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Classic: a book that people praise and no one reads.
I might set a record for confusing new readers before they even finish the title. If you just came in, I’m blogging about works of heroic fantasy everyone would recognize, but few of us may have read. So you might wish to return to Part Onebefore continuing, where I used the work of the Baroness d’Orczy to explore the theme of the secret identity. And I promised there, that this theme would cover two great works of heroic derring-do, fairly close in time but far apart in geography (though both are set in the Alleged-Real World). So, who ranks alongside The Scarlet Pimpernel as one of the earliest heroes with a secret identity? Of course, it’s the main character of that incredibly famous tale… The Curse of Capistrano!!
Subtitle: The Mark of Zorro
Indeed, one of the all-time bad title choices in history, I’d say. Johnston McCulley published this immortal yarn under a name that makes me think of swallows pooping on your car, back in 1919 as a serial in five installments of the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly. I’ve been keeping an eye on the way the written works wend into other forms, and this is one of the great good luck stories for any aspiring author to remember. Who knows what would have become of this little tale with that title and publisher: but the great movie stars Fairbanks and Pickford saw it and decided it would make a great debut movie for their new studio. The rest is certainly history- a big hit for United Artists (!), causing McCulley to re-issue the tale as a novel, and the title we’ve all known has stuck ever since. Whew.
In the Solar System of Fantasy, Zorro clearly ranks as Cinematic Heroic for its rollicking style and humorous escapades. I smiled practically the whole time reading, much as I did during The Princess Bride. Where Percy plans, Don Diego seems only to act- he barges into a room, then conducts a duel, hurls an insult, whistles up his horse, rides like the wind. Both men, in their mild-mannered alter egos, refuse to duel a hothead in a way that makes them seem ridiculous. But The Pimpernel never once draws his weapon or throws a punch, whereas Zorro cannot seem to keep his sword in its scabbard.
There He Is!
This brings me to one main point- Zorro is REAL. I mean, he’s got a mask, he rides a horse- he’s actually THERE in the scenes, taunting his foes and daring to speak words of love to the gorgeous Senorita Lolita. People see him, take a shot at his back, duck his blade- the Pimpernel is a name, but there is no “him” there, just his many disguises. The contrast between Zorro and Don Diego Vega is shown to the reader, often within the breadth of a single fast-paced page. Time and again, the poetic, disinterested, weak Don Diego begs the need to retire and rest, trudging from the room- and mere seconds later, the dashing masked outlaw has arrived through a window, to announce another breathtakingly bold and honorable intention. The hero pledges his love, or promises revenge, laughs, leaps, disappears- and here just a moment later the tired caballero Don Diego returns, complaining of the noise and horrified to hear that Zorro just left.
So we come to another big point- our hero not only has a secret identity, he uses it to stay close to the action as well as far from suspicion. Don Diego complains of any exertion, even the need to woo Lolita, but most of all he bemoans how this masked menace ruins any chance for quiet contemplation. Seldom has an alter-ego been so openly disdainful of his heroic side. If this was a stage-play, you’d need your costumes fitted with velcro seams to get on and off in time. Though the action of the tale is fast-paced and seems random, we find by the end that Don Diego, like Sir Percy, has been planning this meticulously. Everyone believes he cannot be Zorro because he’s been acting this way since he was fifteen.
Behind the Mask
The differences between Zorro and the Scarlet Pimpernel are legion. Blakeney has a cadre of followers from the start, and acts to save them. Zorro only recruits the other young caballeros very near the end, and they play a key role in rescuing him. British and Spanish honor aim at somewhat different targets but both men pursue them with vigor. Taking a lady’s arm is about as far as they go in Britain, but the Spanish dare to hope that they may kiss her hand. Yeah, me either. I was surprised to note how many times Zorro wielded a pistol; the writer made it clear each time that he was only balancing the odds before forcing a man to duel him unaided (at which point the pistol in his other hand becomes a liability for Zorro). The Pimpernel leaves his mark in red, but only on paper, and he uses a pen: Zorro, of course chooses a somewhat more dramatic medium and settles for a single letter.
But the biggest difference, to my mind, is in the writing. Ms. D’Orczy really reaches some literary heights with her comparisons and descriptions, whereas Mr. McCulley aims only for a riotous romp filled with action but very little scene-setting and almost no reflection. Zorro would be sword and sorcery except the entire country is imperiled by the corrupt government and cruel soldiers who run it as the story opens. He is Robin Hood without the bow, breaking the law to serve justice. Blakeney risks his life as the Pimpernel but has an entire nation to run to for safety. Zorro has only his mask and wits to hide from his enemies.
