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Gothic Existentialism in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris

Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), better known to English readers as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, due to the title chosen by Frederic Shoberl for his 1833 translation of the novel into English, is a curious book that can’t quite decide if it’s a novel, an exposé on fifteenth-century Paris, or a treatise on medieval architecture. For the modern reader, the result is impatience, some boredom, and a surprise because the story is not at all what one expects as a result of all the extratextual materials available. But most importantly for our purposes here, it is a key text in Gothic literature.

Frollo and Quasimodo in the 1996 Disney film

Let me clarify that by extratextual, I mean all of the extra materials inspired by the book, including the films, comic books, and cameo appearances of the Hunchback (his name is Quasimodo, though it is generally forgotten) in a variety of horror-related films and TV series. For example, in the 1996 TV film The Munsters’ Scary Little Christmas, the Hunchback shows up to the Christmas party as part of The Munsters’ extended family. However, most of us probably know the Hunchback best from one of the many film productions, including the 1923 silent film with Lon Chaney, the 1939 film with Charles Laughton, the 1982 TV film with Anthony Hopkins, and the 1996 Disney animated film, which later was adapted into a more Gothic musical in Germany, and whose English cast album was released in 2015. All of these many versions cause people to believe they know the story, but Hugo’s original tale has been bastardized, romanticized, and deeply changed in most of these versions, including a frequently happy ending where Esmeralda rides off with Phoebus into the sunset. Hugo’s version is far darker, and perhaps less to our taste today, but it is still worth reading for its Gothic elements and its philosophy about life.

The story behind the novel is that Hugo was hired in November 1828 to write a two volume novel in the style of Sir Walter Scott. In 1823, he had favorably reviewed Scott’s Quentin Durward (according to A. J. Krailshemer’s “Introduction” to the Oxford World Classics’ edition). Scott’s influence is obvious in the historical elements of Notre-Dame de Paris, and yet, at the end of his life, Hugo denied ever writing a historical novel. That is not to say he disowned the book, but that he did not see it as historical. This is surprising given the novel’s many historical elements and Hugo’s great efforts to create an accurate depiction of the book’s physical and historical setting, but he obviously saw the novel’s Gothic and Romantic elements as more important than the historical ones. According to Krailshemer, while generally appreciative of Scott’s work, as his review of Quentin Durward shows, “Hugo regretted the absence of a truly epic dimension, a broadly sweeping view which would give the narrative some deeper meaning.”

The novel’s most overwhelming Gothic element is the cathedral itself. It is the equivalent of the discovered manuscript in most Gothic novels. Hugo wrote the novel largely to create interest in the cathedral and to help restore it. Throughout the novel, he talks about the importance of preserving architecture, and he even discusses how the printing press has killed architecture (in Book V, Chapter 2, “This Will Kill That”). Hugo argues that the great buildings of the past, especially cathedrals, were the books of their day, because they told stories, made statements, and generally educated the population in religion, politics, and history. The novel begins with Hugo claiming to have discovered an inscription in the cathedral, a Greek word, which he later claims was removed. I suspect the inscription is completely fictional and Hugo is here using a fictional technique to give authenticity to his tale. In fact, we learn Claude Frollo incised the word on the wall with a pair of compasses (Book 7, Chapter 4). This word is ’ANÁΓKH, and in the novel’s context, it appears to mean fate, compulsion, or determinism. While Christianity teaches that humans have free will, the novel ultimately shows that all the characters play out what are their natural propensities, unable to resist their natural passions or desires that ultimately lead to their destruction. We see this in how Frollo’s obsession with Esmeralda undoes his reason; we see it in how despite Frollo’s efforts to raise Jehan in a moral way, Jehan becomes a wastrel; we see it in how Esmeralda’s passion for Phoebus causes her to stupidly reveal her hiding place to the soldiers, thus leading to her execution, and we see it in Quasimodo, whose love for Esmeralda causes him to kill Frollo, the only one who loves him, and then to end his own life by burying himself in the tomb with Esmeralda, even though his love for her has been unrequited, as is the case with all the love in the novel. Indeed, not one character in the novel has his or her love returned, although most of the characters do feel love for someone. Ultimately, while the novel can be described as Gothic, historical, or Romantic, in many ways it feels like a precursor to the Naturalist movement of writers like Emile Zola.

Victor Hugo claimed he never wrote a historical novel.

