Tuesday, October 17, 2000

The Lay of the last Minstrel, Sir Walter Scott, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by Sir Walter Scott

Scott’s long poem in 6 cantos is a story within a story written in heroic couplets, and it utilizes antique language so characteristic of the corpus of the Romantic poets.

The framing device is the last bard, or minstrel, who recounts the deeds of her illustrious ancestors to the lady of the manor born—the Duchess of Buccleugh at Newark Castle. 

Like the Táin, this tale is of and for the nobility, and the story is nearly lost but the minstrel holds the memory of her Clan’s deeds. However, time has left him behind. Noble families have no need of his services. 

I don’t know when the Lay was written (ca. 1800, during Mad King George’s reign?), however, the story takes place in the mid-1600s with the decay of the Bardic Order (the inter-regnal period?) with references to the Civil- and Border Wars. 

But the tale harkens back two generations to the end of the 1500s (Eliz I). Scottish society, both pastoral and warlike, was changing, becoming literate, if we can trust Dr. Johnson’s observations. “They said a great family had a Bard and a Senachie who were the poet and historian of the house... but that neither Bard nor Senachie had existed for some centuries.”

The action begins Michaelmas Eve, and ends three days and three nights later, culminating in a great feast—as told by the harper/historian who rustily resurrects the past. 

The story is filled with episodes of skirmishes, single-hand-combat, heroic boasting and honor code—many elements seemingly right out of the Táin—as are the extensive detail of battles and of dress. We have chivalry and pageantry bestudded with wronged knights, an illicit love tryst between the children of rival families (and nations: Scots Lady Margaret “the flower of Teviot” of Branksome Hall and English Lord Henry Cranstoun).

 We’ve got a wizard, Michael Scott, restless in his tomb at St Mary’s Abbey, a midnight raid to steal his treasure, his magic book that wouldn’t open for unChristian hands (remember: sitting on a grave gets you otherworld information!), a monk struck dead for fulfilling his Clan duties, a goblin page/changeling (and the kidnapping of young Buccleogh, hell hounds, a Robin Hood-ish hunter-rescuer yeoman), dead warriors brought back to life, shape shifters, druid shades, ghosts and fairies from the sidhe/barrows—even Arthur, as a constellation, is evoked. 

Did I mention spells gone awry? This is a wild wooded landscape (unlike Johnson’s 1773 landscape where he bemoaned the serious lack of trees throughout Scotland).

We’ve got jumbled historic references: St George, and the Crusades? (red cross) are thrown in for good measure. Lady Margaret of Branksome Hall (Scott’s relation?) of French origin (Picardie) ties this tale in with the French Romances—there’s something of the Provençale trouvere style hinted at as well. She’s a bit druidic herself as she has some influence with the weather. And she can heal mortal wounds—or is that her mother? 

Even with Scott’s prologue explaining the action, I was hopelessly unhorsed by Canto 3. I climbed back into the saddle. But by Canto 5, I was stirrup-less, and by Canto 6, I was beneath the belly of the beast—or maybe I was a head dangling from the Night-mare’s mane! HELP! Who are all those knights? 

I gleaned little other than bardic rivalry after the triumphant final feast—many ballads were pastiched into the text. Is Albert Grahaeme the Last Bard? But I do know that the Minstrel lived happily ever after in a little hut on the estate of Newark Castle. I’m afraid the Romantic poets try my patience.

NB: Weirdly enough, I sometimes have curious dreams of poetic lines and obscure words I’ve not heard of: Heriot (p 87,) baffled me for ages. I dreamt it appeared in bold Gothic letters superimposed on the woods of north Britain—I was dressed in a filmy white gown, my feet not quite touching the dewy grass, I was keeper of the woods, for what, or where, I knew not. I later racked my brain trying to figure out if, and where I previously saw the word, to no avail. Unfortunately Scott sheds no light on the subject either.

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