in his banner that glances,
Flourish, the shelter and grace of our line! (Canto II)

But Scott ultimately calls for peaceful union under a just ruler, and Roderick in the end pays the price for his ill-considered rebellion (I do not venture here into the question of whether or not that epithet should be applied to the Southern venture). Why should Scott’s message not have continued to be passed on to young Americans, in their English classes and in Classics Illustrated?

Alas, we – or at least our intellectual class – came to believe that Scott’s ideals, and ideas, were not nuanced enough. Scott, said people like Twain onward, portrayed people according to absurd, unlivable ideals instead of as they really are; in doing so, he impeded, or at least failed to help, the progress of the human race. Our real mission was now to transcend boundaries of clan, nation, and race so we could leave behind, once and for all, the ridiculous conflicts which these engendered.

But it was not Scott who lacked subtlety; it was us. He understood the importance of kinship and race, and who controls a narrow swathe of land, and the right of a traditional people to defend their way of life. (Though not supportive of rebellion, he certainly admired the unique virtues of the Highlanders.) He denigrated mercenary soldiers, who “drew not for their fields the sword,” fighting instead for money and adventure. He had a vision of peace between different peoples, but it was peace with mutual respect and with borders, transgressions of which would be punished. And he rightly looked to history as key to understanding the soul of a people, and saw music and poetry as coming from that same soul.

The peaceful life most of us still enjoy in the United States is not the result of our valuing “tolerance” and “diversity.” It is the product of a civilization built up by a linguistically, culturally, and racially homogeneous people, a civilization set up to enforce and propagate a transcendent moral order – just as Scott’s King James sought to do. When we begin to understand this again, Scott will no longer seem so alien to us – and his stories and songs will speak to us once again. We will come, once again, to value and cultivate a sense of personal and national honor. Meanwhile, the true aliens among us, whom we are currently inviting into our society far more quickly than we can “assimilate” them, will become clearly visible for what they are. A nobler and greater culture will become possible.


(1) The former popularity of the poem is suggested by the fact that it was the source of the last name of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass as well as the source of the Ku Klux Klan’s idea of cross burning (though that practice has little connection to the ritual described in the book). Schubert set a number of songs from The Lady to music, including the famed “Ave Maria;” and the “Boat Song,” also known as “Hail to the Chief,” is the source of the tune played for our President today. It is also the source for Rossini’s opera La donna del lago.


2 Responses to The Peaceful Warrior-King: Enemy of Progress? (More on The Lady of the Lake)

  1. Hannon says:

    “The peaceful life most of us still enjoy in the United States is not the result of our valuing “tolerance” and “diversity.” It is the product of a civilization built up by a linguistically, culturally, and racially homogeneous people, a civilization set up to enforce and propagate a transcendent moral order …”

    Very nicely written. Thanks for that, and the insight into Twain’s rather vile take on Scott (even if it was exaggerated for effect). O’er the years I have enjoyed Twain’s writing of course, but never looked at it with a political eye. I imagine he would be considered a member of the left in today’s West.

    • stephenhopewell says:

      Thank you. I too have enjoyed Twain a lot. I can’t see him subscribing to socialism or Communism, but he did have a strongly nihilistic streak, and comments like the one on Scott have been granted more authority than ought to have been the case.

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