Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Old Mortality by Sir Walter Scott

Source of book: I own this. 

I have a running list of unjustly neglected authors from the past. These are men and women who have fallen out of fashion in our own times. Some have seen their reputations take a hit for one reason or another, but more simply aren’t read by much of anyone anymore. 

One of those authors is Sir Walter Scott. 

Scott should be remembered, if for no other reason, for founding the entire genre of historical fiction. And he was no hack either. He extensively researched his books, often citing the original sources where useful, and noting where the history ended and his fiction began. While not possessed of all the resources we have today, he made every attempt at authenticity. And even more than this, Scott is largely responsible for our modern views of Robin Hood, Queen Elizabeth I, Richard the Lion-hearted, Rob Roy, and others of British fame. 

I first read Scott in my teens, when I picked up Ivanhoe. That book, to my astonishment, contained much of Disney’s Robin Hood movie in its pages. From there, I have read a number of others. Since starting this blog, I reviewed Heart of Midlothian and The Lady of the Lake. 

Technically, Old Mortality wasn’t my first choice. I was going to read The Abbot, but a few pages in, it became clear that it was the second in a set of stories, of which The Monastery was the first. Since I didn’t own that one, I grabbed another, namely this one. I believe it was a good choice, a book considered one of Scott’s best - even if nobody seems to have heard of it. 

The book is set in the period of time between 1679 and 1689, during a Scottish uprising by the Covenanters. Which, well, I didn’t know much about, as I am neither Scottish nor Presbyterian. So, anyway, here is the background history:

After the death of Elizabeth I without an heir, the Tudor dynasty came to an end. The closest relative pursuant to the English system of royal succession turned out to be James Stuart VI of Scotland, also known as James I of England. Yes, King James should be familiar for the bible translation he commissioned, and for founding the Stuart dynasty. 

Thanks to John Knox, Scotland had its own Protestant Reformation, and the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots overthown. From that point, Presbyterianism became the official religion - and like the rest of Europe at the time, doctrine was enforced by the sword. 

The ascension of James I created difficulties, however. England’s religion was - post Henry VIII - the Church of England - Anglicanism. Which wasn’t particularly compatible with Presbyterianism. See, for just one example of a doctrine people killed for, the Calvinist/Arminian scism. James kind of let things ride. The Scots could do their thing, he would officially convert to the Church of England so he could run the thing, and the boat stayed mostly unrocked. 

His son, Charles I, on the other hand, teamed up with Archbishop Laud, and tried to force Anglicanism on the Scots. This did not go well. Protests, bloodshed, etc. And Charles I got to be unpopular in England too. Enter, the English Civil War (part 1). With the Irish Catholics likely to provide aid to the Royalists, Cromwell’s Roundheads enlisted the Scots via a document entitled The Solemn League and Covenant - which gave the Covenanters their name. Basically, the Scots would fight with the Puritans, and Presbyterianism would be adopted as the official religion of England. No, that didn’t go well either. 

So, after Cromwell’s rule crumbled after his death, and Charles II came back to England, the Covenant was outlawed, and so on. Fast forward to 1679. (I skipped a good bit here. For the English perspective on this period, I recommend George Trevelyan’s excellent book, England Under the Stuarts, although it only touches on the Scottish part of the history.) 

A compromise was reached, whereby certain Presbyterian ministers could get a license and a church, but only with the Crown’s blessing - and a pledge of loyalty. So, with the Covenanters being suppressed by Charles II, and the moderates labeled heretics by the die-hards, things were set to blow up. The Covenanters murdered Archbishop Sharp, and met the royalist troops in battle. These events form the center of Old Mortality, particularly the battles at Drumclog and Bothwell Bridge. For the specifics, Scott follows the contemporary accounts closely, while adding characters and details. About three quarters of the way through the book, these events come to a rather gruesome end - the rebels are defeated and either executed or exiled. The story then resumes ten years later when the protagonist comes back from exile after William and Mary ascend the throne and proclaim religious tolerance. The Covenanters attempted one final revolution, and were soundly defeated. From then on, separation of the Presbyterian Church from the British government was official and final. 

As with most of Scott’s books, the title Old Mortality has next to nothing to do with the book itself. “Old Mortality” is an invented character to set up the framing story. In this set of books, “Tales of my Landlord,” the anonymous Scott claims that these are tales told by his fictitious landlord. In this case, the landlord claims he heard them from “Old Mortality,” an ancient man who has dedicated his life to keeping the graves of the Covenanters in good repair. Obviously, the book isn’t much about him at all. He is there in the first chapter, and then he is gone for good. 

The plot itself centers on the romance between Henry Morton, the young son of a deceased Covenanter, and Edith Bellenden, the daughter of a loyalist. Henry would prefer to be left out of the wars altogether, but is drawn in when Covenanter John Balfour of Burley, on the run after the murder of Sharp, calls in a favor in the name of Morton’s father. Henry shelters him for the night, but is then arrested for treason as a result, even though he knew nothing of the murder. 

