Sir Walter Scott is known primarily as a novelist and secondarily as a poet. He wrote only six short stories. Nevertheless, he remains an important figure in that genre, too. In The Short Story in English (1981), the distinguished critic Walter Allen begins his survey of the genre with Scott’s story “The Two Drovers,” which he calls “the first modern short story in English.” In addition, three of his stories (as mentioned above) are generally acknowledged to be among the masterpieces of the form.
Scott uses the same methods and explores the same subjects in his stories as in his novels. He places his characters in concrete historical situations; they are social beings rooted in a particular time and place. Conflicts between individuals symbolize larger issues—the conflict between past and present, the conflict between national traditions and temperaments, the tragedy of cultural incomprehension. Scott presents these themes more starkly, however, in his stories. The demanding form of the short story forced him into a directness and concision often lacking in his novels. Thus, to many readers, Scott’s short stories may be the most satisfactory works he ever wrote.
“Wandering Willie’s Tale”
Scott’s first short story, “Wandering Willie’s Tale,” appeared in the novel Redgauntlet. Although it attains its full significance only in the context of that larger work, this universally admired tale stands on its own merits. It presents a comic version of serious Scott themes. Steenie Steenson, the grandfather of the narrator, goes on a strange odyssey. When he brings his rent to his landlord, Sir Robert Redgauntlet, the old persecutor dies in burning agony just before giving Steenie a receipt. The silver disappears. Sir John Redgauntlet, the son and successor, threatens to evict Steenie from his hereditary home unless he can produce either rent or receipt. Poor Steenie, tossing off a mutchkin of brandy, makes two toasts: the first to “the memory of Sir Robert Redgauntlet, and might he never lie quiet in his grave till he had righted his poor bond-tenant”; the second, “a health to Man’s Enemy, if he would but get him back the pock of siller.” Immediately afterward, riding through the dark wood of Pitmurkie, Steenie is accosted by a strange gentleman who takes him to Redgauntlet Castle, where dead Sir Robert is reveling with a set of ghastly persecutors. Avoiding various temptations, Steenie demands and obtains his receipt. When Sir Robert insists that he return every year to pay homage, Steenie cries, “I refer myself to God’s pleasure, and not to yours.” Losing consciousness, he awakens in this world. He brings the receipt to Sir John and, acting upon a hint from Sir Robert, unlocks the mystery of the missing silver.
This comic tale of demonism has a serious side. The portrayal of Sir Robert and his cohorts from “the killing times” is a grim reminder of Scotland’s bloody past. Like other Scott heroes, Steenie cannot evade the past but must come to terms with it. When the past demands his unconditional loyalty, however, he struggles to retain his freedom. Nor is the present time idealized. Sir John, the advocate, can be just as tyrannical as his father. As wartime Scotland evolves into civil peace, physical coercion gives way to legal. Scott balances the evils of the past against those of the present. In like manner, he balances the natural against the supernatural. He suggests the possibility of a rational explanation for the extraordinary events; perhaps Steenie was having a drunken dream. Where did the receipt come from, though, and how did Steenie know where to recover the silver? As usual, Scott suggests something at work beyond the rational.
“Wandering Willie’s Tale” is a gem of formal art. The onward rush of events is played off against the balanced structure. For example, Steenie’s first meeting with Sir Robert is contrasted with his first meeting with Sir John. Scott highlights the contrast by focusing on the account book in each scene. The second meeting with Sir Robert also necessitates a second meeting with Sir John. The short-story form allows Scott to achieve a superb structure that is lacking in his novels. Finally, it is generally acknowledged that Scott writes his freest, raciest, most humorous prose when he is writing in Scots dialect. His only story related wholly in the vernacular, “Wandering Willie’s Tale” is his one sustained masterpiece of prose.
“The Highland Widow”
“The Highland Widow” first appeared in Chronicles of the Canongate (which also includes “The Two Drovers”). It is the tragedy of Elspat MacTavish, who must live with the guilt of having caused the death of her only son. She is compared to...
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