But Notre-Dame de Paris’ role as Gothic literature is what most interests us here. A look at the three main characters, Claude Frollo, Esmeralda, and Quasimodo, will highlight the way Hugo effectively uses Gothic elements to create his dramatic and somewhat existential tale. Existential because, in the end, one has to wonder if the novel has any meaning other than to show the inability of the characters to create any sort of meaning and to show that the world is ultimately devoid of any supernatural forces, benevolent or sinister, to aid or even sympathize with humans, despite their religious beliefs.

 

Claude Frollo

Although later editions of the novel were named for Quasimodo, The Archdeacon of Notre Dame would perhaps be a more accurate title for the book because everything that happens in the novel begins with actions set into motion by Claude Frollo, Notre Dame’s Archdeacon.

Claude has many of the aspects of the Gothic Wanderer figure. Indeed, all three of the best known characters, Claude, Esmeralda the gypsy, and Quasimodo the hunchback, are Gothic Wanderer figures. Because Claude is our villain, however, he is the truest Gothic wanderer. He is strict in his religious beliefs, and yet incapable of overcoming his baser nature. Hugo develops his character early on by telling us what the people of Paris say about him, expressing their beliefs that he is a sorcerer. In time, we learn he is not, but he is obsessed with alchemy, which was aligned with sorcery in the medieval mind. Among Hugo’s inspirations for the novel was Henri Sauval’s Histoire et recherches des antiquités de la ville de Paris (1724). Among other things, Sauval mentions the statues and figures in Notre Dame and other buildings that alchemists associate with the mystery of finding the philosopher’s stone. Frollo is obsessed with learning the secret of the philosopher’s stone, which could allegedly turn lead into gold. In Gothic fiction, this secret is believed to be known to the Rosicrucians, and while Hugo does not mention the Rosicrucians, he may have been influenced by this aspect of the Gothic novel. Further research would be needed to learn if he had read such Rosicrucian novels as William Godwin’s St. Leon (1799), whose main character acquires the philosopher’s stone. However, it has been speculated that Hugo was himself a Rosicrucian or a member of some other similar secret order. This would not be surprising since his contemporary, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, was a Rosicrucian and the author of the Rosicrucian novel Zanoni (1842).

Frollo is an alchemist determined to discover how to create gold. He is obsessed with the gold of sunbeams and believes that in them lies the secret. However, the act of creating gold was itself considered a transgression against God. It was seeking to overturn the laws of nature and considered forbidden knowledge. The possession of such a stone would allow the owner to introduce gold into circulation, which would upset nations’ economies and also enrich the owner, giving him power to become a world leader. Such is the situation St. Leon experiences in Godwin’s novel (I discuss St. Leon in depth in my book The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption). Consequently, Frollo is committing a transgression through his alchemy efforts.

Frollo is so gung ho in these efforts that he goes to the house of Nicolas Flamel, who has died decades earlier, but was reputedly an alchemist himself. There Frollo occupies himself in:

Frollo and Quasimodo in the 1923 film.

“turning over the earth in the two cellars whose buttresses had been daubed with countless verses and hieroglyphs by Nicolas Flamel himself. Flamel was supposed to have buried the philosophers’ stone in these cellars and the alchemists for two hundred years, from Magistri to Father Pacifique, did not cease from tossing the soil about until the house, so roughly excavated and ransacked, finally turned to dust beneath their feet.” (Book 4, Chapter 5)

Frollo’s quest for forbidden knowledge eventually draws the attention of King Louis XI, who comes to him in secret, and together, they debate on astrology, medicine, and alchemy. The king thinks Frollo mad, but he needs money, so he wants to find the philosopher’s stone and they frequently talk after that. Frollo tells King Louis “to make gold is to be god. That is the only science.” (Book 5, Chapter 1) That Frollo wishes to be God is itself a transgression—the ultimate transgression of pride, which caused Lucifer’s fall from heaven.

Frollo’s quest for forbidden knowledge takes a new turn when he begins to lust over Esmeralda, who represents another type of forbidden knowledge because as a member of the clergy, Frollo has taken a vow of chastity, so the knowledge of sex is also forbidden to him.

I will pass over the details of Frollo’s attempts to deride and also seduce Esmeralda, but his interest in her transforms him metaphorically into a type of supernatural being. As he realizes the lust he has for her, a woman and a gypsy whom he should otherwise abhor, he realizes the relationship between love and hate, and how his position in society has caused him to turn love into hate.

