The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832) The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott (1771 – 1832) Type of Work: Romantic metrical poem Setting Sixteenth-century Scotland Principal Characters James Douglas, outlawed uncle of the Earl of Angus Ellen Douglas, his daughter (The Lady of the Lake) Roderick Dhu, a rebel Highland chief of Clan Alpine, and protector of the Douglas’s Allan-bane, the Douglas’ minstrel and devoted servant James Fitz-James, a Saxon Lowlander Knight Malcolm Graeme, Ellen’s young love Story Overveiw James Fitz-James, a Saxon knight from Stirling Castle, became lost as he hunted in the Highlands. Sounding his horn, he was rescued – not by his comrades, but by Ellen Douglas, who, with her father, lived at Loch Katerine under the protection of her Highlander cousin, Roderick Dhu. Although the men were away, Fitz-James was taken in and extended Highland hospitality. It disturbed Fitz-James that this girl bore such a resemblance to members of the hunted Douglas clan. Nevertheless, he was smitten by Ellen’s beauty and kindness and dreamed of her as he slept.
On the next morning Fitz-James left the island with a guide. Later, Roderick and Douglas returned home from their separate journeys, Douglas accompanied bv young Malcolm Graeme. Roderick, a fierce, plundering, middle-aged warrior, hoped to i-narry Ellen, both because he loved her and because their marriage would unite Clan Douglas with Clan Alpine to create a powerful political force. Although Ellen appreciated Roderick’s protection, she was frightened by his manner and had set her heart on Malcolm Graeme, her first suitor, whom Roderick despised. When Roderick extended his marriage proposal to her in the company of all, Malcolm detected Ellen’s deep disquiet, but before he could speak, her father interceded, explaining tactfully that such a union would be a political misalliance; Roderick was a sworn enemy of the King, while he, Douglas, in spite of his outlawed status, still loved his monarch.
The great chieftain hated the King and could not understand Douglas’ loyalty. Now his disappointment at losing Ellen rose to intensify Roderick’s anger. He sent out a terrible signal – a fiery cross summoning his Clan Alpine to war. As the cross was carried over the rocky highlands, all the clansmen rallied to support their chieftain. Roderick now petitioned Brian the Hermit to use his magic to give him an augury for the forthcoming battle.
The oracle read: “Which spills the foremost foeman’s life that party conquers in the strife.” Roderick was reassured, for Clan Alpine had never fought but they were the first to kill a foe. Meanwhile, before setting out for Stirling Castle to give himself up in hopes of averting war, Douglas had conducted his daughter, with the minstrel Allan-bane as her escort, to the safety of a wilderness cave. Ellen knew her father’s intentions: , He goes to do what I had done,/ had Douglas’ daughter been his son!” There the refugees were found by James Fitz-James, returning to see if he could persuade Ellen to accompany him to Stirling Castle. Ellen was dismayed. Hadn’t Fitz-James seen the preparations for war, the hills alive with Roderick’s men? No, the Saxon replied.
The countryside had appeared quite serene. But this was the surest sign of danger, said Ellen; the wily Roderick’s troops must already have him surrounded. She promised to help him escape, though she confessed that her heart belonged to Malcolm Graeme. The knight remained determined to help her save her father, however. He presented her with a ring from the Saxon royalty, saying that it would help her in her journey through Lowland territory and gain her an audience with King James. Fitz-James departed, still following his guide, Red Murdoch.
Soon they came upon Blanche, a poor, crazed woman living in the wilds. Long ago, on her wedding day, Clan Alpine had captured her and killed her bridegroom. From his green hunting attire, Blanche recognized Fitz-James as a fellow Lowlander. In a cryptic song she warned him to beware of Murdoch. The knight, acknowledging this warning, drew his sword just as the guide discharged an arrow from his bow. But the shaft missed its true target and felled the poor old woman.
After chasing down and slaying the treachtrous Murdoch, Fitz-James returned to dying Blanche, who gave him a broach made of a lock of her dead sweetheart’s hair, with the charge to seek out Clan Alpine’s Roderick Dhu and avenge her pitiful life. The Saxon set out, stealthily picking his way through the undergrowth. Many hours later he stumbled upon a lone knight from Clan Alpine, bound by the same code of honor as he. The enemies shared food and a campfire, and the Highland knight promised to guide Fitz-James toward his own territory. As they traveled, the Highlander defended Roderick’s belligerence, explaining that the Lowlands had been wrested long ago from the Scottish clan forefathers, forcing them into the inhospitable mountains.
