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Posted August 3, 2007
Historical background: When Walter Scott's 1816 novel THE BLACK DWARF begins, it is the year 1707. The bribed Scottish Parliament has just agreed to dissolve both itself and Scotland as a stand-alone nation. Anne, the first ruler of the brand new United Kingdom and last Stuart monarch recognized by Parliament, is ailing and at any time can die without heirs. Toward novel's end, in March 1708, a French fleet will try but fail to bring back to Scotland and set triumphantly on shore Queen Anne's half brother, the exiled Roman Catholic James VIII (of Scotland) and III (of England) to reclaim the throne of his deposed father, King James VII and II. [NOTE: Scott hews only approximately to the historical timeline.] *** One day a powerful, ugly, human-hating dwarf appears from nowhere amid the large rocks and scattered shards of isolated, hard to approach Mucklestane Moor on the Scottish border. He builds for himself a simple but sturdy cabin with a mere 10 foot by 6 foot interior. The hasty first impression of many locals is that the hideous little man is the fabled 'Brown Man' who appears just before all great disasters in Scottish history, sickens animals and causes crops to fail. He calls himself, to anyone brave enough to ask, Elshender the Recluse. In striking contrast he grudgingly and with loud complaints heals men and cattle, offers sound advice when it is humbly sought and is soon styled by the country people either Canny Elshie or the Wise Wight of Mucklestane Moor. After death in hoary age he will pass into legend as The Black Dwarf. *** Canny Elshie makes it known to the two or three local people who come to know him reasonably well that he hates the human race with a deep, undying passion. Just as no one has ever done him a good deed, so he will return the favor. Yet while he barks and snarls, he rarely bites. He heals and keeps alive men both good and bad. He does this in the firm belief that they are all so selfish, greedy and deep-down evil that, while alive, they can only play an inevitable role in the total destruction of man by man. *** THE BLACK DWARF is a kind of detective story. There are many questions with cleverly scattered clues. What has made the dwarf so misanthropic? Is he a onetime mighty, wealthy nobleman betrayed by a fiancee? Did he kill a man about to stab his best friend in a brawl? Did that friend for a time successfully keep the dwarf in medical confinement while he took control of his estate? Who is the tall mysterious stranger, Mr Ratcliffe, who appears from time to time at Elshie's cabin and disappears as if into thin air? *** Is Elshie in league with the devil? Why is Elshie kind to two young men who are good friends: the well-born but financially strained 'young Earnscliff of that ilk' and the substantial commoner farmer Halbert (Hobbie) Elliot? Could it have been Canny Elshie who had slain young Earnscliff's father nearly two decades earlier? *** Had the immensely strong but hideous dwarf previously been the notably wealthy Roman Catholic Sir Edward Mauley? Had he loved passionately a kinswoman who married his best friend while Sir Edward was serving a year in prison for manslaughter? If so, that might explain his unique affection for the sole offspring of that union, the kind, beautiful young woman, Miss Isabella Vere of Ellieslaw Castle. *** THE BLACK DWARF abounds in intrigue, as discontented Scots and border Englishmen plot to bring back King Charles VIII and III. There are saucy young women, both nobles and commoners. There are bold kidnappings, breathless pursuits and nip-of-time rescues. *** A major factor in this mingling of history and fiction is the self-loathing and misanthropy of Elshender the Recluse. His character shows what psychic wreckage can occur when a rich young man naturally generous is laughed at
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