“As he thus delved into his soul, when he saw what spacious provision nature had made in it for passions, he laughed all the more bitterly. He stirred up all the hatred, all the malice in his innermost heart, and recognized, with the cool eye of a physician examining a patient, that this hatred and malice was nothing but vitiated love; that love, source of every human virtue, could, in a priest’s heart, turn into something horrible, and that a man constituted like him, by becoming a priest became a devil. Then he gave a dreadful laugh, and suddenly paled again as he contemplated the most sinister aspect of his fatal passion, of that corrosive, poisonous, hateful, implacable love whose only outcome had been the gallows for one of them, hell for the other: she condemned, he damned.” (Book 9, Chapter 1)

We can almost feel sorry for Frollo here. Had he not had to take his unnatural vow of chastity, he could have married and had release from his lust. Had he sought after good things rather than the philosopher’s stone, he might not have isolated himself from mankind. Now his love for Esmeralda has made him into a devil, a type of supernatural being. Esmeralda recognizes this when he visits her in her cell, calling him a “monster.” In response, he begs for mercy:

“‘Mercy! mercy!’ murmured the priest, pressing his lips to her shoulders.

“She seized his bald head in both hands by his remaining hair, and strove to ward off his kisses as if they had been bites.

“‘Mercy!’ the wretched man repeated. ‘If you knew what my love for you is like! It’s fire, molten lead, thousands of knives in my heart!’

“And he held her arms still with superhuman strength. Distraught, she said: ‘Let me go, or I’ll spit in your face!’

“He let her go: ‘Degrade me, hit me, be vicious! Do whatever you like! But mercy! love me!’”

(Book 9, Chapter 6)

Here we see how Esmeralda has Frollo under her spell as if she is the one with the supernatural power, and he must beg mercy from her, yet she calls him a monster and she avoids his kisses as if they are bites, and just a few lines later, she does call him a “vampire.” He meanwhile holds her with superhuman strength—an attribute Quasimodo also shares.

Later, in one of the novel’s most vividly Gothic scenes, Pierre Gringoire (Esmeralda’s playwright husband) and Frollo try to rescue her and escape with her on a boat. Frollo is disguised by a hood and long robe, so that Esmeralda does not know him. As he rows the boat, he fills her with fear:

“He could be dimly seen in the bows of the boat, like a spectre in the dark. His hood, still lowered, had the effect of a kind of mask, and each time he opened his arms as he rowed, with the wide black sleeves hanging down, they looked like two huge batwings.” (Book 11, Chapter 1). Readers of classical literature here might liken him to Charon, who ferries the dead to hell, but more modern readers will think of the Phantom of the Opera, ferrying Christine to his underground cavern. The bat wings also again stir up the idea of a vampire here.

Finally, Frollo carries another mark of the Gothic wanderer: The Mark of Cain. In the Bible, God curses Cain by placing a mark on his forehead after he murders his brother. In Gothic literature, the Wandering Jew also frequently has a mark on his forehead for his transgression in refusing to let Chris rest on the way to Calvary. However, Frollo’s Mark of Cain is largely undeserved. Krailshemer says, “Frollo, now raving mad and made more so by the news of Jehan’s death, indirectly caused by his rejection of his brother, has to bear the mark of Cain to add to all his other crimes.” (However, Jehan is a drunkard and Frollo has simply refused to give him more money and support his bad habits—we would call it tough love today.) Later, Jehan joins the attack on the cathedral to rescue Esmeralda, which Quasimodo mistakes as an attempt to capture and kill her, so he ends up killing Jehan during the attack. Frollo learns of his brother’s death but does not seem to know Quasimodo killed Jehan.

Frollo himself plants the mark upon his forehead, talking to himself in horror after he learns of his brother’s death:

“He fell silent for a moment, then went on, as though talking to himself, in a loud voice: ‘Cain, what have you done with your brother?’ There was another silence, then he continued: ‘What have I done with him, Lord? I took him in, I brought him up, I fed him, I loved him, I idolized him, and I killed him! Yes, Lord, they have just now dashed his head before my eyes against the stones of your house, and it is because of me, because of this woman, because of her….’” (Book 11, Chapter 1).

After Frollo dies, and Quasimodo has been seen sending him to his death, we are told:

Many rumours went round concerning this incident. There was no doubt in people’s minds that the day had come when, in accordance with their pact, Quasimodo, that is the devil, was to carry off Claude Frollo, that is the sorcerer. It was supposed that he had shattered the body as he took the soul, as monkeys break the shell to eat the nut.

