Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’ Inverse to Hollywood’s ‘Barbie’

I don’t suppose it’s a surprise to anyone that Hollywood has made a movie about a plastic doll named Barbie. Hollywood these days is in the business of making movies about dolls, cartoon heroes, cartoon villains, space aliens, and robots. It is also in the business of making what it believes are political movies. These two features of its enterprise do not simply overlap. They are essentially the same. To have Barbie mouth platitudes about “patriarchy,” and how very difficult it is to be a woman, when she’s just a neuter-female plastic doll with no thought in her head, and to have her boyfriend Ken be as stupid and neuter-male as feminists long for men to be, is just par for the Hollywood course.

What might have surprised me, I guess, is that it didn’t occur to everybody involved in making a Barbie doll into a political figure is that it would make the politics look silly, just as if a widdo kid fwee years owd should babble about the dictatorship of the pwowetawiat. If I said, though, that it infantilizes the politics, I would in this case be making a serious error. Our politics are already infantilized. You cannot get grownups to have a sober, rational conversation about any of our social and economic problems, because someone will pull the infantilizing trigger, and all at once you will be in a realm of dolls, cartoon heroes, cartoon villains, space aliens, and robots. May I say that this is especially true where Barbies are concerned? Barbie is ever tempted to make her world over into a greeting card illustration, where everybody is nice, all the right opinions prevail, people extend the political pinkie while drinking tea, no cute animals are killed and eaten, and no painful or even tragic compromises must be made. And Ken is often careless and thoughtless enough to go along.

What would a really political work of art look like, if it were meant for grownups but also accessible to and profitable for children old enough to understand?

I have lately been reading the novels of Sir Walter Scott; most recently, Waverly (1814), his first published novel and one that took the reading public on both sides of the ocean by enthusiastic surprise. Scott was 43 years old when it appeared. He was a Scotsman of broad literary learning. He lived in a borderland in more ways than one. His home, Abbotsford, is on the River Tweed, in the Scottish lowlands, near to England. He named it on an historical whim, typical of his sensitivity and taste: an old monastery was nearby, and he imagined that the monks might have forded the Tweed just where his house was. Scott’s interest in such matters was far more than antiquarian. He was emphatically not a Roman Catholic, and he did believe that the medieval Church had gotten tangled up with superstitions, folly, and all the lures of wealth and political power. But he knew also that that was only one side of it; and his title character in The Abbot is a man of austere life and genuine Christian faith, though at times bordering on the fervor of the fanatic.  Scott could well appreciate also the glories of Catholic art, and he was under no illusions about Henry VIII’s motives when he broke from Rome and cheerfully sacked the nation’s monasteries, handing one estate after another to his favorites, including, by the way, an ancestor of a fellow named Washington

Scott was a confirmed member of the Church of England, true enough, but he had sympathy for the fire-breathers in the other direction too – I mean the Scottish Presbyterians, followers of Knox and of preachers more radical than he was, and well represented by the title character in his novel Old Mortality (1816). That was the nickname given to Robert Paterson, a man who combed the cemeteries of Scotland to tend to the headstones where the old Covenanters were buried, re-chiseling their names so they would not be forgotten. If not in religion but in piety, Old Mortality was like Scott himself – and so too the humorous hobbyist in The Antiquary (1816), who is ever insistent on proving that the good old Roman general Agricola, the father-in-law of Tacitus, had established a garrison on his property. Scott was a man who remembered and memorialized.
But this was not at all merely sentimental. The subtitle of Waverley is “Tis Sixty Years Since,” a safely long time since, referring to the uprising in 1745 led by Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Charles Edward Stuart was the grandson of the last Stuart monarch, James II, who was ousted in the near bloodless parliamentarian revolution of 1688, and son of the so-called Old Pretender, the Stuart who called himself James III. That “Glorious Revolution” was, for Scott, a fait accompli, and any attempt to undo it must be looked on as at best quixotic, the stuff of romantic dreams, and at worst, treacherous nonsense. Yet Scott was acutely aware that the Stuarts, though Roman Catholic – as was their famous and unhappy Queen Mary, an ambiguous but mainly sympathetic figure in The Abbot – were Scotsmen, like the first of that line to occupy the English and Scottish thrones, King James I, the learnedly daft, uneasily timid, yet generally fair-minded and warm-hearted ruler in The Fortunes of Nigel (1822). In Waverley, all Scotland is to be up in arms for the Scottish king, at least as the young Prince hopes, and as he is led to believe by his own dreams and the ambitions of other men, such as the renegade hero, Fergus MacIvor. Why not have a Scot to rule the English, instead of the English ruling the Scots and usually treating them as irritating and ignorant stepchildren? Why not, since the Stuart pretenders were lineal male heirs to James I, and the Hanoverian monarchs could be considered as indirect usurpers

Why not? Because the conservative in Scott, not the liberal, understood that those days were gone. The urgent questions had to do with preserving and cherishing what was truly noble and worthy of memory in Scottish history and culture, not least in the fading Gaelic language, whereof we get plenty in Scott’s novels, while establishing and honoring Scotland as a center for learning and culture in the present day.