Read It Yourself
I procured a digital copy of the original book from Amazon on my laptop Kindle; the full title is Zorro: the Curse of Capistrano and Six Stories, all by Johnston McCulley. The usual missed words here and there, a couple of repeated phrases- it happens with these quick transcriptions, but I’m happier with that when it’s free than this time when I paid $2.99. . I was interested in the other tales, but oddly, while the plots were interesting the level of the writing came nowhere near that of Zorro. The tone of McCulley’s other stories runs closer to Robert E. Howard and other pulp
writers of the day- darker, less fun, and I’m sorry to say less inspired. Again, good plots and some nice touches but overall stick with Zorro.
I was just too young to enjoy the Disney TV serial version: I can only picture Guy Williams wearing a spacesuit. I grew up expecting to see The Fox with the bullwhip, not a pistol, alongside the rapier, and the movie-versions I’ve seen did not disappoint. Using Antonio Banderas in the most recent movies (as a “Zorro 2”) was as natural a choice as taking Michael Jordan for pick-up basketball: and as for Catherine Zeta-Jones… my Lord, what words could suffice? I really enjoyed those movies and think they truly carried the spirit of the book (in a somewhat different- certainly more explosive- setting). It’s hard to name a character from a century ago who has seen more rebirths on film, TV, comics and elsewhere.
Sure, But Can It Work In Your Tale?
In “straight” heroic and epic fantasy, the characters seldom resort to disguise or secret identity. Frodo and Sam try to sneak into Mordor wearing orc armor, and sometimes one of Arthur’s knights or Robin Hood would don a disguise for adventure. But to create another character or persona is rare- as a fantasy author, you have enough to do introducing a new person (and his or her world) to your readers, without layering on more! This is one reason Feldspar in Fencing Reputation can get away with his many guises- no one around him in the city of Cryssigens would consider hiding their “real” selves, they spend all their time and money advertizing exactly who they are for fame and influence. So the infamous stealthic can adopt not just one, but a dozen guises and no one is the wiser- including Feldspar, who comes to have a bit of an identity crisis in the tale when he decides to “just be himself”.
Secret identity as usually seen in the comics provides the hero with a safety-valve, a way to interact with people without endangering their lives, and sometimes a chance to collect information which they then use in hero-guise. Also, wearing spandex all day can raise issues in the mall bathroom. Finally, we’ve seen themes in the comics lately to indicate that if heroes “came out” on a more full-time basis, the world itself would react and change: becoming more of a straight fantasy or sci-fi setting. Keeping a hero under wraps and letting a regular guy do the work allows the author to stay grounded in a “default real world” background, and limits dreaded world-building to a minimum (things like hiding the lair, managing the costume change). There could easily be fantasy stories where evil has run so far amok that a secret identity would be useful to the hero.
I’d be interested to hear your recollections of such instances in “pure” fantasy.
Classic: a book that people praise and no one reads.
I hope you enjoy my attempt to create a series of blogs around great works of heroic fiction that most folks haven’t read. Several of these I have mentioned before in one forum or another but now I want to try and do several things: amuse you, get you interested in checking them out, and perhaps find a window into the writer’s craft through these past works that resonate with us so well in other forms.
There’s no shame in seeing the movie, let me hasten to mention that. In nearly every case I can think of, I found the book to be better, but usually that was only after seeing the tale. When a classic is redone, it’s interesting to see whether the basic inner stuff of it has changed. I find, most often not; even Hollywood doesn’t always screw that up!
This Question of Disguises, Now…
For my first theme, I want to look at two great classics that share one such common idea. Their heroes, set in almost the same time period but halfway around the world, do the same thing when faced with evil. They adopt a secret identity. This raises a great question, one that classic heroic and epic fantasy seldom touches on- why pretend?
Most folks know why Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent took on a mild-mannered alter ego- freedom to act and the need to protect loved ones from harm. But Superman and Batman, it turns out, were far from the first.
The Scarlet Pimpernelis widely thought to be the first hero in history to have a secret identity. It’s also one of the first heroic fantasy tales authored by a woman, the Baroness d’Orczy in 1903. There’s definitely something up with that, and if I say much more I’ll be accused (with justice) of chauvinism. But I’m here to tell you, guys aren’t nearly as interested in hiding their powers as women are in believing this dope before them truly has hidden talents. Deep water here, and I don’t swim well…
This is a gorgeous tale of death and danger in the blackest days of the French Revolution, when the Reign of Terror was eating people by the hundreds. Faking his disinterested, foppish life as a useless English dandy, Sir Percy Blakeney conceals from everyone- including his beautiful new French wife- that he secretly commands, as one of his followers puts it, “nineteen men who would lay down their lives” for him. Guided by his brilliant mind, the Pimpernel and his gang outwit the horrid, cruel, secular (!) French soldiers and agents to save dozens of innocent French aristocrats from the guillotine’s embrace. Then he returns to English society sporting the latest fashions, on the arm of his wife making witty remarks and annoying everyone- especially her- with his “inane laughter”.
