Like many good curators, Sir Walter Scott was a creative falsifier with a rich sense of his own license. Many of us know him by reputation rather than by reading, but The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border has shaped English-speaking culture because it was one of the first and best literary assertions of enthusiasm for the local. We owe our American passion for regional farms and boutique shopping at least partly to Scott’s collection of lowland border songs and legends, because he was one of the first cultural figures of significance to celebrate what was near for nearness’s sake. The Minstrelsy itself, after a little investment in its dialects, is a rollicking read—since the ballads and poems it includes intentionally avoid the highbrow, they tend toward the lurid, and forecast a career where Scott continued to make heaps of money with stories of suddenlylost virginity or violent death, including one where a witch actually blows up a hunter on the doorstep of his cabin.
Scott was a full-time anthologist before he became the popular novelist and poet, but it is widely recognized that he added his own touch—even his own stanzas—to the songs and stories he preserved, so that The Minstrelsy should be seen as an act of invention as much as one of arrangement. And as quickly as the curator became creative, he started to feel the guilt associated with profiting from old war stories, which were his anthology’s main fare. The Minstrelsy includes an “anonymous” poem about two crows eating a dead soldier, “The Twa Corbies,” which simmers with a restless regret about depicting violence that has hounded generations of writers since. Settling on the corpse, one crow says to the other:
…Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I’ll pike oot his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair
We’ll theek oor nest whan it grows bare.
Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken whar he is gane;
Oer his white banes, whan they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.
Whether Scott wrote parts of this poem or only smoothed its edges is unimportant. What matters is its intentional place in the collection, constituting a confession, or at least a worry, on its author’s part. When we pick the bones of old stories, especially about conflict, do we assume a part of the war-guilt that leaves us a little richer for plucking out the “bonny blue een” of the dead?
Since this dilemma has roots in our most popular kinds of storytelling, it isn’t surprising that it has cropped up everywhere from the gardens around Scott’s mansion to the Hollywood box office. There is nothing historical about the wildly profitable film adaptation of Marvel’s comic series The Guardians of the Galaxy, but its plot is palatable and resonant because it is built on familiar political premises. A religious extremist, Ronin, is stirring up trouble in politically unsettled territories, seizing the power always available to maniacs in a culture of fear, and conducting ethnic slaughter while the distant governments who might be able to do something about it flounder in a bog of bureaucratic halfheartedness. Subtract space travel and walking tree-beasts from the premise and it sounds like a lead from CNN.
It is significant that Ronin’s character and motivations were adapted to echo contemporary world-political events—a wise move on the filmmakers’ part, and one that places The Guardians of the Galaxy squarely in “The Twa Corbies’” territory: The narrative gets its punch, its sense of currency and relevance, by picking over stories of real international violence—scavenging the battlefield, as Scott would have put it.
But is it necessary for our storytellers to wrestle with this theoretical guilt, or for us—the consumers—to equivocate before we buy a movie ticket? The late Irish poet Seamus Heaney, one of our master political storytellers of the last century, certainly thought so. As a survivor of Ireland’s Ulster Troubles, Heaney discovered much of his subject matter in the rubble of grocery stories blown up by the IRA or their enemies, and his sense of scavenger’s guilt was so acute it became the paradigm of his early work. “Bone Dreams,” one of his many poems about digging up Irish graves, locates the cause of the Troubles in England’s savage, militarized colonial politics at the time of the Act of Union, but the guilt he reserves for himself:
White bone found
on the grazing:
the rough, porous
language of touch
and its yellowing, ribbed
impression in the grass —
a small ship-burial.
As dead as stone,
I touch it again,
I wind it in
the sling of mind
to pitch it at England
and follow its drop
to strange fields.
Heaney was aware that his poems would be read widely, “dropping to strange fields” even if he aimed his spite at England, but also that by writing about Ireland’s past he disturbed actual graves, unearthing deep hurt and political rancor along local party lines. It took him years to reconcile himself to a creative process that destabilized Ireland’s tenuous seasons of peace to seek out solutions beyond the power of politics, but when peace finally came to him in “Station Island,” it wasn’t through a rejection of his identification with the corbies. Instead, he literally embraced the dead, allowing the “cold and bony” hand of a corpse to lead him on a visionary journey:
Like a convalescent, I took the hand
Stretched down from the jetty, sensed again
An alien comfort as I stepped on ground
To find the helping hand still gripping mine,
Fish-cold and bony…
…the tall man in step at my side
Seemed blind, though he walked straight as a rush
Upon his ash plant, his eyes fixed straight ahead.
Accepting his identity as scavenger allowed Heaney an “alien comfort”: the realization that in a violent world, violence is inherent to truth telling. The trick was to avoid what Romantic scholar Fiona Stafford calls the “anonymous and predatory” posture of the crow, and involve himself emotionally in the narratives he salvaged. It is not bloodiness that’s the crime, but detachment.
The professional hooligans in The Guardians of the Galaxy have more or less the same epiphany, deciding that while they are happy to steal from the government, blow up a prison, and break people’s necks over a stolen Walkman, detaching themselves would be appalling when the situation escalates to ethnic cleansing. Star Lord and his friends are willing to profit from the help they lend the government that defamed them in the first place, because the only alternative would be a culpable silence—the same silence that Scott and Heaney rejected by continuing to write. But this tension isn’t laid to rest because some of our literary predecessors or blockbuster heroes found peace about it in their own time: Since the dilemma is founded on conflict, it will continue to behave like conflict—evolving, defying borders, and troubling the comfortable. In that sense scavenger’s guilt isn’t an impediment to good writing, but one of its predicates: the dead weight at the bottom that makes it seaworthy.