For the Edinburgh of the Scottish enlightenment, the Edinburgh of Adam Smith, James Boswell, David Hume, and Thomas Reid, was more like Vienna or Paris than like the Edinburgh of 1745, let alone the peat-bog villages of the interior.  Scottish empiricism certainly had its influence on Sir Walter Scott, whose novels are unique in this respect also, that he himself appends many notes to the text to establish the historical precedents for his imagined actions, or to specify the facts regarding certain persons, places, events, customs, and institutions. Yet Scott was not sympathetic to the atheistic tendencies in Hume and some of Hume’s fellows, nor did he believe that authority must justify itself solely by reasoned argumentation.

He saw rather that authority, in a political sense, often flowed from personal virtues that appeal to us beyond the reach of reason; and in this way a recognition of authority in a great man is like the passion of love. Indeed, the young Edward Waverley, raised by an uncle who secretly favors the old regime, turns into a Scots rebel not by force of political analysis, but by the romantic dreaminess of it, under the influence of the beautiful Flora MacIvor, an enthusiast in the best sense of the word, and her brother, the chieftain Fergus MacIvor, or the Vich Ian Vohr, that is, the descendant of John the Great, the founder of the MacIvor clan.

Setting aside the question of whether the young Stuart should succeed, the question that a gracious and patient English colonel presses upon his subaltern Waverley, who has gone renegade, is whether he could succeed. To what end, this attempt at civil war? Why wash the nation in blood? What can be gained from it? Bonnie Prince Charlie, in Scott’s telling, was misled by what he very much wanted to believe, that the Scots would rally to him, as would the put-upon Catholics in England along with other opponents of the established Anglican Church. But in Fergus MacIvor we see a genuine belief in the justice of the Stuart claims mingled with irrepressible personal ambition; in many of the clansmen, a thirst for revenge, bloodshed, and rapine; in others, such as Evan Dhu, “Black John,” Fergus’s most trusted henchman, warm loyalty and no thought for any wealth or power at all.

Many and various are the motives of a single man, let alone the members of an army. And after their initial and stunning victory at Preston in 1745, the Jacobite rebels were too few, too disorganized, and too deeply divided among themselves to follow upon the victory. In 1746, they were routed at Culloden, the Prince fled again into exile, and the English took harsh measures to see that such an uprising would never happen again, forbidding the wearing of the tartan, and stripping chieftains of their authority over the clans. One result was that many of the most traditional Scots, both Presbyterian and Catholic, emigrated from the highlands to New Scotland, that is, Nova Scotia, whence I am writing these words now.

Imagine that you are a boy reading Waverley. How much of human history comes into play! For Scott’s story is and is not peculiar to Scotland. It is the story of man, his conflicts, his confusion, his passion; his glory and his shame, his hard-heartedness and his generosity; his sin, and his faith in God. You may be 10 or 11 when you read it, and surely you will not understand everything, but you will be brought into a real and living world, and you will be led, as it were unconsciously, into the thoughts of a serious, wise, and kindly man, who sees that there are no merely human or political answers to folly and evil, and that even the best things on this earth must pass away. Waverley is meant for you too, young as you are; and indeed, I have the editions of the Waverley novels that the fabulist Andrew Lang produced in the 1890s, with pictures, notes, and a copious glossary for words in Gaelic and the Scottish dialects of English. But they are not for your indulgence in childishness. You will be growing up by reading them.

Need I make the point that a politics-gabbling movie about a plastic doll is the inverse of what Scott was about? It has neither the charm and immemorial wisdom of the fairy-tale, nor the sad and wise political musings of the historian-novelist. It is meant neither for children nor for grownups, but for that new thing in the world, the old and whiny child who is not childlike, the grownup who has never grown up: for people whose ambition seems to be that they themselves may someday fill the role of a cartoon hero or a plastic doll. Hollywood has but held up a mirror to our unnaturalness, to approve it.

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About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness, a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine, and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is the author of well over 1,000 articles and of 28 books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) ; Life under Compulsion (ISI 2015). His verse translation of The Divine Comedy (Random House) is considered the standard edition of Dante. Professor Esolen's most recent books are Defending Manhood: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men (Regnery, 2022); In the Beginning Was the Word (Ignatius, 2021); Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020); Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World (Regnery, 2018); and his beautiful book-length sacred poem, The Hundredfold (Ignatius, 2018). The recipient of the CIRCE Institute's 2021 Russell Kirk prize "for a lifetime devoted to the cultivation of virtue," Anthony Esolen is professor of humanities and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College. Click here to subscribe to his substack Word and Song.

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