The Master of Ballantrae

by Robert Louis Stevenson

Other authorsLynd Ward (Illustrator), G. B. Stern (Introduction), Alvin Eisenman (Designer)
Hardcover, 1993





Easton Press, (1993), Edition: First Thus, 303 pages


Stevenson's brooding historical romance demonstrates his most abiding theme--the elemental struggle between good and evil--as it unfolds against a hauntingly beautiful Scottish landscape, amid the fierce loyalties and violent enmities that characterized Scottish history. When two brothers attempt to split their loyalties between the warring factions of the 1745 Jacobite rising, one family finds itself tragically divided. Stevenson's remarkably vivid characterizations create an acutely moving, psychologically complex work; as Andrea Barrett points out in her Introduction, "The brothers' characters, not the historical facts, shape the drama." This Modern Library Paperback Classic includes illustrations reproduced from the original edition.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Stbalbach
The Master of Ballantrae is not one of Stevenson's better novels but I knew that before going into it. It's been sometimes described as "masterly", and since I've rarely read any Stevenson I didn't like, I gave it a try. The psychological battle between two brothers is the sub-text of this Scott-like epic historical tale with elements of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, Treasure Island and Kidnapped. However unlike Scott and Cooper, who had nationalistic designs, Stevenson's is a darker more inward looking story of psychology. The overall effect is strange and a bit sensational (ala Woman in White). Not to my taste, but I understand Stevenson was influenced by Scott growing up and wanted ultimately to write a series of Scottish historical romances that would help with Scotland's independence movement. But instead he wrote Ballantrae in the middle of winter (thus "A Winter's Tale") in the Adirondack Mountains of New York on his way to the Pacific, far away from Scotland, to which he would never return. Rather than a national epic it is an odd sort of genre-bending thriller probably best read today for the psychological struggle between two brothers.… (more)
LibraryThing member sarah408
Having previously failed miserably to read either Treasure Island, or Kidnapped, I was a little anxious approaching this book. And in the first instance it did seem that my fears were well grounded, as I struggled with the Scottish dialect. But, further in, the dialect was less prevalent and, having surmounted these early teething problems, the book proved to be surprisingly readable, a gripping adventure yarn that entices you swiftly through the pages.

The story is told in the main by Ephraim McKellar, steward of Durrisdeer, and concerns the fates of the two Durie brothers, both during and after the Jacobite rebellion. In order to preserve the estate they will take opposing sides in the conflict. Against the wishes of his family, the heir and favourite, James, insists on joining the uprising, whilst Henry, well-intentioned, but beloved of no-one but McKellar, supports King George. When the uprising fails and James is reported dead, Henry becomes heir and takes all that formerly belonged to James, who retains only his title, Master of Ballantrae. However, James has survived, and bitterly blames Henry for his losses.

I did endeavour to consider the themes en route, but was initially rather dismissive of the whole thing as a fairly straightforward morality tale. It put me strongly in mind of a passage between Frodo and Aragorn in the Fellowship of the Rings, where Frodo suspects that the spies of the Enemy would ‘seem fairer and feel fouler,’ whilst Aragorn, as he himself quips, looks foul and feels fair.

It seemed an obvious point to make, that what looks well may be ill, and vice versa, but maybe that was not the point. Maybe the point was that we may know this, and still not feel it. I must reluctantly admit to a sneaking admiration for the Master, whilst experiencing a hint of contempt for Henry that would not be repressed.

Having apparently nailed it, the morality becomes more complex, as the Master’s few admirable qualities (namely courage and resolve) come to the fore, whilst Henry seems to become petty, vindictive and wholly unlikeable. Halfway through the book McKellar is seduced by the Master and it feels as though the reader is asked to pour their scorn on his hapless head. However, by the end of the book, certainly from my perspective, the reader is also won over by the Master, and must therefore question their own judgement, and reassess that of McKellar.

But… the waters are further muddied by the nature of the two narrators, both of whom are proven unreliable. We suspect that the Chevalier Burke exaggerates the wickedness of the Master to minimise his own culpability, and McKellar likewise impugns the Master, whilst praising Henry, as a function of his partiality.

This could also provide an explanation for our changing feelings toward the characters; but, as McKellar becomes enthralled by the Master, does his narrative become more impartial or does it in fact swing in the other direction?

