Friday, March 22, 2013

The Stag at Eve had Drunk It's Fill...

Our family vacations at a sweet little spot in the heart of the United States, where you can hear the wind rustle the leaves all along the road and see the rippling of a small lake nearby. It's truly a piece of heaven on earth, augmented by the delights of windy hikes along the sand and the smell of wood-burning fires into the evening hours.

It's not surprising that here I found one of my favorite treasures, almost the oldest book on my bookshelf. Just a short walk from where we stay is a sleepy little touristy town packed with curious shops, and it is our custom to walk there almost every day. At the beginning of our walk is a quaint log-cabin style book shop that has lovely steps and wooden floors and little rooms tucked away. The book stock itself isn't quite so lovely--most of the shelves are filled with new age and beach thrillers, and the general aura is one of atheism. But if you walk all the way past these, then you'll come to a crooked doorway with a tiny handwritten sign that says "used books"--and this is truly a delight to look through. A complete set of Waverly novels graces the bottom shelves, Dickens' A Child's History of England (possibly an original 1853 edition, though I can't remember for sure) sits on the top shelf, and I'm praying madly that it will still be there the next time I go. One year I found Cranford, and what a dear delight that was. Granted, it's a mixed delight. Some of the books are over-priced, but the majority of them are first or early editions, and many of them are signed. We've seen Tasha Tudor, the Bobbsey twins, and even signed editions of Sam Campbell's Living Forest series.

But the book I want to review today was the book I found the first year: The Lady of the Lake, by Sir Walter Scott. I had just read it in the summer of--oh, dear, 2009 perhaps?--and as I opened the bookshop door for the first time, I could think of only one title I wanted--this one. I was praying I would find it. Sure enough, there on the shelf it sat, for a modest price. A 1910 edition, it long remained the oldest book in my library until the Travels of Marco Polo surpassed it this summer. I've read it numerous times since purchasing it, and a few of my acquaintances have long-sufferingly listened  to me recite the opening lines of the first stanza time and time again. ;)

It's one of Scott's finest novels, written entirely in poetic form, and if you love Scott, old books, and bonnie Scotland, you'll surely love The Lady of the Lake.

Eager as greyhound on his game,
Fiercely with Roderick grappled Graeme.
~Canto II, Stanza XXXIV, Line 777-778

The Story

The stag at eve had drunk his fill,
Where danced the moon on Monan's rill,
And deep his midnight lair had made
In lone Glenartney's hazel shade;
But when the sun his beacon red
Had kindled on Benvoirlich's head,
The deep-mouthed bloodhound's heavy bay
Resounded up the rocky way,
And faint, from farther distance borne,
Were heard the clanging hoof and horn.
~Canto I, Stanza I

What impact would a small party of huntsmen have on the history of Scotland? None, really, unless you count a highland rebellion and the happiness of a pretty maiden. James Fitz-James, the head of a fruitless search after a noble stag, finds himself separated from his company and on foot, after his horse dies of exhaustion. After a long walk (which occupies a few stanzas) he comes to the border of Loch Katrine in the middle of which is a small island, most obviously inhabited. While he gazes at this, a maiden appears in a skiff just off the shore. A most beautiful dark-haired maiden: "The Lady of the Lake". James Fitz-James persuades her in most elegant language to allow him to take refuge on her island and after a night's rest he is gone. Seemingly a chance meeting which is portent of great weight to Ellen's future.

The story continues without James Fitz-James, and turns instead to the lovely Ellen. She and her father live in the middle of Loch Katrine due to the fact that James Douglas is an exile. Not long after the stranger Fitz-James leaves, Douglas, his highland chief Roderick Dhu, and Ellen's lover Malcolm Graeme return to their home, with news that Dhu plans to rebel with the highland Scots against King James V and the lowland Scots. Dhu plans to precipitate this bloody civil war by marrying Ellen, but needless to say, Malcolm Graeme is averse to the idea.

Full of gallant swordsmen, dramatic duels, strumming bards, and all the savagery of the Highland Scots, the Lady of the Lake tells an epic tale in the most beautiful form of all--poetic verse. Beauty, suspense, and even a touch of sorrow come together in the greatest tale of Scotland I have ever read.

