Phantom Observations

Rose Tremain
Rose Tremain; drawing by David Levine

According to Mark Twain, Sir Walter Scott was read to excess among the gentlefolk of the Southern states, who imbibed from him outdated notions of chivalry and honor. It may be so, but Scott is read today—if indeed he is read at all—for very different reasons. In spite of all his local color and sometimes quaint diction, Scott can still give us, as no other writer can, a sense of immersion in the world of the past. This is largely a question of his prose—calm, uniform, reassuring, wholly and inconspicuously confident. No matter what dramas and sensations the past may hold, we are, as it were, in safe hands. For readers still devoted to him, and there may be more than is usually realized, he has become not only the least troubling but the most supremely aesthetic of novelists.

And there is a sense now in which history and aesthetics can find a natural home together. Virginia Woolf, like her father a great admirer of Scott, produced a fantasy on one of his themes in her little novel Orlando; and Orlando has lately been not only popular but influential, a cult and a model for many women writers. Both Orlando and Scott come very much to mind as one turns, with the same peculiar sort of dreamy pleasure the old Wizard of the North can still bestow, the pages of Rose Tremain’s long novel Music and Silence. Here too history and aesthetics have joined, or rather have been brought together with great and artful deliberation.

Her subject is the life and times of King Christian IV of Denmark. A monarch of heroic stature and high military ambitions, he was also impelled by the contemporary Renaissance model of the Complete Man, equally at home on the battlefield, in the arts, and at the courts of princes. Best remembered of the Scandinavian monarchs of the period, he reigned for a long time, covering much of the reign of Elizabeth I of England, that of her successor James VI of Scotland and First of England, who married Christian’s cousin, and of James’s ill-fated sonCharles I, who lost his head in 1649.

Christian’s reign was colorful and adventurous, dazzling at first but ultimately disastrous. He invaded Denmark’s old rival and enemy Sweden, but failed to capture Stockholm and was eventually compelled to retreat, losing all the provinces of South Sweden which he had gained, and to which Denmark made a historic claim. To assist the King of Bohemia, who had married his niece, the beautiful “Winter Queen,” Christian joined the Protestant side in the Thirty Years’ War, and marched the Danish forces into the heart of Germany. Here he was catastrophically defeated by those cunning and able Catholic generals, Tilley and Wallenstein. So great was the reverse that Denmark was itself then invaded by the enemy, and in 1629 Christian was forced to make a humiliating…

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