‘‘Wandering Willie’s Tale,’’ by Sir Walter Scott, first appeared in Scott’s 1824 novel, Redgauntlet. The tale is not directly part of the action of the novel; it is simply a story told by one of the characters to another, and in fact is merely the most developed of such stories contained in the novel. Several other times in Redgauntlet the action stops while one character tells another the story of his life or of one specific event. In this case, Wandering Willie, a blind fiddler, tells Darsie Latimer, a young man traveling in the Border region of Scotland, a cautionary tale to warn him to be wary of whose company he accepts on his travels, for even a friendly traveler may turn out to be the devil in disguise.
Later in the novel it is revealed that the story Willie told concerns some of Darsie’s ancestors, but Darsie and the reader do not know this at the time, and so the story seems at first to be something almost entirely separate from the rest of the novel. Indeed, some early readers of the novel and some later commentators regarded the tale as being quite distinct from the larger work, sometimes praising it at the expense of the novel. Later commentators, however, have tended to see thematic connections between the two. Critics have noted that they both reflect Scott’s ambivalent interest in Scottish traditions, and have drawn a parallel between the tale’s account of a trip to hell and the novel’s depiction of Darsie’s encounter with his dark, mysterious uncle. Commentators new and old have praised Scott’s handling of Scottish dialect in the tale, and in general have described the story as one of the best ever written.