A Noble Imagination: Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley

If you would wish for your children to garner a love and fascination for the good things of God’s Creation, if you would have them embrace adventure, cherish what is noble, honor the poor, and attain to a sincere civility and gentleness, let them read from the works of Sir Walter Scott.

Born in 1771 in the city of Edinburgh, Walter Scott came of age in a century that had seen the uneasy political union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland, and was about to see the upheaval of the American and French Revolutions. Drawing from the deep well of British and medieval history, Scott established himself as one of the premier poets of his age, and one of the finest pure storytellers the English language has ever seen. His first novel, Waverley, remains once of his best, although it is less recognizable to modern readers than many other excellent titles like Ivanhoe and Rob Roy.

First published in 1814, Waverley is a lovely and heroic tale which follows the journey of young Edward Waverley, an impressible English gentleman and army officer, who is posted to duty in the tumultuous scene of eighteenth-century Scotland. Mindful of the old Royalist history of his own family, and carried on a string of fate that brings him into league with a Highland clan, Waverley becomes embroiled in the 1745 “Jacobite” rebellion, which seeks to replace Britain’s King George with the exiled Catholic Stuarts. If this chapter of British history sounds obscure, the reader may be comforted to know that much context is incorporated into the fabric of the story by the keen antiquarian mind of Sir Walter Scott himself.

More than anything, Waverley evolves into an adventurous ramble through the genteel courts and fearsome wilds of Scotland and England. There are portions of the novel which simply cannot be forgotten: as when Waverley stands enchanted by the Gaelic music of beauteous Flora Mac-Ivor; or when the rash hero suddenly finds himself pledging his sword in the service of the charismatic Jacobite leader, Bonnie Prince Charlie; or when the great Catholic Highland chieftain, the Vich Ian Vohr, manfully meets his end with the laughing phrase, “This is well got up for a closing scene.”

WaverleyBut the excellence of Waverley extends beyond the many opportunities for suspense and enjoyment which it affords the reader. Like much else that Scott wrote, it provides a lesson in poetry and healthy imagination, and reassures the observant mind of the goodness of the age-old morals. It was this quality in Scott’s writing which drew the special admiration of another venerable Briton, the famous Catholic convert John Henry Newman. In 1839, six years before his conversion to Rome, Newman wrote:

During the first quarter of this century a great poet [Scott] was raised up in the North, who, whatever were his defects, has contributed by his works, in prose and verse, to prepare men for some closer and more practical approximation to Catholic truth. The general need of something deeper and more attractive than what had offered itself elsewhere, may be considered to have led to his popularity; and by means of his popularity he re-acted on his readers, stimulating their mental thirst, feeding their hopes, setting before them visions, which, when once seen, are not easily forgotten, and silently indoctrinating them with nobler ideas, which might afterwards be appealed to as first principles.

Newman saw in Scott’s writing—of which Waverley is a foremost example—an excellence and superiority that helped move men’s minds towards a healthy Christian culture. For the same reason, Dr. Russell Kirk, writing in 1993, esteemed Sir Walter Scott as one of his ten exemplary conservatives in the history of Western Civilization.

Now, after all this has been said, you might be moved to ask: “If this is true, why have I heard and seen so little of the books written by this eminent Scotsman?”

Preliminarily, we may concede that Sir Walter Scott’s prose is often complex; and his affection for Latin epigrams and the Scottish brogue—which are not always the easiest elements for a casual reader to digest—introduce further enigmas in the speech of his characters. You will indeed encounter such obstacles in the text of Waverley; but I assure that your patience will be rewarded. Many other popular authors, past and present, have been verbose—some have been almost incomprehensible—and they have not repaid their readers half as well.

Far more significantly for the fate of Scott—and more desperately for us—the honor and jubilation of good men and good things, which was always at the heart of his writing, have not been celebrated with as much enthusiasm in recent years.

Even as the texts of so many of the great English masters, from Shakespeare to Kipling, have been unfairly pulverized and recast into newer and uglier modern prejudices, the work of Scott has been held aside, quite unmentioned. It is almost as though the critics are at a loss; for, apart from sniping at style, there is simply nothing that anyone can do to manipulate or press Sir Walter Scott into the ranks of post-modernity.

That is to say, his poetry and prose not only extols the merits of nobility, kindliness, honesty, humility, and perseverance; it shows to his reader, in dramatic and bracing scenes, the necessity of holding fast to such virtues in the face of impossible odds. In a mechanistic age which demands ceaseless innovation and centralized conformity, Scott’s appeal to tradition, and the personal bonds of courageous friendship, brings a necessary perspective and challenge to our times.

Although he praises neither the obstinacy of ignorance, nor the recklessness of the proud, it is the definitive habit of Scott’s artistic power to breathe life into the hopes of every child, and the dreams of every heart. In the eyes of this great and mostly forgotten author, who came to be known in his own age as “The Wizard of the North,” no life of man or woman was ever wasted who lived and died in a righteous cause.

No! for ‘mid storms of Fate opposing,
Still higher swell’d thy dauntless heart,
And while Despair the scene was closing,
Commenced thy brief but brilliant part.

Thus sings the tale of Sir Walter Scott in the pages of Waverley.

James P. Bernens

By

James P. Bernens graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 2008. He also holds a J.D. from the William & Mary School of Law, and is completing an M.A. in philosophy at Boston College.

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  • Thomas Banks

    Many thanks for this, Mr. Bernens. Scott’s novels set in the 17th and 18th centuries are indeed his strong suit. Scott’s relatively low stock with the reading public at the moment is unfortunate, and I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with the fact that the one novel of his generally known (Ivanhoe) is one of his weaker performances, colorful though it is. Imagine if it were the case that high school students were introduced to Shakespeare through Pericles, Prince of Tyre. As for Scott’s work apart from Waverley, everyone should at least have a glance at Rob Roy, Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian. Hard to match, these.

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  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Scott’s novels are indeed an introduction to the glorious heritage of the past and capture the moral imagination of the reader. His sense of good and evil, noble and ignoble, heroic and base are important literary documents in Western civilization that give viability to the venerable moral traditions of classical-Christian civilization. So often he shows the tension between the enduring traditions of an earlier age and the various forms of modernity that question its wisdom. Thank you for this masterpiece of introduction to a great but sadly neglected writer. I have taught his novels over the years, but these days students are intimidated by long works and seem to lack the sensibility to appreciate Scott’s works.

  • Dee Ville

    I too love Scott and his principles through prose.In my collection of old Collins leather backs and modern editions,I have thrilled with the likes of Waverly, Ivanhoe, The Talisman and Sir Robert of Paris. I realize a lot of modern readers may not like his sense of honor or old,complicated sentence structure…..But I do!! And now I know a few more of us do too!! Rave on Sir Walter!! You never faded away completely…..and thank you Mr Bernens for your article.

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