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Classics You’ve Never Read, Part One: Why Pretend?

Classic: a book that people praise and no one reads.

-Mark Twain

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 Pimpernel is 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…

Tiny flower, BIG action.
Tiny flower, BIG action.

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.

"Chicks dig that romantic crap!"
“Chicks dig that romantic crap!”

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.

Sink me! Nice cravat, wot?
Sink me! Nice cravat, wot?

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.

A Salute to Sekinder: or, How Much Does a Golden Skeleton Weigh?

A post originally published elsewhere in 2012, now brought home to my own site.

This could be amusing to you, or perhaps it will serve as a dark warning about the dangers of writing epic fantasy to the modern world. I’m aiming for both!

I ran into a conundrum when taking notes on the most recent chapter of my WiP, “The Plane of Dreams”. I had first witnessed the events in this tale more than twenty-five years ago; before Hussein had invaded Kuwait, almost before Al Gore had invented the internet. I’m not a scientist, I studied history. But enough excuses. I saw something back then, in the Lands of Hope, and now was starting to doubt the truth of it.

{Brief aside, for anyone tempted to conclude that I made this whole thing up. I repeat, I am not a writer, but a Chronicler, and the event I refer to was witnessed by over a half-dozen others. So, nyah.}

Oh the Places You’ll Go…

To the matter at hand: 26 years ago (real world calendar), a group of heroes and I were observing the fabled underworld city of Jengesalamur in the year 2001 ADR.

The Tributarians, after surviving several weeks on the perilous Shimmering Mindsea, had discovered the ancient city of Despair and come across notes from the journal of Sekinder, the mad alchemist who had been the city’s ruler millenia ago. In his diary, Sekinder made obsessive references to his quest to find the Eternal Reagent, a chemical solution that would turn any substance to gold. After much searching through the city, and fighting against undead guardians there, the heroes came across the alchemist’s laboratory. There, to their horror and astonishment they viewed all that was left of Sekinder: a perfect golden skeleton holding a bubbling alembic over his head in short-lived triumph.

A True Treasure “Haul”

After much rejoicing, a few unkind jokes and some more deadly encounters, the Tributarians hauled the skeletal treasure back to civilization, thus ensuring the fame and fortune with which they began the tale known as “The Plane of Dreams”. Now that I was tasked with writing up that story, a sudden thought gave me a chill- was this even possible? Not the bone-to-gold thing; that we accept as a matter of course. But what would readers say about a golden skeleton?

Could they have moved it? And what would it be worth?

As I said, I am an historian, not a mathematician (or a doctor, to echo James “Bones” McCoy!). My early calculations, containing several important errors, indicated a weight that wImage result for i'm a doctor not an escalatoras beyond credit. I almost panicked- what had I missed? Was gravity in the Lands of Hope as low as that on Barsoom? Was Spitz, the party’s largest warrior, five or six times as strong as my notes indicated? But I knew what I saw, so I plunged back in and eventually straightened out my calculus. You might say I boned up on the subject. But I wouldn’t.

Sekinder was, for all his evil and arrogance, a normal-sized human, a bit thin and tall like others of his era. We can safely assign him a weight of 150 pounds and height around 6 feet.  The weight of a human skeleton (using Bing to find all my mathematical/scientific data points) ranges from 12-20% of the total, and I used the suggested average of 15%. At this point I converted to metric (because of the later calculations needed) so I concluded that Sekinder had 10.13 kg of bones under his skin. Who’d have thought the old man to have so much calcium in him…

He Ain’t Heav– well, OK he’s NOT my brother

If all that mass of bone converted to gold, the total weight (gold being 10.17 times as dense as human bone) would be 102.96 kg (around 225 pounds) of golden treasure on the hoof. Literally.

wikimedia

But just a moment, what about calculating via volume? What is the volume of a human skeleton, and what would that weigh converted to gold? This route yielded a more interesting, and somewhat more alarming figure.

The only solution I could find was to draw an imaginary cylinder around Sekinder. The formula you’re looking for is:

V=πR2h

And assuming Sekinder’s diameter is 2 feet and height 6 feet, you arrive at 32,556 cubic inches. How much of this was comprised of skeleton? I could only guess that it was a small percentage, since the cylinder contained a lot of not-Sekinder within it. I used a figure of 5%, yielding 1,628 cubic inches. Converting to cubic feet and then to cubic meters gave me just 0.03 cubic meters of bone. Seemed small, but that gave me a startlingly-high 50.69 kg of human bone in the alchemist’s body- in gold, a whopping 515 kg (over half a ton in English pounds)!!

Man Enough!

Even so, I realized, Spitz could do the job of moving it.

This is where it gets tricky, because while we observed these heroes of the Lands closely over the years, we couldn’t actually pull them into our world and give them a nice NFL tryout or other means to gauge their strength. But I used some guidelines I had developed in my notes. Please understand that Spitz, at six and a half feet of ripped muscle, is enormously strong. Spitz can use his foot to batter open locked doors, and if he drops his two-handed sword he can snatch up tables and chairs to swing as weapons. He’s also a true shield-brother with a sexy deep voice, charming smile, not a jot of fear and a snazzy dancer. OK, exaggerating about that last bit. But he’s STRONG.

Spitz can lift and carry 90 kg for a long period. So by my first method, he could almost tuck Sekinder-in-gold under his arm and walk away. If he sets his mind to lifting, Spitz can certainly bench-press 125 kg (about as much as he weighs) and dead-lift nearly 180 kg; more than needed by the mass-method, but still short by the volume-method. However, he doesn’t need to lift the statue, he only needs to SHIFT it. With no mechanical assistance, he can push 324 kg, and with maximum exertion Spitz can shift up to 450 kg, which is pretty close. Spitz and the heroes rigged up a travois, like a cot with two wheels on one end, and carted Sekinder off with his arm in the air and that look of astonishment still stamped on his skull-face. Spitz split time with the others in the party (who worked in pairs) hauling it over sand (admittedly, not an ideal surface).

So they WERE able to move Sekinder- affectionately known to the heroes as Golden Boy- though not fast enough to outrun the nine-foot tall iron demon-golem who guarded the city. But that’s another story!

How much was this treasure worth when they got it home? As you will see in the tale, Sekinder was never melted down and cut up into coins; the statue was sold intact as a work of art. So once again I had to estimate. Depending on which method you fancy, the Golden Boy weighed in at either 3,300 or 16,500 Troy ounces (the unit of measure whereby gold is valued in the real world). I didn’t bat an eye at purity- nothing but 24-carat gold, I was sure, would do for an evil alchemist willing to spend that long and work that hard for success. At a current price of $1,657.45 (goldprice.org, noon on Thursday April 26th 2012), that yields a market price (before Imperial taxation of course) of between $US 5.4 and 27.4 million. The Tributarians probably got ripped off on the price, and still were outfitted with new enchantments, the finest equipment, nothing but the best… until the robbery…

So then- how much of all that went into my story? Not one jot.

But yes- evil does not pay (though it can occasionally generate a lot of loot for the good guys). Sekinder did die in the moment of his victory, the Tributarians did haul him back to town, Spitz was bushed (yet still manly), and the heroes were definitely rich as well as famous. It’s a relief to know that my eyes did not deceive me.

Here’s hoping that the internet age won’t rise up to haunt you in your writing.