That is why the archdeacon was not interred in consecrated ground. (Book 11, Chapter 3)

This is the final suggestion of Frollo’s supernatural nature and again links him to vampires because he cannot rest in consecrated ground.

 

Esmeralda

Esmeralda is herself a type of Gothic wanderer, as are gypsies for being outcasts of society. The Parisians even go so far as to make Esmeralda nonhuman, believing she is a “supernatural” creature, and comparing her to a salamander, a nymph, and a goddess (Book 2, Chapter 3). Of course, all these words are translations from the French, but the supernatural element is still there. However, little does Esmeralda realize she is even an outcast among the outcasts, for she is not even a gypsy but a French child stolen from its mother.

Quasimodo and Esmeralda played by Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara in the 1939 film.

In Book VIII, Chapter 3, Esmeralda is even referred to as a “vampire” because she is a gypsy and consequently must be a child-stealer. Krailshemer translates the French as “vampire” but the word is actually “stryga,” which can also mean witch. In Albanian folklore, the styrga is a vampiric witch that sucks the blood of children. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shtriga)

Ironically, Esmeralda is cursed by her own mother, who calls her a child-stealer because she is a gypsy and because her own child was stolen by gypsies, only to learn later that Esmeralda is the child who was stolen. Esmeralda’s mother then tries to hide her when she is being pursued so she can be hanged. Esmeralda, however, believes she hears the voice of Phoebus, the man she loves, calls out his name, and thereby reveals her whereabouts, thus leading to her capture and eventual death. Her inability to overcome her passion for Phoebus, who is anything but a hero, and nothing more than a womanizer, brings about her downfall. While her love for Phoebus is not described as lust in the way Frollo’s love for Esmeralda is, it amounts to the same thing—both characters bring about their own downfall because of their inability to control their human desires.

 

Quasimodo

Quasimodo, like Esmeralda, is also an outcast, not because of his race but because of his deformity. Later, however, we will learn he is a gypsy child, traded like a halfing child, for a French child, which also implies a supernatural element, since halfings were the children of fairies traded for human children. His name itself means “half-made” suggesting like halflings he is only half-human. At the same time, Quasimodo is described as the child of a “sow” and a “Jew” (Book 4, Chapter 1), making him half-animal as well as half-human, though being part-Jewish would make him even less than half-human since in the Middle Ages, Jews were believed to have horns and be akin to the devil.

Later, Quasimodo displays superhuman, though not supernatural powers. Besides his incredible strength, he is very nimble and able to climb up the façade of the cathedral (Book 4, Chapter 3), which the modern reader will see as resembling the skills of Spiderman and which also is a precursor to Count Dracula. In fact, we have here the seeds of the future superhero character embedded in the Gothic.

That Quasimodo was adopted by Frollo, believed to be a sorcerer, adds to his supernatural nature. The people of Paris claim Quasimodo must serve Frollo for a set number of years, and then he will be given a soul, in a sort of reverse Faustian pact.

In an extended passage, Hugo describes Frollo and Quasimodo’s relationship:

“We must say, however, that the sciences of Egypt, necromancy, magic, even of the whitest and most innocent kind, had no enemy more relentless, no one who denounced them more inexorably to the officiality of Notre-Dame. Whether this was from genuine horror or the play-acting of the thief shouting: ‘Stop thief!’, it did not prevent the archdeacon being regarded by the learned heads in the chapter as a soul who had ventured into the antechamber of hell, lost in the caverns of the Kabbala, groping in the darkness of the occult sciences. The people made no mistake about it either; for anyone with a little sense Quasimodo was the demon, Claude Frollo the sorcerer. It was obvious that the bell-ringer had to serve the archdeacon for a given time, at the end of which he would carry off his soul by way of payment.” (Book 4, Chapter 5)

In short, Frollo is Faust to Quasimodo’s Mephistopheles.

While their bond is not supernatural in truth, Quasimodo does reverence Frollo for how the man saved him. However, both Frollo and Quasimodo have a love for Esmeralda that supersedes their love for each other. Indeed, there seems to be something Oedipal or Freudian here. Quasimodo seeks to kill his father-figure to be with the woman his father desires, although calling Esmeralda a mother figure might be going too far. In any case, after Quasimodo sends Frollo to his death, Quasimodo cries out, “Oh! all I have loved!” (Book 11, Chapter 2) in the realization that everyone he has loved is dead.

