Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sir Walter Scott Again

I recently saw a recommended reading list put out by some organization that purported to be Christian. Walter Scott was not on the list. Such an admission is... Well, I’m at a loss for an adequate analogy, so I’ll have to settle for some inadequate ones. It would be like leaving Babe Ruth off the list of great homerun hitters or leaving Saint Francis of Assisi off the list of great saints.

Scott, like P. C. Wren, is undervalued as a writer because he believed in chivalry, a code replaced in modern times by psychology. Scott never takes sides against the Catholic Stuarts and for the King George Protestants, nor against the Covenanters and for the King George Anglicans. He lets the reader take sides, but Scott’s authorial voice does take sides on the issue of chivalry. The noble characters have it, and the bad ones don’t.

Scott is credited with inventing the historical novel, but that is a mere literary trifle compared to his real achievement. Scott’s achievement consists of the Christian vision conveyed in the totality of his novels and poetry. His Christianity is strikingly pure and elemental. The villainous characters pursue knowledge, wealth, and power, while the heroic characters cling to the intangible values of loyalty, love, and charity. Throughout his novels and poetry we see the words of St. Paul embodied: “The letter killeth and the spirit giveth life.” Scott always looks backward to a nobler time when antique Christian virtues were practiced. In contrast, the new age that Scott describes is dominated by lawyers and Pharisees. And by ‘lawyers,’ Scott means those with a lawyer’s mentality; for not all lawyers in Scott’s works have a lawyer’s mentality.

I think Scott, like Shakespeare, will always need to be read by Christians. He shuns the merely theological Christianity for the deeper incarnational Christianity. His Christianity is organic; he gets to Christ through the human.

Scott is often depicted as the conservative in contrast to Dickens, the radical. But this is incorrect. Both writers are conservative in the good sense, in that they espoused a basic non-modern Christianity and opposed the new order of capitalist greed and avarice. It is just that by the time Dickens was writing, capitalism had become so entrenched that opposition to it seemed more like radicalism than in Scott’s time.

My favorite work of Walter Scott is whatever book of his I am reading currently. But if pressed to come up with favorites, I would say that “Harold the Dauntless” is my favorite of the epic poems, and The Antiquary, The Heart of Midlothian, and Quentin Durward are my favorites among the novels.

Scott, in his numerous novels about the ill-fated Stuart kings, gives us a very poignant and moving depiction of the heart-rending desolation of exile. Take the novel Redgauntlet for example. When the Great Cause is truly lost, the title character leaves Scotland forever, still loyal to his lawful King. One does not have to be a Jacobite to identify with Redgauntlet. Cannot we, the Christian remnant, see ourselves in the present day as being in the same position as Redgauntlet? Having championed the cause of the old antique Christianity, a Christianity where race and kinship mean something, are we not exiles from our own Church just as Redgauntlet was an exile from Scotland? When looked at in this light, Redgauntlet’s parting is particularly poignant.
The general drew a little aloof, and signed to Redgauntlet to speak with him while this scene proceeded. 'It is now all over,' he said, 'and Jacobite will be henceforward no longer a party name. When you tire of foreign parts, and wish to make your peace, let me know. Your restless zeal alone has impeded your pardon hitherto.'

'And now I shall not need it,' said Redgauntlet. 'I leave England for ever; but I am not displeased that you should hear my family adieus.--Nephew, come hither. In presence of General Campbell, I tell you, that though to breed you up in my own political opinions has been for many years my anxious wish, I am now glad that it could not be accomplished. You pass under the service of the reigning monarch without the necessity of changing your allegiance--a change, however,' he added, looking around him, 'which sits more easy on honourable men than I could have anticipated; but some wear the badge of their loyalty on their sleeve, and others in the heart. You will, from henceforth, be uncontrolled master of all the property of which forfeiture could not deprive your father--of all that belonged to him--excepting this, his good sword' (laying his hand on the weapon he wore), 'which shall never fight for the House of Hanover; and as my hand will never draw weapon more, I shall sink it forty fathoms deep in the wide ocean. Bless you, young man! If I have dealt harshly with you, forgive me. I had set my whole desires on one point,--God knows, with no selfish purpose; and I am justly punished by this final termination of my views, for having been too little scrupulous in the means by which I pursued them.--Niece, farewell, and may God bless you also!'
And God bless you, noble Redgauntlet!

And who but a real Christian, a Christian in the blood, could write so well of true love?

But earthly spirit could not tell
The heart of them that loved so well.

True love's the gift which God has given
To man alone beneath the heaven.

It is not fantasy's hot fire,
Whose wishes, soon as granted, fly;

It liveth not in fierce desire,

With dead desire it doth not die;
It is the secret sympathy,
The silver link, the silken tie,
Which heart to heart, and mind to mind,
In body and in soul can bind.

--from “Lay of the Last Minstrel”
It has been said that all English literature is a footnote to Shakespeare. Sir Walter Scott would not disagree; his work is filled with Shakespearean references and Shakespearean themes. But I would add that Scott makes a magnificent footnote and a necessary companion to the great bard. +