Wandering Willie's Tale by Sir Walter Scott

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

After Willie finishes his tale, he tells Latimer that his purpose has been to convince the younger man that it may not be safe to take up with a stranger while traveling—which is exactly what Latimer is doing in accompanying Willie and his wife. Like much of Sir Walter Scott’s work, the story presents a sympathetic treatment of many supporters of the Stuart claims to the throne of Britain, a historical reality during Scott’s time, as was the historical clan warfare to which he alludes. The story introduces the Redgauntlet family, to which Darsie Latimer, in the course of the longer novel, discovers that he belongs. Suggestions that the family has been marked by supernatural events occur throughout the novel. The tale’s central theme is the political and sectarian conflict in late seventeenth century Scotland and England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Various references give a context of Covenanters, Roman Catholics, Quakers, and members of the Church of England; however, Scott does not proselytize.


(Short Stories for Students)

The Clash of Old and New Worlds
One of the themes of ‘‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’’ is the clash between the old and the new. The story begins with a description of the old rough ways of Sir Robert Redgauntlet, his violent attacks on Presbyterians combined with his kind treatment of his tenants and followers. Now, however, the world has changed; the persecutions have ended, and Sir Robert does not ride out on violent expeditions anymore. At the same time, he is forced to be more strict with his tenants about their rent. This upsets him—it may even be what kills him—but he does it, and his son has no qualms at all about continuing the process.

In days gone by, there was more than a monetary relationship between Sir Robert and his tenants; Steenie went out riding with him and played the bagpipes for him and in effect had a friendly relationship with him. The story suggests that Sir Robert’s much more modern son will have no time for any of that and will look to his tenants solely for their rent. The feudal days of loyalty and service (and violence) are being replaced by a world focused much more on money and the law.

Associated with the theme of the clash of old and new is the suggestion that something good has been lost with the passing away of the old world. Early in the story the narrator comments that his grandfather’s house is deserted now and in a sorry state. Things have deteriorated; they are not what they were. He also notes that the tenants preferred their old landlord to their new one. In general the story suggests that there was something better about the days of old, despite all their violence: they were a time of fellowship and festivity that seems now to have been lost. Some of that festivity can be seen in the phantom castle, where there is much drinking and singing, but of course all the participants in those revels are dead. In effect, such festivities are dead too; they will not be seen in the real Redgauntlet Castle now that Sir John has replaced his father.

The Role of the Supernatural
One question the story raises is whether to believe in the existence of the supernatural. Did Steenie visit hell? Did the devil appear on Sir Robert’s coffin? Did the dead Sir Robert first summon Dougal and then write out a receipt for Steenie? Sir John tries to provide rational explanations for all the events, blaming his father’s pet monkey for some of them and suggesting that Steenie’s visit to the phantom castle was a dream or the result of too much brandy. One thing Sir John cannot explain away, however, is the rent receipt signed by his dead father; perhaps that is why he tries to burn it. The story seems to suggest that even in a mundane everyday life focused on raising money to pay the rent, there is a place for mystery and the supernatural.

The uncertainty over whether the supernatural is at work is just one example of ambiguity in the story. A minor example of the same thing is...

(The entire section is 1,156 words.)