In the end, Quasimodo makes his way to the sepulcher where Esmeralda is buried, and there he wraps his fingers around hers and gives up his life so he can spend eternity with her, although she is dead and unable to know he is there with her.

The death of Claude Frollo, an early illustration.

 

Existential Ending

In the end, love is unrequited for all the characters, and all the characters have let their love or lust lead to their committing actions that have brought about their deaths.

Hugo has created a fatalistic world. There is no free will in it, for the characters are unable to stop themselves from acting as they do. Instead, we might call Hugo’s novel an early example of naturalism, and in the end, it is a very existential novel as well.

While earlier Gothic novels, even while often deriding Catholicism, worked within a Christian structure where the good are rewarded and the bad punished, it is too simplistic to describe anyone in this novel as good or bad. Even Frollo, who is the villain if there is one, had kind intentions in raising his brother after his parents had died and in caring for Quasimodo when no one else would. Yet in the end, any good in his nature is overcome by his uncontrollable lust. Despite the setting in Notre Dame, there is little about God in this novel. As Krailshemer says, “The most notable omission from the book is Christianity.” Consequently, what makes the novel most Gothic of all is the horror that life is meaningless and no matter what we do, death is the end. None of the characters go to their graves repenting their sins or having hope in redemption.

_________________________________________

Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, The Children of Arthur novel series, Haunted Marquette: Ghost Stories from the Queen City, and many other titles. Visit Tyler at www.GothicWanderer.com, www.ChildrenofArthur.com, and www.MarquetteFiction.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, Superheroes and the Gothic

Sin, Sexism, and Gothic Wanderers: Haggard and Lang’s The World’s Desire

The World’s Desire (1890) is one of the most interesting, strange, possibly sexist, and only partially satisfying novels I have ever read. This collaboration between H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang deserves to be far better known simply because it is a collaboration between two of the great Victorian writers of adventure novels, or male romance, but more so, because of its fascinating Gothic wanderer figures—Odysseus, Helen, and Meriamun.

The 1890 first edition of The World’s Desire

The World’s Desire will not appeal to all readers—it’s definitely a novel written for men rather than women, but it is also a book deserving of attention. Written as a sequel to Homer’s Odyssey, literary critics have praised Lang for his ability to recreate Homer’s style and diction. That said, I feel the hand of Haggard more firmly in it. The novel is in his style and tone largely and reads like a strange sort of dream that reminds me especially of one of my favorite of his works, The Ghost Kings, as well as the Conan stories of Robert Howard. The atmosphere is very Gothic, and the theme is Gothic, without the typical Gothic trappings of castles. The supernatural is prevalent throughout the novel, though more in the form of Greek goddesses and biblical plagues than typical ghosts.

The story begins with Odysseus returning home from a second voyage he made after his initial return to Ithaca at the end of The Odyssey. He reaches Ithaca only to find that plague has killed everyone there, including his wife. He goes to the temple of Aphrodite to pray and ask for direction and she tells him he has always followed Athena, not her, but now it is time for him to follow her and truly have a great love. He is to seek Helen of Troy, to learn what became of her, and with her he shall know true passion. Unsure how to find her, Odysseus prepares for the search by putting on the armor of Paris that he received as a gift from Menelaus. Then the island is invaded by slavers who kidnap him. They take him to Egypt, where he manages to escape from them by slaughtering them.

Once in Egypt, Odysseus (who throughout most of the novel is referred to as “the Wanderer”) hears stories of terrible plagues that are happening. (These are the Biblical plagues of Exodus.) He is told that some blame the plagues on the Apiru (Hebrews) who wish to be set free from being Pharaoh’s slaves, but others blame the goddess Hathor or the one who poses as her. The most beautiful woman in the world is living in Hathor’s temple, claiming to be her, and some believe the true goddess is punishing Egypt in anger over the impostor.

Eventually, Odysseus makes his way to the Pharaoh’s presence. All this while he wears Paris’ armor and does not give his true name to anyone. Pharaoh is married to his half-sister, Meriamun. She only agreed to marry him in exchange for equal power with him. She is also a sorceress, and she comes to recognize Odysseus’ true identity and love him. Odysseus, however, is not interested in Meriamun and instead believes Hathor may be Helen, so he goes to the temple to see her, even though he is warned that all the men who have dared look upon her have died, struck down by some ghostly spirits that guard her. Of course, Odysseus survives. Helen is surprised to see him, fearing he is Paris’ ghost at first. Once he reveals his true identity to her, they swear their love for each other.

