Modern readers know Walter Scott as the creator of the first historical novels in Europe, but few remember that his path to great prose lay through his fascination with Scottish and German folklore.
Walter Scott holds a special place in the history of 19th century British literature. He had a tremendous influence on his contemporaries and followers. Balzac considered Scott’s novels to be the pinnacle of artistic skill, Stendhal called him the father of modern novelists, Belinsky highly appreciated his works, noting in them the connection between historical science and fiction. For many modern readers, Walter Scott is primarily the creator of the historical novel, but he did not immediately come to this genre. He began his literary career with poetry translations, collecting and editing old ballads. It was these youthful hobbies that later inspired the writer to create a new literary genre.
Scott was born in Edinburgh on August 15, 1771. In early childhood, he contracted polio, and the family feared for his health for a long time. Dr. John Rutherford – Scott’s maternal grandfather – advised to send his grandson for a while to Smaleholme, a small village in the southeast of Scotland, which is associated with the early memories of the writer. The stories of his relatives about the historical past and folk legends engendered in him an ardent love for the history of his homeland, and a good memory made it possible not only to perceive, but to accurately remember and accumulate the legends he heard.
Returning to Edinburgh, Scott continued his study of history and Scottish folk culture. He read a lot, especially interested in poetry, ballads and fairy tales of different nations. All this will later be reflected in his novels in the form of direct quotes and allusions to the corresponding works. Passion for literature could not fail to lead Scott to the development of German romantics and their forerunners. It is known that during his school years he began to study German, but he could not cope with complex grammatical constructions and tricky rules and therefore tried to master the language “intuitively”, using the knowledge of the Scottish and Anglo-Saxon dialects. It is easy to assume that in this way he did not manage to master the language at the proper level, but this was enough to successfully interpret the general content of German works and, most importantly, in Scott’s own opinion, to feel the national spirit and flavor reflected in them.
Young Scott’s fascination with romantic literature in Germany was, perhaps, a determining factor in his poetic development, and it is no coincidence that he began his literary career with translations of German authors. In particular, Herder played an important role, whose work “Voices of Nations in Songs” Scott carefully studied and kept in his home library. Equally influential were the poets of Tempest and Onslaught, especially the young Goethe and Burger. Scott owns translations of Goethe’s drama “Götz von Berlichingen” and the ballads of Burger – the famous “Lenora” (to whom he named “William and Helen”) and the lesser-known “Wild Hunter”. He also wrote a number of essays analyzing important phenomena in German culture. Later, in Essay on the Imitation of an Ancient Ballad, Scott retrospectively assessed the degree of familiarity of the Edinburgh intelligentsia during their youth with German literature. This work reflects the admiration with which the young poet looked at the literature of Germany.
Scott’s contemporary and friend Matthew Gregory Lewis, who published most of Scott’s early poetry translations, was troubled by serious discrepancies between Scott’s text and the original Lenora. He asked a friend to change the name of the main character from Helen to Ellenora, but Scott resolutely refused to change anything. With the help of a special title and the replacement of Lenore’s name with Helen, he sought to give the ballad an English flavor and enhance its resemblance to another Scottish ballad, The Phantom of Good William. In the end, discrepancies with the original prevented Lewis from adding this translation to his collection of Wonderful Tales. However, convinced that he was right, Scott wrote several other ballads. In addition to translating the burgher’s Wild Hunter, Scott performed a free translation of a ballad from Goethe’s Claudine, which he called Friedrich and Alice. This was followed by another translated ballad, The King of Fire, and two original ones: Glenfinlas and St. John’s Eve.
Scott’s third ballad was written in 1798 during Lewis’s trip to Edinburgh. The future son-in-law and biographer of Scott John Lockhart in “Memories of the Life of Sir Walter Scott” mentions their mutual acquaintance, Mr. James Sken, who shared with his friends the old German war song “The day of separation has come …”. This work made an impression on both Lewis and Scott, and by the next morning the poet had composed