Tag Archives: History

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.

State of the Lands: Casus Belli

Thou art wise to consider such a synthesis, Solemn. There are worlds aplenty, but only a single nature.

-Final Judgement, The Eye of Kog

This concerns a subject I think is central to most genre fiction and especially epic fantasy, something that’s been tapping on the pane of my mind since I began chronicling. As an amateur military historian I was first drawn to the tales of armed struggles in ancient times. Now working as an analyst I’ve started to categorize things more often, try to get to the underlying causes. And after all, what could be more consequential to your tale than the existence or outbreak of a war?

So then– that raging conflict you’ve got in the background of your medieval mystery-paranormal romance: What’s up with that anyway? I mean, is there a particular reason for both sides to have been locked in a death-grip for the last four centuries, without result? You might want nothing to do with it, but hey, you made people start reading, now you’re stuck with us! Hopefully this article will serve as a handy guide to the many temperatures of tiff your world can get into.

Layers (Conflicts Are Like Ogres)

One thing that’s very important to distinguish at the start is that wars have causes (what Thucydides would call prophasis), which underlie (and even belie) the reasons that one side might give (the proschema). Sometimes these can be close to the same thing, but evil men need excuses (so the Dark Emperor might lust after the wealth or women of your hero’s homeland, but would loudly announce that said hero is a vile sorceror who must be hunted down). I’ve been surprised sometimes at tales where no such distinction is made, though this is strongly affected by the level of the conflict in your world.

I referred to this in a post a while back on the various types of fantasy. In brief, if the tale is epic in scope, that means the world is at stake. This strongly indicates that the bad guys are outright aggressors and neither give, nor have, a good reason for their violent attempt. If Sauron wins, it’s game over for all Middle Earth: curtain down, no more history. He wants it all, because he wants it. Not a lot of wiggle room there. {In heroic fantasy and sword-and-sorcery tales, stakes are lower with much more room for doubt, equivocation, confusion and half-measures.}

Why would an author pass up a chance to explore the casus belli (meaning the triggering act, the stated reason for a war)? No way I could exhaustively list them, but let’s take a stab at some important ones, both from the Alleged Real World and the tales folks have written about other places.

Here’s how I would represent those Greek words I mentioned before, about the real cause and the stated message:

Doesn’t Have to be Complicated

So in the example of Middle Earth, Sauron just wants to conquer everything. It’s possible that his Orcs and evil Men will enjoy life after his victory, but for the most part it’s all going to be his way or the highway. And by the time the war is well underway (The Fellowship of the Ring), Sauron is no longer hiding his intentions, pretty much everyone knows what he wants and the heroes are only arguing about the best way to oppose him. So that maps the War of the Ring–and many other epic fantasy struggles–clearly into the upper left corner.

Forging Justification

Let’s try a tougher one, the German invasion of Poland that started WW 2. In truth, it was naked aggression, invasion of a weaker neighbor to gain lebensraum and secure more power for the Master Race. But the Nazis used their mastery of (and addiction to) propaganda to mask their evil intentions with a staged provocation. Or didn’t you know that the Poles actually invaded Germany first? Usually called the Gleiwitz Incident, the Germans used concentration camp prisoners and stolen uniforms to make it seem that Poles had come across the border and attacked several targets, including a radio station from which they presumably broadcast an anti-German message, thereafter being conveniently shot before authorities could arrive. Not that it cut much ice with the Allies, who appropriately called B.S. within days. But the war was on, and even most Germans had no idea what was really happening (and honestly, many did not much care at that point– but if they had been completely on board, why all the play-acting?).

See how it goes? Think about who really gains from starting the conflict, that’s your left-to-right axis. Then consider whether lots of people, or only a few, really know the true reason or if they’re fighting (perhaps bravely, probably tragically) under a false flag. This one distinction, between prophasis and proschema, by itself could give you a wonderful point of departure for traitors, surprises, disillusionment; in the end I believe it could bring your tale a greater level of heroism.

I’ll try one more and then beg you for advice about a fourth, but hopefully you can already use the blank graph at the top of this article to plot the position of your own wars.

Noble Causes and the Eye of the Beholder

In the American Civil War (yeah, going to step right into the hornet’s nest, why not?) we have a prophasis problem because historians and pundits rage unabated about what REALLY caused the war. Slavery? State’s Rights? Cultural division between North and South had been growing since the Revolution, and as the Southern states saw the balance of power in Washington swing away from them, they banded together to protect their way of life (including of course, their “peculiar institution”).

To the Yanks, a small group of Rebel slaveowners fought to retain their power, and sold their people a bill of goods about preserving their liberty.  On the other hand, “to free the slaves” might have served as a good reason for Northerners to don a uniform (and wealthy Yanks were happy to have the plantation power destroyed). But it’s hard to swallow that thousands of Confederates risked their lives just so the wealthy few could continue to own them. That would be like you and me dodging bullets to protect Bill Gates’ right to keep winning the lottery. And remember, hardly anyone in mid-19th century America believed that blacks should be accorded an equal’s place in society. Lincoln included.

So I’d say the American Civil War could have several plot-points, depending on whether you’re covering the conflict from the Northern or Southern PoV.

In a war, each side tends to swallow its own message as the reason for the fight, and dismiss the enemy’s reason as propaganda. And guess which one gets to write the history?

Final Exam: Mordant’s Need is Also My Own

There are two kinds of people in the reading world: those who already know how mortally cool the Mordant’s Need series by Stephen R. Donaldson is, and those who need a time-out. Don’t be someone who needs a time-out. But if you want me to tap dance on the Spoiler Line, here we go. Just remember, you owe me a plot point when I’m done: tell me where the war goes on my map and why.

The kingdom of Mordant is under siege by the army of the High King (a neighboring empire). The king of Mordant, Joyse, has become senile and refuses to allow any other nation access to his Congery, an association of wizards who “do it all with mirrors” and are the only center of sorcerous power in the world.  All nations have suffered attacks by monstrous creatures, perhaps summoned by a rogue Imager who cannot be traced. The High King’s emissary demands that Joyse hand over access to the Congery so they all can be protected; in response, the insane monarch of Mordant challenges him to a game of checkers, which the emissary does not even know how to play.  That interview does not end well, and the war is on.

So. Plot that! And enjoy thinking about the different driving forces that send your heroes into battle, I hope you come away with some good thoughts to sprinkle into conversations and the central action of your tale.