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  • Scott's Elementals:Vanishing Points between Space and Narrative in the Waverley Novels
  • Tom Bragg

For all their associations with Enlightenment rationality and the privileging of realism and order over Romantic chaos, Walter Scott's Waverley novels regularly feature a certain irrational, chaotic character type—one whose bizarre behavior and "twilight rationality" seem at odds with the Author of Waverley's calm, authoritative voice. Criticism has long found in some of these characters (such as Guy Mannering's Meg Merrilies, The Heart of Midlothian's Madge Wildfire, and The Antiquary's Edie Ochiltree) a meaningful link between the genteel young man of middling loyalties at the center of Scott's novels—the "wavering" hero described by Georg Lukács—and the peoples, customs and folk cultures they encounter in their journeys. Their surprising wildness is nevertheless authentic, critics argue; they are particularly vivid samplings of local color. As such these marginal characters serve to introduce the staid English observer to the seemingly strange, typically backwards Scots culture, history, and landscapes that Scott is either celebrating or appropriating, depending on whom one asks.1 Like the sturdy peasants, the Mucklebackits and Fairservices of Scott, these "elementals" (as Walter Allen called them in The English Novel) are steeped in genuine Scottishness (132-33). Unlike them, their excessive strangeness and borderline lunacy prompt edgy and unpredictable behavior, which in turn immerses the protagonist and reader in traditional Scottish folk culture and dialect, even if Scott himself has largely adapted the originals and invented most of the tradition.

This linking of the Elementals with local agrarian culture and custom coincides with Lukács' appreciation of Scott's delineation of historical processes "from the bottom," anticipates James Reed's claims for "locality" [End Page 205] and character, and in general confirms the situating of Scott's novels within a realist- and sociopolitically-centered critical tradition (see Reed 50). In these ways and in others, then, the traditional take on the Elementals has been to enlist them in bolstering several of the truisms about Scott's novels—from the assumption that Scott's ethos is basically anti-"romantic" to the privileging of the Scottish over the "Chivalry" novels as constituting Scott's best or most relevant work.2 Two facts about these characters that have gone largely unnoticed are instrumental, however, both in appreciating the narrative and modal complexity of Scott's novels and in forming an understanding of them that comprehends both the Scottish novels and the less-studied Chivalry variety: that the Elementals in Scott appear on non-Scottish soil as well, and thus outside of the geographical and cultural context of Scottish locality, and that their links with the landscapes and ruins mark them as liminal sites between space, character, and narrative modes.

The following analysis of the Elementals at work, on both Scottish and non-Scottish soil, has less in common with the discussions of nationalism and journalistic authenticity that have preoccupied the center of Scott criticism post-Lukács, and which has often unhelpfully restricted critical ideas about what the historical novel is or should be, how it functions, and what kind of history it should contain. Rather, my pointing out the increased significance of the Elemental characters and, in so doing, emphasizing the symbolic, rhetorical, and narrative significance of Scott's spatial descriptions participates in the effort of some critics (such as Judith Wilt and Fiona Robertson) to understand Scott's novels in their totality, as an "internally consistent system" (Robertson 132). This effort means, among other things, highlighting more romantic features of Scott's work that criticism has typically under-emphasized or even regretted, and comprehending them as deliberate choices rather than as sops to public taste or symptoms of artistic laziness. It also means finding relevant continuity between the critically favored Scottish novels (such as Waverley [1814], The Heart of Midlothian [1816], and Rob Roy [1818]) and the often neglected non-Scottish or "Chivalry" novels (such as Ivanhoe [1820], Kenilworth [1821], and The Talisman [1825]).

I have made it the subject of a larger work to emphasize one such continuity: that of shifting and mutable spaces in Scott; a few key concepts of this argument are crucial here...


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pp. 205-226
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