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Wandering Willie's Tale

by Sir Walter Scott
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How does Scott combine history with the supernatural in order to put forth an ambiguous message to the reader in "Wandering Willie's Tale"?

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Wandering Willie, a colorful tell-teller of a small Scottish town, uses the typical elements of the Gothic genre to convey a legendary story that presumably took place in the Redgauntlet castle; a historical and familiar place to all who listened to the story.

The story is quite simple: a baron, Sir Robert Redgauntlet loses his political power and money, so he resorts to make money from his most faithful tenant, Steenie Steenson. The problem is that Sir Robert, who by now has turned greedy, accuses Steenie of not paying on time, and other unfair accusations regarding his payments. To top things, Sir Robert dies the day Steenie comes with one of his payments, right on the spot, not leaving any record of them being made. As the heir of Sir Robert takes over, he also (his name is Sir John) demands the money again, until it is finally found.

How does the supernatural become linked with history? By interweaving the story with Gothic elements that bring to it a completely different tone and atmosphere. This always results in ambiguity because the dark undertones color the tale and fill in the gaps that mere storytelling may create. For example, Sir Robert was so mean that the townfolk just decided to fill that gap by believing that the reason is a deal with the devil.

Far and wide was Sir Robert hated and feared. Men thought he had a direct compact with Satan; that he was proof against steel, and that bullets happed aff his buff-coat like hailstanes from a hearth; that he had a mear that would turn a hare on the side of Carrifragauns; and muckle to the same purpose, of whilk mair anon.

Willie begins the interweaving of Gothic elements by stating that Sir Robert's butler had heard his master whistle for him even as he lay dead in his funeral. This immediately evokes the attention of the listeners. After the moment that Steenie leaves the presence of Sir John after swearing that he had paid his money, Steenie has a very frightening and supernatural encounter that also reunites historically Gothic elements:

  • isolation
  • a ruined, mysterious estate
  • the presence of the supernatural (ghosts and ghouls inhabited the place, as well as the spirit of Sir Robert)
  • fear and stillness
  • the question of fate: will Steenie come out alive?

When Steenie vows his devotion to God, rather than to Sir Robert, when he is told to give him thanks for disclosing the location of the money, he mysteriously awakens from that enigmatic dream, goes to Sir John with the receipt and the information that was gathered from his horrific encounter, and the situation becomes resolved.

Basically, by adding these rhetoric elements the story of Steenie gains credibility because the audience wants to believe that these things are possible. However, that very element of magic that gives it credibility also gives it ambiguity: the reader and the audience present at Willie's story want to believe the story, but they know that they cannot because it is quite fantastical. Yet, the magical elements do help explain the gaps that Willie may leave behind when telling his tale, and for this reason the natural and the supernatural just work well together. So well that the Gothic even helped close the story by leaving open yet another gap: that the entire event affected Willie's ancestors, and that you never know if you will be the next witness to what Steenie saw:

Look out, my gentle chap,” he resumed, in a different tone; “ye should see the lights at Brokenburn Glen by this time.”

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