However, Meriamun is furious. She hates Helen for being the only woman in the world more beautiful than her, and now, she hates her for having Odysseus’ love. Through sorcery, she makes a Faustian pact with the Snake, also known as Sin (the biblical Garden of Eden snake clearly); she must always carry him about her like a girdle, and in exchange, she is able to change her image to be that of Helen. Of course, she seduces Odysseus, and while they sleep, the Snake curls itself about them.

When Odysseus learns he has been tricked, he is devastated, and it doesn’t help that Meriamun accuses him of raping her and has him throne in prison. Her goal now is to kill both Odysseus and Helen. Meanwhile, Pharaoh has been off pursuing the Apiru at the Red Sea and has lost his army. He returns and has a terrible dream (created by Meriamun’s sorcery) that convinces him, since his army is gone, he must send Odysseus to fight his other enemies coming from over the sea to attack Egypt, so off Odysseus goes to serve Pharaoh. Aphrodite tells Odysseus the only way he can be purged of his sin from being with Meriamun is to do so.

Meriamun now poisons Pharaoh and places the blames for his death on Hathor, who is still blamed even though the plagues have ended with the Apiru’s departure because so many men have died from looking at her. Meriamun gets the Egyptian women to attack the temple where Helen lives but Helen escapes.

H. Rider Haggard is today best known for King Solomon’s Mines, but his bestselling novel She introduced a powerful Gothic supernatural woman that would fascinate readers for centuries. Meriamun of The World’s Desire is very much written in her shadow.

Odysseus is now fighting the men from over the sea, including “Wolf, the Son of Signy, Son of the were-wolf” who is a “wanderer from an evil race that of old had smitten his [Odysseus’s] ships and devoured his men.” He is a giant man so one assumes he might be kin to the Cyclops. But Odysseus manages to kill him. Helen now arrives at the battle to come to Odysseus’ aid, but it is too late. Telegonus, the son of Circe and Odysseus, thinking Odysseus is Paris, shoots him with an arrow that kills him. Odysseus does not die, however, before revealing his identity to his son. Telegonus says he has been seeking his father all this time but now he has slain him. Odysseus dies on Helen’s breast with the promise that they have been together in past lives and will be together in future ones. They will meet again and then “our sin be purged and peace be won, and the veil be drawn from the face of Truth.”

Meriamun is present at the funeral when Odysseus is burnt on a pyre. In her agony over Odysseus’ death, she tears from her the snake she must wear as a girdle according to her Faustian pact. She casts it into the fire, but the priest Rei (the narrator of the book) tells her that because of her vow, she must go where the snake goes. She is then drawn to the fire and casts herself onto Odysseus’s body. The snake then wraps itself around both of them and laughs. (The reader is left with the impression that Sin rather than Love has conquered.)

The novel ends with Helen wandering into the night and into the desert, and we are told she will wander until the Wanderer comes again.

A strange novel. Critics have suggested that Odysseus is an imperial Gothic hero, one not a part of empire but one who fights for empire. Clearly, he is supposed to be the hero of the novel and the one the male reader is to admire, but this reader personally thinks all the characters are rather flat and not fully fleshed out. It is a romance and not a realistic novel, of course, but only Meriamun feels like a fully developed character. Many critics have discussed the sexism of the novel. Critics claim Lang and Haggard did not like women, did not like having a female queen, and were seeking to create lands where men could have control again. Meriamun is a version of Eve with her Snake who brings about destruction, but what a wonderful villainess she is. The depictions of her making her pact with the Snake are fabulous. I’ll just quote the scene when she first awakes the Snake before he tells her his terms:

For awhile she gazed upon it, shuddering, as one in doubt.