The Best Intentions
We discover as the story moves briskly along that there has been a terrible misunderstanding crossing the main characters, one that probably won’t be happily resolved and which could lead to Blakeney’s death. He had only started his career of rescuing French nobility when he married the gorgeous Parisian actress Marguerite, whom he secretly still worships. For her part, Marguerite defended her beloved brother Armand by speaking down about a leading aristocrat, and her denunciation led to the death of that entire family- staining her with suspicion of sympathy for the Revolution. Blakeney adopts the guise of a flaccid fool, always honoring his wife and giving her every luxury but never letting on that he could be the mysterious hero capable of leading such daring and intelligent escapes. She is stung by the change in her husband and resorts to sarcasm, making fun of him in an effort to rouse the man she thought she knew. All this makes her look even more guilty to Blakeney’s heartbroken view. And when the dastardly French agent Chauvelin gets wind that Marguerite’s brother Armand may be helping the Pimpernel, he blackmails her with the young man’s life in order to enlist her help in exposing the enemy of the Revolution.
One remarkable aspect of this secret identity theme is that the hero is so obviously torn; he dare not let Marguerite know the truth because she appears to side with the enemy. Yet Percy is hopelessly in love with his wife still. After a moonlit encounter on their veranda where Marguerite implores him to be more truthful with her, he holds firm as the lazy, disinterested dandy until she turns to go. Then he throws himself to the tiles and kisses the ground whereon she walked. I’m telling you, chicks dig this stuff!
But the other aspect that may be of interest to the writer is that this situation compels us to see almost nothing directly from the hero’s point of view. For at least three-quarters of the story, you search for the Scarlet Pimpernel along with everyone else (you do better than they do). Nothing is told from Percy’s perspective until close to the end; there is a level of remove where you don’t read what he thinks or feels, only what he says and does. This increases the tension and reveals his character beautifully, whereas an omniscient third-person view would struggle hard not to seem maudlin or cute. Much of the heart of the tale is really from Marguerite’s point of view. The moment when the awful truth finally breaks down the doors of her mind- when she realizes that she has already led her husband, the man she always loved, into Chauvelin’s death-trap- is the height of the story.
What Hollywood Made of It
Hugh Grant did well enough in the movie-version I would say, but the earlier flick with Leslie Howard (who played Ashley Wilkes in “Gone with the Wind”) sticks in my head. Ironically, it was Howard who immortalized the phrase “Sink me!” coming from the dandy Sir Blakeney; yet in the first book of The Scarlet Pimpernel Blakeney never uses that phrase. Also Merle Oberon perfectly matches my image of Marguerite.
In summary, we have a tale in which the hero adopts a secret identity specifically to prevent his plans from being overset and to keep his men from even greater danger. And he takes this foppish guise chiefly to keep the tale away from his beloved- not because he fears harm to her, but because he suspects she is his enemy. This sets up tremendous pathos and conflict in every scene they spend together, and d’Orczy exploits this original idea with fabulous prose that cuts to the heart of the scene each time. Her descriptions, dialogue and turns of phrase are uniformly apt and convey the emotion without slowing the pace too much. I think like any reader, I had moments where I “got it already” and was a bit impatient when she lingered on an image or reinforced an emotion, but there was nothing here to take me out of the tale for a second. I would rank The Scarlet Pimpernel as classic Heroic Fantasy (using my Fantasy Solar System taxonomy), shading towards Cinematic mood in places, particularly where Percy adopts an ingenious disguise despite his enemies knowing what to watch for.
Final bit of trivia- it was first put up as a stage play and evidently struggled, but the novel was published in the same year and did wonderfully right away. And I would rank The Scarlet Pimpernel as one of my top three ever Broadway shows- “Into the Fire” still makes me stand up and cheer out loud.
Read it For Free
I downloaded The Scarlet Pimpernel for free to my phone from Amazon Kindle Classics- this is a wonderful value for me because I’m often traveling or without my laptop and can still read quite easily on the phone. I can change the background and font-size to suit my failing eyes, and the only feature I miss from the laptop version is the automatic dictionary. The free versions do suffer from imperfect formatting and there is the occasional mis-spelled word or even repeated phrase, but it’s nothing to pull down your enjoyment of the tale. Here’s another site to get it as an e-book, and you can also listen to it as an audio-book.
So, which tale is set at the same time, but far away and also makes use of a secret identity? Stay tuned for Part Two! And let me know how you reacted to any version of The Scarlet Pimpernel you may have seen or read.