Tag Archives: world-building

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.

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/76068681178215277/?lp=true

Classics You’ve Never Read: Only Human

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

-Mark Twain

Welcome back to the series for the half-honest cheaters among us, those who always say “oh yeah, great story” whenever the classics are mentioned, but have only experienced them in front of the TV set. Few have called me out to date, so I dare to continue by looking at the classic book which most directly confronts a central fantasy theme, the question of humanity in a genre filled with other races, extraordinary beings, monsters, creatures and life in all its forms. Writers of epic and heroic fantasy have choices. What makes a being human? Why do we sympathize with a character of a different race? What defines us as humans?

Incoming
Incoming

This is a theme that’s almost the exclusive preserve of fantasy and science fiction (not counting those soap operas where someone cries out metaphorically “you’re an inhuman monster!”). A big advantage of epic fantasy is you can have a race that’s incorrigibly, irreversibly evil- Orcs, Trolls, shades, zombies, however you see it the heroes don’t have to exercise restraint. Just rear back and wail on them: they aren’t “human”.

By the same token, you can have people three feet tall destined to live 150 years hobnobbing with a race twice their height of immortal stature. Yet, we get it- they’re on the right side and we can see the story through their eyes. But what is it that makes them this way? Where is that line drawn? Here’s your guide book: The Island of Doctor Moreau.

Everybody’s Heard or Seen It, But…

drmoreaucover2Probably the least read of H.G. Wells’s “Big Four” masterworks, the theme of unspeakable experiments on animals to create a race of Beast-Men (in the holy name of science) is about as widely penetrated an idea as modern culture holds. Written in 1896, an age when vivisection on animals was still widely practiced, the tale lays out a near-reality story of animals put through excruciating, constant pain and awarded straighter backs, voice boxes, crude hands and more. They walk erect, they speak and appear to reason, and though they fall far short of the good doctor’s hopes still they follow The Law… for a while…

I can’t speak highly enough of this book. But I warn you not to read it. Well, I mean don’t unless you’re feeling up to some gritty, ugly and effective prose. This is no Time Machine, with suit-wearing scientists debating physics over brandy and cigars. Our main character is marooned, isolated, immediately placed under the highest emotional and physical pressure you could have in a real-world setting… and THEN the evidence of Moreau’s experiments begins. Wells wrote this book early in his science-fiction career, but it’s plain he knows exactly what he’s doing. His were the originals from which so many copies were made, not just in his themes- like time travel, utopian society, forbidden experiments and more- but in prose that sets the tone for so many cliched phrases to come after it. Here’s a sample, from the protagonist’s early emaciated state:

… my eye caught my hand, so thin that it looked like a dirty skin-purse full of loose bones… (p. 4)

A Tale Without Heroes: The Love of Not-Liking

Throughout the work, he uses just enough words to scrape your nerves raw. And he leaves you nowhere to turn sympathetically, because this piece has no heroes in it. The main character Prendick (a simply awful name, maybe Wells’ only misstep) is vacillating and fearful, the assistant Montgomery is an undisciplined, vulgar drunk, and Moreau… Wells really broke through here, with a character who perfectly embodies the sterile, driven, uber-rational and ultimately INhuman scientist. Moreau bitterly regrets the lost hour spent  saving Prendick’s life when he is marooned, shows not one scrap of sympathy for anyone or anything, yet has no real anger, no passion and of course not a drop of love in him.drmoreaucover

I re-read the conversation between Moreau and Prendick when it finally comes to light what the doctor is doing to animals; there’s a heat-wave in my state right now, and I tell you it was better than air conditioning. I have seldom felt such a chill, to read of a man so dispassionately determined to inflict agony on his victims, brushing aside any objection based on mercy, or decency, in order to get one hour further into his personal understanding of the morphing of animal forms to something closer to “human”- as if there was a scrap of real humanity in him to start with. Moreau stabs his own leg with a penknife to demonstrate that he has severed all the pain-endings in his own body. I couldn’t read through it fast enough.

Next thing you know, the MC is among the Beast-Men, and now the creepiness really begins. The tale assumes that the essential intelligence and rationality of a human being are largely locked up inside every kind of animal- Moreau makes a passing reference to changes in the brain that he’s able to add- so they all talk and understand. There’s a constant pull in them, though, back to their beastly natures- they live in a ravine and endlessly recite The Law to keep themselves on track. “Not to walk on all fours- that is The Law” one chants, and the rest respond “Are we not Men?” The parallel to religion is both unmistakable and pretty depressing- as Wells himself called the tale, “youthful blasphemy” indeed. islandofdrmoreau7704

But you can’t help thinking, what is it anyway? Some of the Beast-Men are awful by nature, some more friendly to the MC but not admirable, and a few- the doomed puma-man, for example- want so fiercely to be free you can’t help but sympathize. So, not being human is the closest we can get to being human?  Moreau himself, the Lawgiver, stands in the place of a horrible deity, inflicting pain for sin and trying to uplift the sinners (though hardly meaning to save them). The main character is haunted during his time on the island by the parallels he recalls to  his former society:

I would see one of the clumsy bovine-creatures who worked the launch treading heavily through the undergrowth, and find myself asking, trying hard to recall, how he differed from some really human yokel trudging home from his mechanical labours; or I would meet the Fox-bear woman’s vulpine, shifty face, strangely human in its speculative cunning, and even imagine I had met it before in some city byway. (p. 67)

The Ending You Get, With This Beginning

The boats wrecked, the guns low on bullets, Prendick lives among the Beast-Men as just a less hairy, somewhat more upright and high-talking animal. The Law slowly dissolves and his life is surely forfeit, but Providence intervenes and his journal survives for us to read. Maybe Prendick survives too- I’ll leave it to you to decide.

