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Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott


I’ve just renewed my interest in the great poem Lady of the Lake and thought you might want to renew your perusal of this great story that has lasted over the years.


Scott began writing The Lady of the Lake in August 1809 while holidaying with his wife, Charlotte, and daughter, Sofia, in the Trossachs and along the shores and islands of Loch Katrine, the very scenes that would provide the poem’s setting. With this new poem, though, Scott wished to depend less on local colour and spectacular action and to attain greater psychological depth in his characterization. As he worked on the poem, Scott felt that, in this respect, it would only be a partial success. While he was confident that he had brought King James V and the clan chieftain Roderick Dhu vividly to life, he feared that the romantic hero, Malcolm Graeme would remain ‘a perfect automaton’ (letter to Lady Abercorn, March 14, 1810). Although initial progress on the poem was rapid, work was delayed when his children Walter, Charles, and Anne fell dangerously ill with an inflammatory fever. Only when they had fully recovered was he able to complete the poem which was published on May 8, 1810.


The narrative of the poem concerns the struggle between King James V and the powerful clan Douglas. The King has banished the entire family from his realm, including James of Douglas, the Earl of Bothwell, who had been his protector during his youth. The Earl and his daughter Ellen take refuge with Roderick Dhu in his castle on an island in Loch Katrine. At the beginning of the poem a mysterious knight calling himself James Fitz-James arrives at the castle and is granted hospitality. During his brief stay, he falls in love with Ellen but finds rivals for her affections in Roderick himself and in Malcolm Graeme, a young knight loyal to the King but moved by sympathy at the plight of Douglases. It is Malcolm that Ellen favours. Facing attack from royal forces for sheltering Douglas, Roderick gathers his clan. Douglas, though, is loath to bring disaster upon his host, and sets out for the royal court at Stirling, determined to surrender. Fitz-James returns and offers to take Ellen to safety but is told that she loves another. He nonetheless presses on her a ring which, he says, will obtain any favour from the King. Travelling to Stirling, Fitz-James meets and quarrels with Roderick. In the ensuing fight, Roderick is mortally wounded and carried to Stirling as a captive. Ellen presents herself at court and, showing the ring, pleads for her father’s pardon. She discovers that Fitz-James is no other than the King himself. The King and Douglas are reconciled through her intervention, and Ellen and Malcolm marry.


  1. Isabel Roman says:

    I love this poem. It’s been ages since I’ve read it, in the heday of my Must Know Everything About Scotland, and I must now go back. I’m sure there’s a copy in here the library.

    Thanks for this reminder, Paisley!

  2. I know I loved it when I was forced to read it in junior high. When we visited Loch Katrine two years ago I could understand why Scott was enamered with the area. We saw it in the Fall with all the gorgeous colors and it was out-of-this-world beautiful.

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