“Seek other cause ‘gainst Roderick Dhu,” he finished. Then, he whistled, and the woods sprang to life with warriors. The Highlander “Then fixed his eye and sable brow,/ full on Fitz-James -‘How say’st thou now?/ These are Clan Alpine’s warriors true;/ and Saxon – I am Roderick Dhu!” Then Roderick waved his hand and all his men again vanished into the forest. After leading his Saxon enemy into the Lowlands as promised, the Chieftain turned and challenged him to battle: “Now man to man and steel to steel, / a Chieftain’s vengeance thou shalt feel.. ” The Saxon, who wished no harm to his honorable foe, objected to the contest; still the Highlander cried that their battle must be fought, for the divination had stated, “Who spills the foremost foeman’s life his party conquers in the strife.” “Then by my word,” the Saxon exclaimed, “The riddle is already read.
/ Seek yonder brake beneath the cliff, / there lies Red Murdoch, stark and stiff.” But Roderick refused to admit that the guide’s death had fulfilled the prophecy. He called Fitz-James a coward and taunted him for wearing a fair lady’s hair braid. Thus reminded of the promise he had made to Blanche, the knight drew his sword. Roderick was large and powerful, but no match for Fitz-James’ skill in swordsmanship, and eventually the chieftain fell unconscious from loss of blood. Fitz-James, now in his home territory, blew his bugle and crouched down to wash his own wounds.
When his companions arrived, he bade them carry Roderick off to prison. Then he mounted a horse and headed for Stirling Castle. In the meantime, Douglas, intending to offer his life to avert war – and to ransom the newly captured Malcolm Graeme and Roderick Dhu – entered the Castle grounds, to find himself in the midst of a royal holiday celebration, attended by King James himself. Unrecognized, Douglas decided to take part in the competitions. An agile giant of a fighter, he came out victorious in every event. Word soon spread through the crowd that this fierce competitor could only be “Douglas of the stalwart hand.” Finally Douglas acknowledged his true identity to the circle of onlookers and turned himself over to the King, who immediately dispatched a messenger to halt the impending battle; with Roderick, Malcolm and now Douglas as prisoners, there was no need for the Saxons to go to war against Clan Alpine.
But the King’s message went out too late. As the next morning dawned over Stirling Castle, hardened soldiers soberly spoke of yesterday’s bloody battle. Meanwhile, Ellen and Allan-bane arrived, seeking an audience with the King. When Ellen displayed the ring Fitz-James had given her, the two were treated with great respect. Ellen was taken to a room where she could rest until King James awakened, while Allan-bane was led to see the prisoner who he thought was his beloved master. However, the captive who turned to face Allan was not Douglas, but the wounded Roderick Dhu.
Dhu asked the old minstrel to sing him the entire story of the preceding day’s battle. As the song’s tale progressed, Roderick grew weaker. When Allan sang of the messenger who had brought the flag of truce from the King, the smiling Chieftain, cheered by the melodious vision of his victorious clansmen, died. Shortly thereafter, Fitz-James came to Ellen’s room to take her to the King. She greeted him as a dear brother, and together they walked into the huge, crowded hall. Ellen nervously scanned the room for the monarch whose mercy she sought.
However, all eyes rested on Fitz-James. Only when the multitude bowed down before him did Ellen understand: her Saxon Knight was in fact Scotland’s King! She also fell at his feet, speechless. Fitz-James gently raised her to her feet and assured her that in fact his flag of truce had halted the battle. What’s more, he and Ellen’s father had reconciled their differences. Ellen could hardly fathom such wonderful news – and wept joyfully at the loving embrace of her father. The monarch, enjoying her surprise, then referred to the ring on Ellen’s clasped hand, and asked: “What seeks fair Ellen of the King?” Realizing that Malcolm Graeme now stood in little danger, Ellen asked for clemency towards Clan Alpine’s, Roderick Dhu.
But King James replied sadly, “Forbear thy suit – the King of Kings/ alone can stay life’s parting wings … my fairest earldom would I give/ to bid Clan Alpine’s Chieftain live!” “Hast thou no other boon to crave?” the King then asked; “No other captive friend to save?” Unable to resist teasing the blushing girl, he sternly pronounced: “Nay, then, my pledge has lost its force,/ and stubborn justice holds her course/ Malcolm come forth!” As the young man knelt before his King, he was solemnly told that fetters and a jailer were what he deserved! Ellen was taken aback – but then the King’s smile returned, as he removed the gold chain from his own neck, slipped it over the head of Malcolm, and laid its clasp in Ellen’s hand. Commentary This absorbing tale, opening with an account of a stag hunt in the Highlands, is typical of Scott. He invented the historical fiction novel. But historicity for its own sake isn’t as important to him as creating an accurate, vivid milieu from which the reader can emerge feeling he has lived the advenlure himself. Scott was fascinated with cultures in collision, and he always placed his heroes in the middle of the fray.
In this poem, the opposing forces are two Scottish clans – the wild Celtic Highlanders, loyal only to their chieftain, and the peaceful, agranian Saxon Lowlanders, devoted to following their King. Scott guides us through a maze of emotions, creating sympathy and understanding for both sides.