Redgauntlet, the novel in which ‘‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’’ first appeared, was not an immediate success when it came out in 1824. One reviewer complained that there were too many villains in the novel and that the heroes were too passive. Others complained that Scott was repeating himself by writing again about the eighteenth-century Jacobites (a group who wanted to return the throne of England to the heirs of James II). However, though the novel as a whole did not win praise, Wandering Willie’s story within it did. The Westminster Review called Willie’s tale the best thing in the book, and Scott’s friend Lady Louisa Stuart (quoted in W.M. Parker’s preface to the Everyman edition of the novel) wrote Scott to say that ‘‘the legend of Steenie Steenson . . . [was] in the author’s very best manner.’’ She added that she wished there had been more of Willie in the novel.
At times, the tale has been praised at the expense of the novel. In 1948, the noted critic F.R. Leavis wrote in his influential study The Great Tradition that Willie’s tale was ‘‘the only live part’’ of Redgauntlet. However, critics in the last half of the twentieth century have had a more positive view of Redgauntlet. Although some have criticized its eclectic structure (its use of a variety of narrative techniques, including letters, a diary, and objective narration), most have seen it as Scott’s last serious novel. They have also rejected the notion that the story is alien to the novel; even though the novel as a whole is realistic and the story is a fantasy, they see thematic connections between the two having to do with the importance of quests and master-servant relations in both. Critics have also noted that both the story and the novel deal with historical conflicts: the seventeenth-century Covenanter struggles (over the Scottish Presbyterian Covenants) in the story and the eighteenth-century Jacobite struggle in the novel.
Scott’s overall reputation declined dramatically in the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, he was celebrated as the ‘‘Wizard of the North,’’ and his Waverley
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