Rob Roy is the British “Birth of a Nation.” It is an adventure story told against the background of a dreadful civil war – in this case, the Jacobite uprising of 1715 – by an artist who idealizes the losers’ culture and the victors’ cause. The losers here are the Scottish Highlanders, heroically exemplifed by the “Rob Roy” of the title: at once primitive and poetic, gallant and ferocious, admirable and doomed. In 1715, their rebellion rocked the newly established Hanoverian monarchy, but by 1817, the year Walter Scott published his great novel of the ’15, the Highlanders had long since been reduced to harmless picturesuqe poverty – to be lamented and rhapsodized by the Lowlanders and English they once terrified.
There is an enormous amount to be said about this history – and then about the history of this history – but as a first-time auditor of the novel, I have to say I was more impressed by its amazing literary inventiveness. The modern thriller that you took to the beach with you last summer is, 200 years later, nothing more than a series of reprises of literary techniques invented by Scott.
A gallant but none too brainy hero is sent by a series of not very plausible plot contrivances into a dangerous adventure in an exotic country.
There he mets a beautiful woman, a colorful comic local ethnic sidekick, and a deep mastermind of a scheming villain.
The plot contrivances lead him deeper into the exotic landscape. People whom he at first takes for friends turn out to be enemies, and enemies turn out to be friends.
He has inconclusive confrontations with the villain, ending in threats of what will happen when they meet again.
Three or four times, the villains’ machinations leave our hero dangling over the edge of death.
He is forced to watch as the first person who attempts to kill him is sent to a horrible death that the kind-hearted hero tries unsuccessfully to prevent.
All along the way, our hero is helped and protected by a mysterious stranger – who turns out to be exactly the character all the forces of authority in the novel are attempting to destroy. Our hero gains unique insight into the seemingly menacing characters’ authenticity and goodness.
A climactic confrontation ensues, in which good almost (but not quite) prevails – and evil seems to escape.
The novel gives every indication of ending here – but whoops, there is one final coda, a smaller-scale final confrontation between hero and villain that leaves the villain dead and the hero in possession of the beautiful woman.
I don’t believe there is anything in Ian Fleming, Richard North Patterson, or all the rest that is missing from Rob Roy, save except for the greater sexual explicitness.You can see why Scott’s works detonated across Europe like so many bombs, midwifing the Romantic sensisibility, and inspiring plays, paintings, operas, even political movements. As a writer, he’s more than a little wordy by modern standards – more than a little – but 200 years later, he still lives. Can’t do better than that, can you?