Side note here: Balfour was a real person, but he was NOT Balfour of Burley (Burleigh) - Scott made a mistake here. He meant Balfour of Kinloch - and even uses the name in a few places - who was indeed a Covenanter. It may be that either Burley sounded better, or Scott confused the two. 

As a result of circumstances, Morton gets freed and asked to help lead the Covenanters. He reluctantly agrees to do so, essentially leading the moderate party willing to settle for religious toleration, rather than a new theocracy, which is what Burley wants. 

This being Scott, you know at the outset that the lovers will get together eventually, and that the battles will play out roughly as they did in real life. But there is more than that. 

One of the things that has struck me about Scott over the years is that he is delightfully modern in sensibility. Sure, his writing style is very early 1800s, and his deference to the aristocracy seems a bit odd to us Americans. But his values are modern, and have aged extremely well. Better, in my view, than those of many later Victorian writers. 

Because Scott wrote historical novels, his characters are of their time in many ways. You won’t for example, find a modern feminist in the days of King Richard. But you will find marvelously strong and three dimensional female characters. (Um, hi there, Dickens…) Scott doesn’t place his women on a pedestal like a true Victorian either. He celebrates strong women, and shows the obvious that women have always run things more than patriarchists would prefer. 

The best values that Scott stands for are the moral and humane values. In every book - but particularly this one - he advocates for freedom of religion and conscience. He fully supports the separation of church and state, one of the greatest ideas mankind has had in the last five hundred years. And more than that, Scott shows respect for diversity, whether between the Anglican and the Presbyterian, or between Christianity and Islam. Scott assumes that men of good will are admirable even when they differ. 

Old Mortality, in particular, addresses the question of religious tolerance, and advocates strongly for the separation of church and state. I wrote down a number of quotes that resonated with me in our own times. First is this one, from the opening pages, where the fictitious landlord expounds on the Covenanters and their loyalist opponents. 

Although I am far from venerating the peculiar tenets asserted by those who call themselves the followers of those men, and whose intolerance and narrow-minded bigotry are at least as conspicuous as their devotional zeal, yet it is without depreciating the memory of those sufferers, many of whom  united the independent sentiments of a Hampden with the suffering zeal of a Hooper or Latimer.

Good lord, if you want to describe the Dominionists of today (who often claim a connection to the Covenanters) - or pretty much all of the Religious Right, that surely fits. Their devotional zeal is indeed overshadowed by their intolerance and bigotry expressed as political violence against everyone else. 

Henry Morton is clearly intended from the start to be the noble hero. Here is how Scott describes him. 

Henry Morton was one of those gifted characters which possess a force of talent unsuspected by the owner himself. He had inherited from his father an undaunted courage and a firm and uncompromising detestation of oppression, whether in politics or religion. But his enthusiasm was unsullied by fanatic zeal, and unleavened by the sourness of the Puritanical spirit. From these his mind had been freed, partly by the active exertions of his own excellent understanding, partly by frequent and long visits at Major Bellenden’s, where he had an opportunity of meeting with many guests whose conversation taught him that goodness and worth were not limited to those of any single form of religious observance. 

One hundred percent yes. Again, Scott proves to be both progressive and a direct rebuke to the religious (and racist) fanatics of our time. Hey, and Scott also completely nails a major source of the problem: a theonomic and literalist approach to scripture. Throughout the book, the Covenanters are continually “proof texting”: applying verses out of context in justification of abhorrent behavior. There is quite a generation gap here too, as Morton represents the more moderate younger generation, against the older, fanatical generation represented by Burley. Here is, in part, Morton’s response to Burley during a discussion of their goals. Morton wants freedom of conscience. Burley wants to purge the land of heretics. Morton listens, but notes that he is unmoved by the fanatical language. 

“I revere the Scriptures as deeply as you or any Christian can do. I look into them with humble hope of extracting a rule of conduct and a law of salvation. But I expect to find this by an examination of their general tenor, and of the spirit in which they uniformly breath, and not by wresting particular passages from their context, or by the application of Scriptural phrases to circumstances and events with which they have often very slender relation.” 

I find a lot of myself here. And to draw a necessary line, so did the abolitionists, who argued against a literal, theonomic defense of slavery using the “general tenor and spirit” argument. (See this post, as well as Mark Noll’s excellent book, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis for more.) In my experience - and in history, as Scott details - theonomy and literalism are used to weaponize scripture, and justify atrocities. Scott circles back to this idea near the end - see below. 

Scott, like many authors, chooses to name minor characters in ways that describe them. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the names used for the various preachers associated with the Covenanters. The most moderate (although not by that much) is Poundtext, while a more radical one is Kettledrummle. The craziest, though, is Habakkuk Mucklewrath, which is both fun to say, and deliciously Scottish. It is these preachers who combine with violent men like Burley to stir up the masses toward violence, alas. 

While Morton is the hero, he has a counterpart on the Loyalist side, Lord Evandale. Evandale shares a great deal with Morton, actually, as both acknowledge the legitimate grievances that the Presbyterians have suffered, and would like to see a humane compromise and peace. Evendale ends up receiving aid from Morton, and also from other compassionate Covenanters. He notes the aid from a peasant woman who aids him despite hating his side. 