There are too many variables to pin this story down; which left me with the following questions:-

Why did James insist on going to war? It must have been clear that the uprising stood little chance of success, and that he would suffer the consequences.

Throughout the book it is obvious that James projects the right image. This is why he is favoured. Maybe his choice serves to emphasize that he intends to prosper through his charm which, he believes, will negate the nature of his actions.

James is permitted to keep his title 'Master of Ballantrae,' which should have passed to Henry's son. This effectively traps James in the position of heir apparent, whilst the natural progression to Lord is denied him. Is this a calculated act of cruelty, provoking and also symbolising James' inability to progress beyond the hand fate dealt him?

Does Henry, as McKellar suggests, really lose his reason, or is this only McKellar's rationale to explain Henry's undesirable behaviour and his own lack of judgement?

My favourite part of the book is where we learn that McKellar, (not, it must be said, my favourite character) was ultimately fired by the final Lord Durrisdeer; presumably on grounds of intolerable interference!
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LibraryThing member DeltaQueen50
The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson is a sweeping adventure story about the rivalry between two brothers that unfolds over many years and is set in Scotland and the early American wilderness. One brother is evil and one is good, but most people find the evil brother charming while the good one is solid and rather boring. When the favored son and heir, James joins Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden in 1745 he leaves behind his younger brother Henry, his father and his fiancee, Alison. When he is presumed dead after the defeat of the rebels, the younger brother becomes the Master of Ballantrae and marries the fiancee but is always second best with his father, his wife and his tenants. When the news is brought that the egotistical and abusive James is still alive the torment of the younger brother begins.