“Minded I am to let thee sleep, thou Horror,” she murmured. “Twice have I looked on thee, and I would look no more. Nay, I will dare it, thou gift of the old wisdom, thou frozen fire, thou sleeping Sin, thou living Death of the ancient city, for thou alone hast wisdom.” Thereon she unclasped the bosom of her robe and laid the gleaming toy, that seemed a snake of stone, upon her ivory breast, though she trembled at its icy touch, for it was more cold than death. With both her hands she clasped a pillar of the chamber, and so stood, and she was shaken with throes like the pangs of childbirth. Thus she endured awhile till that which was a-cold grew warm, watching its brightness that shone through her silken dress as the flame of a lamp shines through an alabaster vase. So she stood for an hour, then swiftly put off all her robes and ornaments of gold, and loosing the dark masses of her hair let it fall round her like a veil. Now she bent her head down to her breast, and breathed on that which lay upon her breast, for the Ancient Evil can live only in the breath of human kind. Thrice she breathed upon it, thrice she whispered, “Awake! Awake! Awake!”

And the first time that she breathed the Thing stirred and sparkled. The second time that she breathed it undid its shining folds and reared its head to hers. The third time that she breathed it slid from her bosom to the floor, then coiled itself about her feet and slowly grew as grows the magician’s magic tree.

Greater it grew and greater yet, and as it grew it shone like a torch in a tomb, and wound itself about the body of Meriamun, wrapping her in its fiery folds till it reached her middle. Then it reared its head on high, and from its eyes there flowed a light like the light of a flame, and lo! its face was the face of a fair woman—it was the face of Meriamun!

Now face looked on face, and eyes glared into eyes. Still as a white statue of the Gods stood Meriamun the Queen, and all about her form and in and out of her dark hair twined the flaming snake.

At length the Evil spoke—spoke with a human voice, with the voice of Meriamun, but in the dead speech of a dead people:

“Tell me my name,” it said.

“Sin is thy name,” answered Meriamun the Queen.

“Tell me whence I come,” it said again.

“From the evil that is in me,” answered Meriamun.

“Tell me whither I go.”

“Where I go there thou goest, for I have warmed thee in my breast and thou art twined about my heart.”

Then the Snake lifted up its human head and laughed horribly.

Today Andrew Lang is best known for writing the fairy books, each named for a different color, but he was also fascinated with curses, as is clear in The World’s Desire and his writing another novel, The Mark of Cain.

“Well art thou instructed,” it said. “So I love thee as thou lovest me,” and it bent itself and kissed her on the lips. “I am that Ancient Evil, that Life which endures out of the first death; I am that Death which abides in the living life. I am that which brought on thee the woe that is in division from the Heart’s Desire, and the name thereof is Hell. From Life to Life thou hast found me at thy hand, now in this shape, now in that. I taught thee the magic which thou knowest; I showed thee how to win the Throne! Now, what wilt thou of me, Meriamun, my Mother, my Sister, and my Child? From Life to Life I have been with thee: ever thou mightest have put me from thee, ever thou fliest to the wisdom which I have, and ever from thee I draw my strength, for though without me thou mightest live, without thee I must die. Say now, what is it?—tell me, and I will name my price. No more will I ask than must be, for—ah!—I am glad to wake and live again; glad to grip thy soul within these shining folds, to be fair with thy beauty!—to be foul with thy sin!” “Lay thy lips against my ear and thine ear against my lips,” said Meriamun the Queen, “and I will say what it is that I will of thee, thou Ancient Evil.” So the human-headed Evil laid its ear against the lips of Meriamun, and Meriamun laid her lips against its ear, and they whispered each to each. There in the darkness they whispered, while the witch-light glittered down the grey snake’s shining folds, beamed in its eyes, and shone through the Queen’s dark hair and on her snowy breast.

At length the tale was told, and the Snake lifted its woman’s head high in the air and again it laughed.

No doubt, a female villain in a male-written novel may well be sexist. That said, it is Meriamun who is remembered when the novel is closed. I am left not caring if Odysseus or Helen ever unite in a future life. I care only to see if Meriamun will return and continue her reign of sin. Some critics have argued that Meriamun is an embodiment of the New Woman that the authors are reacting against, and yet it is clear that they are most fascinated by her. Many a Gothic novel has been read as subversive to female gender roles, offering alternatives and pushing against accepted social boundaries while in the end having a conservative ending. However, here we have a subversive female villain who ultimately gets the upper hand by winning over, through fascination, the authors who seek to condemn her. Meriamun has managed to step outside the book and work her witchcraft on her creators and their readers. That in the end, she feels, if not guilt, despair over Odysseus’ death transforms her from a mere villain to a female Gothic wanderer—and she is one of the most memorable.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love, which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

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Filed under Classic Gothic Novels, The Gothic and the Bible