25 January 2010

Favourite words, #1: Dwarf

I once fantasized about making a movie. The slow-burning hero and his feisty heroine, the baddies, the townsfolk, the lynch mob, the crooked speculator, the sheriff and his reformed drunk of a deputy (it was to be a Western): all would be dwarfs. The buildings and props would be to scale, and the horses tethered outside the saloon would be Shetland ponies. Most importantly, the script would be serious, and no reference whatever would be made to the stature of the characters.

By the time the credits rolled, it would be the full-sized people in the audience who felt at odds with the world. For a few minutes, at least, as they spilled into the street, they would feel like giants. The experience would give a true insight into what it is like to be physically different.

You see from this that I have sympathy ("together-suffering") for dwarfs, at least for those who would rather not be small. Hence I refuse even to try to dredge up some horrible, politically correct euphemism. A euphemism is a sure sign that whatever is being described is considered unpleasant, and so is doubly pejorative. If I were a dwarf, "a dwarf" is what I should insist on being called.

This is a splendid sound, beginning with the rare and noble combination "dw", shared by only a fistful of other terms in English, viz, dwale, dwang, dwell, dwindle, dwine. The "dw" helps to convey an air of medieval complexity, the complexity of gloomy, untamed forests where anything can happen. The dwarfs dwell there, in a vast cavern-city where they practise their arts and hoard their treasure. Wagner's dwarfish race of Nibelungs has its origins in the earliest folklore.

The word is august. It carried across the North Sea, from the Teutons - the probable source of those legends - to the Anglo Saxons, who at first pronounced it dwergh. Dr Johnson seems to like it too, and expatiates in his Dictionary thus:
dwarf, n.s. [dweorf, Sax. dwerg, Dutch; sherg, Scottish.]

1. A man below the common size of men.

Get you gone, you dwarf!
You minimus, of hind'ring knot-grass made.

Such dwarfs were some kind of apes. Brown's Vulg. Err.

They but now who seem'd
In bigness to surpass earth's giant sons,
Now less than smallest dwarfs in narrow room
Throng numberless.
Milton's Paradise Lost, b. i. 779.

2. Any animal or plant below its natural bulk.

It is a delicate plantation of trees, all well-grown, fair, and smooth: one dwarf was knotty and crooked, and the rest had it in derision. L'Estrange.

Saw off the head of the stock in a smooth place; and for dwarf trees, graft them within four fingers of the ground. Mortimer's Art of Husbandry.

3. An attendant on a lady or knight in romances.

The champion stout,
Eftsoones dismounted from his courser brave,
And to the dwarf a-while his needless spear he gave.
F. Qu.

4. It is often used by botanists in composition; as, dwarf elder, dwarf honeysuckle.
To which I would add "dwarf willow", that crucial plant of the north; but I would rather hurry along and expand on definition (3). Dr Johnson has unerringly chosen the most felicitous of Spenser's lines, in Book I, Canto i of The Faerie Queene, about Una's dwarf. Yet there are other contenders. The character's introduction, in the sixth stanza after the proem, is wonderfully evocative:

Behind her far away a dwarf did lag,
That lazy seem'd in being ever last,
Or wearied with bearing of her bag
Of needments at his back.

Her dwarf is wise as well faithful. At the mouth of Error's cave, standing beside Una and her Redcross Knight, he counsels:

"Fly, fly!" quoth then
The fearful dwarf, "this is no place for living men."

But full of fire and greedy hardiment,
The youthful knight could not for aught be stayed,
But forth unto the darksome hole he went.

... which leads us back to the subterranean and the paranormal, if not to the Nibelungs, and there I think this particular discourse has found a place to rest.

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