- The Lily and the Thistle: The French Tradition and the Older Literature of Scotland by William Calin
On several levels, The Lily and the Thistle resists insularity. On a geographic-literary plane, William Calin’s study of French influences on early Scottish literature beseeches readers to look beyond the island of Great Britain for works that found their way into texts as various as the Kingis Quair, Lancelot of the Laik, the poetry of Robert Henryson and David Lyndsay, the Marian Casket Sonnets, and the Monarchické Tragedies of William Drummond (to name but a few of the works Calin examines). Calin’s book offers a detailed, methodical, and wide-ranging argument for the re-evaluation of French influence on Scottish literature.
An update to this field is long overdue, with Janet Smith’s seminal book in the 1930s still providing one of the only monographs highlighting the Scottish literary debt to French literature. In the interim, scholars have largely focused on the relationship between the early Scottish tradition and its counterpart in England, or on the possible impact of oral Celtic traditions on Scottish literature (a connection, incidentally, that Calin disputes in his section treating influences on Scottish romance). Both approaches have been rooted firmly on the isle of Great Britain, a [End Page 515] theatre that Calin contends is too narrow for a full understanding of older Scottish literature; to comprehend fully the place of early Scots writers in the western literary tradition—how their works both extend and reinvent existing modes—we must also look to France.
The movement against insularity is also evident on a theoretical plane. Calin does not limit himself arbitrarily to a single paradigm to study the Franco-Scottish literary relationship, incorporating elements of Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, intertextual theory, and the reader-response school, among others. Such a flexible approach is wise, given the breadth and richness of the texts examined in the book. Calin has organized his work into four parts, each dealing with a larger mode or genre of Scottish literature: courtly narrative, comedy and satire, romance, and a selection of works from the Renaissance. An introduction to each part highlights how each group of texts interacts with the French literary tradition; Calin thus recalls the reader periodically to his central argument and maintains cohesion among a variety of disparate works.
As a specialist in French literature (a previous book, The French Tradition and the Literature of Medieval England, was also published by University of Toronto Press), Calin reveals a wealth of early French influences, including Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Froissart, Alain Chartier, Eustache Deschamps, and Pierre de Ronsard, on Scots writers. To illuminate the links between these authors’ works and those of their Scottish counterparts, Calin provides detailed passages in the original Older Scots and Middle French. These passages appear without translation, which may present difficulties to Scottish literature scholars unfamiliar with Middle French (as in the case of this reviewer). This editorial decision in itself, however, reinforces—intentionally or otherwise—the point of the book: that those studying the Scottish literary tradition must be familiar with more than that tradition’s British influences, and that if they are not familiar with Middle French, perhaps they should be.
A concept that introduces itself near the end of Calin’s book is that of “belatedness.” Calin uses this term when discussing Scotland’s relatively delayed engagement with literary genres and modes whose popularity had peaked earlier in both France and England. For Calin, however, belatedness carries no negative connotation; Scottish literature’s later reception and development of these genres allow it to engage with all of their possible permutations. Calin’s book is an important and useful text that fills a long-unfilled gap in Scottish literary studies. In this respect, its belatedness has led to a sophisticated and comprehensive study of the French influence in Scottish literature. [End Page 516]