Time for a true confession from me- I have only seen clips of the movie-versions for this ghastly tale. The 1977 issue with Burt Lancaster and Michael York is as dated as you might expect, and what little I saw of the Marlon Brando-doctor almost made me nostalgic for Jor-El. But here’s a good clip that demonstrates the horror our protagonist (played by York) is supposed to feel, and giving a pretty good sense of the power of The Law.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kONqJoTMlk&w=420&h=315]

But, But, Gotta’ Have a MOVIE!

Now stretch your mind and try to imagine what major plot element is missing from the original book but which Hollywood producers saw fit to include in both movies. Are you thinking hard? Are you seeing a hot babe and a romantic angle? Yeah, me too. Doctor Moreau has a daughter, of shall we say questionable genetic background but certainly urging you to judge her book by its cover in both flicks. Fairuze Balk played Aissa in the Brando version- trust me, she’s dynamite. Here’s Barbara Carrera as Josephine Moreau with Michael York:

Stirring animal passions- as if the original tale wasn't enough?
Stirring animal passions- as if the original tale wasn’t enough?

By the way, York’s character is Andrew Braddock, a massive improvement over the name Edward Prendick. And Burt Lancaster’s Moreau has some ethics, a noble goal. The original is horribly amoral, makes C.S. Lewis’s Dr. Weston look like the Salvation Army. One nice bit of trivia- in Well’s original story, Prendick spends a fair amount of time suspecting that Moreau is transforming people into animals, rather than the other way around. In the movies, and some other versions seen around pop culture- I think of cartoon episodes like Thundarr the Barbarian and Batman– this is explored. But they only have twenty minutes, so I don’t see that they come to much of a different conclusion than Wells did. It’s better to be dead than a Beast-Man: and it’s better to be a dead Beast-Man than Dr. Moreau.

I downloaded the book from Kindle’s free classics (reference below) and I must say, it’s a steal at that price. You clip along at a race-car pace and my progress was all the faster since I have it on my phone as well as the PC- and they sync whenever I switch from one to the other. I’ve already praised the dictionary feature- “Apia?” one click and now you know what the capital of Samoa is. Some formatting issues and the old habit of not putting new quote marks at the start of each paragraph sometimes confused me as to who was speaking, or whether we had reverted to internal narration. But Wells’ words must be read to fully appreciate his mastery- you can say the same of all the sci-fi classics he’s responsible for, and their constant translation into movies, TV episodes, and other genres testifies to his genius.

Humanity in the Stars?

I don’t see where Wells gives us a clear distinction of what makes a being a human being- he focuses more on the many ways we can be dishonorable and unworthy of the title. The Beast-Men speak, think, laugh, marry… he sets no standard as to what crosses that important line. As the Beast-Men lose their way, they revert to all-fours and their speech becomes horribly softened and slower; but Prendick still sees in their eyes the fear of what is slipping away, and the knowledge they still have locked up inside their mute mouths.

The best Wells can do at the end is urge us to back up, and look up- see the whole picture instead of each person:

There is–though I do not know how there is or why there is–a sense of infinite peace and protection in the glittering hosts of heaven. There it must be, I think, in the vast and eternal laws of matter, and not in the daily cares and sins and troubles of men, that whatever is more than animal within us must find its solace and its hope. I hope, or I could not live. (p.108)lawsayer

The Greeks would have agreed, saying that man is different from the world’s animals because they look down toward the ground, but we look up at the stars.

In the Lands of Hope some remnants of irredeemably evil, inhuman races exist, garruk and undead and others in the distant corners of the kingdoms. Created by Despair’s Lieges, they seek only to destroy and can be resisted with every effort of body and mind: no one believes they have souls, least of all themselves (though some are rational and have speech). Rare indeed would be the sage to argue that a garruk or a grinaki were human.

Then too the Lands once were ruled by evil men and elves, the Children of Despair (centuries earlier, when they occupied the world), who outwardly look like the Land’s Hopeful inhabitants. They were literally born to Despair, raised to believe that the powerful deserve to prosper while the weak suffer, and sought in those days with every breath and plan to put half-beastthemselves above others and receive that comfort or at least inflict that pain. They would not hesitate to experiment as Moreau did- and I can assure you, had Wells’ suppositions been proven out by science, there would have been no shortage of mid-20th century doctors to do so either. But in the more recent history of the Lands  there are others, born to Hope who have turned to evil, albeit on a much more mundane level. Criminals and conspirators, a few- the Law deals with them, following procedure and restraint in recognition of their humanity. Do the Children of Despair give second chances? Do they believe in a soul, or redemption even by their own twisted guides? None have said, at least not to me. But I doubt it. To my mind it is in the ability to forgive, to accord a second chance, that humans can distinguish their efforts from those of the beasts. Animals can show affection, but seldom if ever mercy.

And if I err in this judgment, I hope I may be forgiven by you dear reader. Like Wells, I hope or I could not live. As for my mistakes- I’m only human.

-Wells, H. G. (Herbert George) (2004-10-14). The Island of Doctor Moreau . Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.