The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

As he follows a stag during a hunt, James Fitz-James becomes lost in the Highlands. He wanders around until he comes to Loch Katrine, a beautiful lake surrounded by steep mountains. There he meets the lovely Ellen, who tells him that his coming was foretold by Allan-Bane, an ancient minstrel who serves her father. When she offers the hunter food and shelter for the night, Ellen does not volunteer her name or anything of her family history, and out of courtesy he does not ask questions. Fitz-James is disturbed, however, because the young woman bears a marked resemblance to members of the Douglas clan, a family banished by the king. When he departs the next morning, he still knows nothing about the young woman whose beauty and grace have deeply touched his heart.

Fitz-James is correct in his fear that Ellen is of the Douglas clan. Her father is James of Douglas, once a powerful friend of the king but now hunted and with a price on his head. He and Ellen and his sister are protected by Roderick Dhu, a rebel against the king and the leader of a large and powerful Highland clan. Roderick Dhu wants Ellen’s hand in marriage, but although she honors him for the aid he has given her father, she detests him for his many cruel and merciless deeds. He kills and plunders at will, trying to avenge himself on the king and the Lowlanders who, he believes, have robbed him and his people of their land and wealth. Among the men he hates is Malcolm Graeme, a young nobleman, Ellen’s former suitor, whom she loves. After Ellen’s refusal of his proposal, Roderick Dhu calls his clan together to fight Malcolm and the other supporters of the king. He claims that he fears Malcolm will lead the king to Douglas’s hiding place.

Like lightning, burning beacons and swift-riding messengers carry through the Highlands word that the clan is gathering. Young grooms leave their brides at church doors, and boys replace fathers who have died since the last gathering. The women and children are placed on a lonely and protected island for safety, for a fierce and dangerous battle is to be fought. A hermit monk prophesies that whichever side spills the first foe’s blood will be the victor. The prophecy suits Roderick Dhu, whose men have seen a spy lurking in the mountains and even now have lured the stranger into paths that will lead him into a trap. He will be killed by Roderick Dhu’s men, and thus the Highlanders will be assured of victory.

James of Douglas leaves Ellen. Although he does not tell her his destination, she knows that he is going to give himself up to the king in order to prevent the bloodshed of a great battle. After he goes, Allan-Bane tries to cheer Ellen by telling her that his harp sings of glad tidings, but she will not hear him. As she sits grieving, Fitz-James appears again. Ellen knows that he has been tricked by...

(The entire section is 1162 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Cockshut, A. O. J. The Achievement of Walter Scott. London: Collins, 1969. A widely available introduction to the man and his work—reasonable, centrist, and modern. Chapters on Scott’s major poems precede those dealing with his novels and other works.

Daiches, David. Sir Walter Scott and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1971. Competently written, well-illustrated introduction to Scott. Includes good views of the landscapes and other settings that The Lady of the Lake made famous.

Goslee, Nancy Moore. Scott the Rhymer. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Includes separate chapters on The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake. Almost the only serious critique of Scott’s long poems as wholes since modern techniques of analysis were developed, the work of Goslee deserves to be read in full.

Johnson, Edgar. Sir Walter Scott: The Great Unknown. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1970. Intended to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of Scott’s birth, Johnson’s critical biography is the most important modern book on Scott. Contains unsurpassed discussions of his major poems, including The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake.

Nielsen, Jorgen E. “Scott’s Use of Two Danish Ballads in The Lady of the Lake. In Scott in Carnival, edited by J. H. Alexander and David Hewett. Aberdeen, Scotland: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, 1993. Stresses Scott’s indebtedness to Danish literature.