The author uses the themes of good and evil, life and death to spin a colorful tale of adventure, sorrow and revenge. This book was first published in 1889 and certainly stands the test of time as it is still a page turner. Although it can be a little over the top in terms of drama, there is plenty of action that keeps the story interesting and moving along. The Master of Ballantrae is a dark romanticized story of a divided family and the consequences of extreme hatred.
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LibraryThing member MrsLee
This was interesting for the setting, early America, immigrant fleeing from Scotland and all that. The story itself did not move me much, rather typical of its times. Not my favorite Stevenson, but others may disagree.
LibraryThing member Hoopdriver
A novel of adventure and action on one level; a novel of psychological terror on another. Stevenson structures his narrative around themes of family pride, rivalry between brothers, and psychotic dominance whose power eventually destroys everyone.
The story of the Durie family is "framed" in the discovery of a hundred-year old manuscript written by the narrator, Ephriam Mackellar. A feud between the two Durie brothers: James, the elder and the Master of Ballantrea, and Henry, the younger, his pawn, span the period of history of the Scottish rebellion and battle of Culloden to the early settlement in the New World. The Master, supporter of the losing side in the rebellion and reported killed,actually escapes. Henry, not aware that his brother still lives, succeeds to the title, the estate and his brother's betrothed, Alison Graeme. The Master returns, to the surprise of his family, and proceeds to squander all the money he can get from the estate.
A third level of the narrative twines within this action, through the discovery of papers written by a fellow soldier of the Master, who related their adventures after fleeing from Culloden
(captured by pirates and becomming pirates themselves, acquiring and hiding treasure, committing a series of murders evidently for gain as well as for the fun of it).
Meanwhile the psychological "cat and mouse" game between James and Henry reaches flash point when Henry realizes that the evil James is planning to corrupt Henry's son as well as seduce his wife. They fight a duel. James is killed but his body mysteriously disappears before the family can establish his actual death.
Eventually James reappears, alive and well, at Ballantrea and the family decides to flee secretly to America. James discovers their new home and follows them. Meanwhile there is a political attempt (though feeble) to reinstate James as true Master of Ballantrae in England which causes Henry to loose his reason. The eventual show-down between the two brothers results in one of the worst fates of an evil-doer in literature. Let me just say that the "cat and mouse" game intensifies, the hidden treasure (real or imaginary) spurs horrific consequences to the searchers and James pays the price.
Power and control over others through psychological intimidation winds throughout the narrative. Vital pieces of information are witheld at crucial points from crucial characters and there is uncertainty of the reliability of certain narrators. Stevenson places the reader in the delicious position of sorting out what exactly is happening and attemping to determine the how and why of James and Henry's actions. The Master of Ballantrae will keep you thinking long after you finish the novel.
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LibraryThing member Coffeehag
This book has the atmosphere of a Gothic novel - dark and dismal. The plot reminds me very much of Jack London's The Sea Wolf. Both works represent a diabolical antagonist who philosophizes about his wicked practices, and a first-person narrator who is appalled by those practices. Just as the narrator of The Sea Wolf tries to protect his female counterpart from the horrors of the ship's captain, so does Mr. Mackellar - the narrator in The Master of Ballantrae - try to protect Lord Durrisdeer from his evil brother. No humor alleviates the oppressive mood of this work, and nothing good ever happens. Stevenson's characters are two-dimensional - either perfectly good or perfectly evil, in spite of his attempts to paint Mr. Mackellar as a coward. I did not enjoy this work.… (more)
LibraryThing member ben_a
I generally adore Stevenson, but this one was enough of a trial that I stopped reading mid-way. The book is memorable to me for some very (very!) striking passages in the Master's early life, including piracy described with no gilding and, one fears, great accuracy. But in the second half the pace slows, and the tone flags. Also, I dislike reading about detestable people, and hate more when no one lifts a finger to stop them...… (more)
LibraryThing member foggidawn
This book lacks the high levels of suspense, action, and adventure in some of Stevenson's better-known works (though there is some piracy and a trek through the American wilderness). Instead, it focuses mostly on the relationship between two brothers, as described by an admittedly partisan old servant. As such, it's an interesting read -- is the older brother really as evil as he's painted? Is the younger brother some sort of martyr, or just a whinging grump? I'm not sorry to have read this book . . . but I won't be reading it again.… (more)
LibraryThing member MiaSquires
The story of two brothers, one good and one bad. James, the wicked one, is heir to the family fortune, is daddy's favorite, and can charm the rattle off a snake. The good brother, Henry, is quiet and self-effacing and not much liked by anybody. The novel is set in England in 1745. James, "the Master", runs off to join Bonnie Prince Charlie who is striving to restore the Stuarts to the throne. When James does not return after several years, he is presumed dead and Henry marries Allison, his brother's fiancée, and becomes the new heir.… (more)
LibraryThing member brakketh
Two brothers lives are entwined though they are very different characters, even in death they are not separated.
LibraryThing member JackMassa
An overlooked classic and maybe Stevenson's greatest work. A Gothic adventure with the same sense of fated family tragedy as Wuthering Heights. As profound and technically interesting as Bronte's classic, but a more exciting read.
LibraryThing member john257hopper
This is a dramatic account of a desperate rivalry between two brothers of the Scottish Durie family, James, the eponymous Master, and his younger sibling Henry. Their antipathy is sparked off when, during the 1745 rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie, their father decides to hedge his bets by having one son side with the rebellion and the other side with British King George II. James, despite being the eldest and the heir to his father's estates, gets to be the one to support the rebellion, but is more motivated by mischief making than political principle. He regularly returns to taunt his brother and father, considering himself abandoned when Henry inherits the title after he is believed to be dead. The struggle eventually costs their father his life, and the struggle transfers over the Atlantic to New York where it ends in double tragedy in the American wilderness. A good read, lacking the overall impact and colourful characters of Treasure Island, but probably a better structured novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member Gold_Gato
Gosh, I love RLS. He was the man. Adventure, intrigue, travel, romance, gothic suspense...gosh I love RLS. He would have made a terrific screenwriter during cinema's golden age, all swash and buckle. This ripping yarn just doesn't let you leave. You may pretend you're working or gardening or conversing with others during your everyday boring life, but really, you're just thinking about the Brothers Durie. Which one is really good and which one is really evil?

This specific edition is from 1968 (perfect year for Sean Connery and Oliver Reed to play the siblings) and is large type for those who need extra help. If you don't need the extra help for the eyes, it's kinda weird, but perfect really because this baby will knock about your bag and car and bus and will wind up very well-thumbed. I'd like a leather-bound edition, just so I can watch it sitting on my shelf. RLS!

Two Duries in Durrisdeer
One to stay and one to ride,
An ill day for the groom
And a worse day for the bride.

Book Season = Year Round
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