To find out the fate of Roderick Dhu's revolt, the identity of James Fitz-James, and the man who wins fair Ellen's hand,  I bid you good speed in securing your own copy of Scott's masterpiece.

My Thoughts
Canto III, Stanzas V-XI tell of Roderick Dhu consulting a pagan priest to fashion the classic Scottish symbol "the fiery cross". It tells of the priest Brain consulting spells and casting curses, as well as making sacrifices, so I avoid it. But it isn't hugely relevant to the rest of the story, and the only place where witchcraft occurs, for those who prefer not to read about such topics.
I was unaware how much The Lady of the Lake impacted its readers, and more shame to me, for it is the sole inspiration behind our Presidential Anthem 'Hail to the Chief'. What a glorious piece of music, and glorious lyrics, and I am most proud of it's source.

Here is the American version:

Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.
Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
his you will do, that's our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!
And here is Scott's original version from which ours was inspired:

Hail to the chief, who in triumph advances,
Honour'd and blest be the evergreen pine!
Long may the tree in his banner that glances,
Flourish the shelter and grace of our line.
Heaven send it happy dew,
Earth lend it sap anew,
Gaily to bourgeon and broadly to grow;
While every highland glen,
Sends our shout back agen,
"Roderigh Vich Alpine Dhu, ho! i-e-roe!"

Ours is no sapling, chance-sown by the fountain,
Blooming at Beltane, in winter to fade;
When the whirlwind has stript every leaf on the mountain,
The more shall Clan Alpine exult in her shade.
Moor'd in the lifted rock,
Proof to the tempest's shock,
Firmer he roots him, the ruder it blow:
Menteith and Breadalbane, then,
Echo his praise agen,
"Roderigh Vich Alpine Dhu, ho! i-e-roe!"
Proudly our pibroch has thrill'd in Glen Fruin,
And Blanochar's groans to our slogan replied,
Glen Luss and Ross Dhu, they are smoking in ruin,
And the best of Loch Lomond lie dead on our side.
Widow and Saxon maid,
long shall lament our rade,
Think of Clan Alpine with fear and with wo.
Lenox and Levon Glen,
Shake when they hear agen
"Roderigh Vich Alpine Dhu, ho! i-e-roe!"
Row, vassals, row for the pride of the Highlands!
Stretch to your oars for the evergreen pine!
O, that the rosebud that graces yon islands,
Were wreath'd in a garland around him to twine.
O, that some seedling gem,
Worthy such noble stem,
Honour'd and blest in their shadow might grow;
Loud should Clan Alpine then,
Ring from her deepmost glen,
"Roderigh Vich Alpine Dhu, ho! i-e-roe!"
"Hail to the Chief" was played for our first president, George Washington, in 1815, and remains our Presidential Anthem to this day.

The Lady of the Lake also inspired the last name of Frederick Douglass, a tireless abolitionist during the American Civil War; the custom of cross burning in the Klu Klux Klan (one of its more unfortunate effects) and the Highland Revival in 1822, when the Scottish people revived the use of kilts and tartans so widely that the linen industries could not meet the demands.

It may sound daunting in its poetry form, but it really is most pleasurable and gripping, and not difficult at all to read.

A true classic.

Lady Bibliophile


  1. What a lovely place to find a classic! :D I'm hoping you find Dicken's, "A Child's History of England" next year. I think hardly anyone ever buys those used books so there's a good chance you'll will. They seem to be around every year to look through. ;) Oh, and yes, it is fun to one a signed addition of "How's Inky?" by Sam Campbell. It became my favorite of his and that probably had something to do with it. ;)
    How interesting that "The Lady of the Lake" inspired so many things. I remember reading about Frederick Douglass in a Trailblazer book. *nods*
    Sounds very interesting indeed! :D

  2. Dear Schuyler,
    I love Scottish things!! I've never read The Lady of the Lake, but just reading the verse from it here stirs my blood. ;)
    (Is it terrible to say that I like the Scottish Hail to the Chief better?)
    Thank you for the lovely post-and that delicious description of your vacation spot and bookstore, you make me wish I could visit.




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