At first glance, ‘‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’’ seems like an odd combination of the supernatural and the mundane. On the one hand, it is the story of a visit to what seems like hell. On the other hand, the point of the visit is to obtain a rent receipt. This odd combination may be what led one commentator (A. O. J. Cockshut in his book The Achievement of Walter Scott) to deny that the story is a tale of the supernatural. And it may be what led another commentator, David Daiches, in his essay on Redgauntlet in From Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad, to say that the supernatural elements are brought into the story simply to give the feel of a folk tale to what is actually a realistic story about master-servant relations.
However, as Colman Parsons points out in Witchcraft and Demonology in Scott’s Fiction, Scott’s story derives from a real folk tale about a visit to hell; that is, the supernatural elements are not some extra frills stuck on by Scott, but are embedded in the heart of the story. Moreover, the rent payment is also at the heart of the story. Both elements are there in the original folk tale, which in fact is the way with folk tales: they combine the otherworldly with the down-to-earth in an artless fashion, reflecting a time when there was a stronger sense of connection between everyday reality and the world of ghosts and demons.
Indeed, it may be that one of the reasons Scott sets this story, like so much of his fiction, back in the past is to get back to a time when ghosts and demons seemed more real, or at least a time when there were ‘‘rough auld Knights’’ like Sir Robert Redgauntlet, who were so terrifying that one might think they were the ‘‘deevil incarnate’’ or at least had a compact with him.
Sir Robert is a terrifying presence in the story, and yet also a compassionate and just one. He wreaks havoc against the Covenanters, but is kind to his own followers, at least until the changing times force him to start squeezing his tenants for the rent and threatening to evict them if they cannot pay. Similarly, in the novel outside the story, Hugh Redgauntlet, the grandson of Sir Robert, terrifies his nephew Darsie, and yet is a noble and inspiring presence even in defeat. What is more, he provides Darsie with the thing he is looking for: the key to his identity. In the same way, Sir Robert in the story provides Steenie with what he is looking for: his receipt.
There are multiple messages in all this. First, there is the traditional message of quest literature: the hero must confront dangerous forces to obtain what he is looking for. Wandering Willie is quite wrong to tell Darsie that the moral of his tale is that one should avoid strangers. On the contrary, the story suggests that it is important to follow strangers even to hell if one wants to achieve what is necessary. At the same time, it is important not to get stuck in hell; in the traditional quest story, the hero must return from his journey with the magic potion or golden fleece or rent receipt, not stay with the sorcerers who gave it to him—or else all his efforts will be in vain. Thus Steenie has to avoid eating and drinking or playing the bagpipes in the haunted castle, and in the novel beyond the story, Darsie has to refrain from joining his uncle’s Jacobite conspiracy.
On a less symbolic level, the reason Darsie has to hold back from the Jacobites is that they represent a lost and hopeless cause. They are representatives of a past that cannot return, of an older, more primitive Scotland that has given way to a more modern world. Similarly, in the story, the world of fighting associated with Sir Robert has passed away. He has hung up his pistols and sword, and no longer rides off to slaughter Covenanters. Of course, the violence associated with Sir Robert cannot really be approved; the peace that follows the Revolution is surely better in some ways. And yet there is an ambivalence in the story, as there is in the novel—as indeed there...
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