“[S]he was in principle a rigid recusant, but she saw my danger and distress, considered me as a fellow-creature, and forgot that I was a Cavalier and a soldier.” 

Later, Evandale expresses his view of the political situation:

“I give you my honor, Major Bellenden, that I have been for some time of opinion that our politicians and prelates have driven matters to a painful extremity in this country, and have alienated, by violence of various kinds, not only the lower classes, but all those in the upper ranks whom strong party feeling or a desire of court interest does not attach to their standard.”

And yes, so very relevant today - but not in the way that my former Evangelical tribe believes. Rather it is they, the corrupt prelates, in unholy marriage with a violently oppressive political movement, who are alienating all those who abhor both political ambition and racist and religious violence. 

Again, Morton sounds the same call, in a letter to Bellenden: 

“My most earnest and anxious desire is to see this unnatural war brought to a speedy end by the union of the good, wise, and moderate of all parties, and a peace restored which...may substitute the authority of equal laws for that of military violence, and, permitting to all men to worship God according to their own consciences, may subdue fanatical enthusiasm by reason and mildness, instead of driving it to frenzy by persecution and intolerance.”

And later:

“I wish to have free exercise of my own religion, without insulting any other; and as to your family, I only desire an opportunity to show them I have the same friendship and kindness as ever.” 

This is all powerful stuff, and surely resonates today, in our own time, when a fanatical group in our nation wishes to impose its own purity rules on others, and is more concerned about purging heretics (and anyone outside their own tribe) than in showing love for neighbor. 

The problem for the Mortons and Evandales of the world, though, is that a mere call for decency and tolerance falls on deaf ears for the fanatics. They, like Fascists throughout history (that’s a whole other post…), have no use for modern Enlightenment values. Their values are that of tribalism, idolatry of the past, and worship of violence. Ultimately, they must first be defeated, politically, and sometimes militarily. Ultimately, all the peacemaking of Evandale and Morton goes to complete waste. It is left to the Crown to utterly crush the Covenanters, and deprive them of political power. 

But this is only part of the story. The Covenanters didn’t actually go away; they just went underground. And they continued to insist on the restoration of the Solemn League and Covenant - the establishment of a theocracy. They railed against the edicts of tolerance issued by the Crown.

The principles of indulgence thus espoused and gloried in by the government gave great offense to the more violent party who condemned them as diametrically contrary to Scripture; for which narrow-spirited doctrine they cited various texts, all, as it may well be supposed, detached from their context, and most of them derived from the charges given to the Jews in the promised land. 

Um, yep. America Scotland as the new Israel, and Fundamentalist Calvinist doctrine as the only True Christianity™, and the call for violence and political crushing of everyone else. The theonomic and literalist use of Scripture. The more things change…

But Scott also notes that the Covenanters bore the seeds of their own destruction. And perhaps suggests a constructive way forward. First, obviously, the fanatics and hatemongers have to be deprived of political and military power. But after that is done (as in the case of the Nazis), the key is to defuse the next generation. The Burleys of the world - I would say the white Evangelical Baby Boomers of today as an analogy - will mostly never change. They will spit hate to the end of their days, dream of crushing their enemies, and long for the days when they were in power. Just like Burley. But the next generation won’t be with them. 

Scott notes the result of the edicts of William and Mary. The average Scot didn’t understand their fanaticism and persecution complex. Life was basically good. They could worship as they pleased, and the idea of a Puritanical theocracy looked increasingly ludicrous to them. Without the legitimate persecution, the Covenanters became either a laughingstock, or, like Old Mortality himself, and anachronism of a bygone age. 

We are seeing this play out as we speak. As Boomer (white) Evangelicals sell their souls to a racist demagogue and a pack of anti-Christian xenophobic theocrats, their grandchildren are fleeing the insanity

Sir Walter Scott, writing more than 200 years ago, got it right. Those who are most concerned with “doctrinal purity” are the exact same people who lust to do violence to those outside the “pure” tribe. For some weird reason, a belief that God is obsessed with purity leads to actions to purge the “filthy” Others from the faith - and indeed existence itself. Scott also gives some hope: that after the fires of hate and violence are isolated and die out, a better day can dawn, and the Mortons and Evandales can ultimately win out over the Burleys and Kettledrummles of the world. 


Just a note for Scott neophytes: 

Although many of the “Waverly” novels are quite good, I wouldn’t necessarily start with them. Old Mortality, like Heart of Midlothian and others, contain quite a bit of dialect. I found that my collection of Robert Burns’ poetry was helpful, as it has an extensive glossary in the back. Basically, Scott’s language and style take some getting used to even without the language barrier. 

If I had to pick one to start with, I would go with the well known trifecta: Ivanhoe, The Talisman, or Kenilworth. Any of these are a good introduction to Scott. One possible alternative option would be Quentin Durward, which has little to do with the title character, and everything to do with Louis XI of France, and the transition from Feudalism to Modernism. Although it does lack interesting female characters. For those, well, Ivanhoe and Heart of Midlothian are excellent...

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