Welcome back, everybody! I hope you all had a good summer vacation. But breaktime is over, and it’s time for us to head back into the proverbial classroom with our upcoming staged reading of that High School Literature standby, Cyrano de Bergerac, this Friday. But what could I have to say about that notoriously hot-blooded French musketeer?
Well, the thing is (and PLEASE don’t tell him I said this), there is nothing really exceptional about Cyrano. He is merely the largest-nosed in a long line of arrogant and impetuous Frenchmen. He may be easier to offend than other men, because he has an obvious and difficult-to-avoid potential sore spot and a willing, nay EAGERNESS to assume any comment, no matter how apologetic or innocuous, is a slight on it. And he is, of a certainty, more dangerous than other men. But he is not the only prideful Frenchman with a black and deadly temper; far from it. Rostand did not invent the choleric French warrior, he simply followed in the path of nearly a thousand years of archetypes.
Perhaps the easiest place to start is with the musketeer, a storied archetype which thrived in the literature of the 19th century and which Rostand was clearly capitalizing on with Cyrano. Alexandre Dumas has given the world perhaps the best-known musketeers in his book The Three Musketeers. Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, the titular musketeers, have an array of different character types, heavyset life of the party wronged noble/tortured father figure and ambitious ladies’ man, but they are also all musketeers and that means two things: dangerous, and easily offended. [I have personal issues with ‘fat’ being a character type but that’s a matter for another time -KH] The three of them meet the protagonist, D’Artagnan, when he has managed to schedule a duel against all three of them at the same time in the same place, and the foursome become allies after they cut their way out of an attempted arrest. D’Artagnan, you will not be surprised to learn, by the end of the series earns a reputation as the most hot-blooded and renowned musketeer in France. Oh, and fun fact: D’Artagnan is from Gascony, just like Cyrano.I’ve got some more literary evidence but before we wander too far afield (and we’ll be going on a bit of a hike) let’s bring it back to one of our specialities: Shakespeare. Cast your minds back a few months to our Henry V, which I am certain all of you saw. The Dauphin throws tantrum after tantrum and stomps around the stage in a towering rage at all times, and he explicitly claims that his strength and anger comes from his French heritage. About midway though he throws some shade on the phlegmatic English and suggests the French have naturally quicker blood which is, what’s more, “Spirited with wine” and should easily carry them to victory over their cold-blooded foes. The Dauphin is characterized throughout the play by his arrogance, choler, and eagerness to pick a fight. It is his tennis balls which spark the conflict, and he tells Exeter and the audience that he “desire[s] nothing but odds with England!” He is portrayed as a buffoon in the play to draw unfavorable comparison with the slow-to-anger Henry V, but the effectiveness of the character and the specificity with which he hits those clues seems to suggest that there was a stereotype already in place.
But where did this stereotype come from, for Shakespeare to have heard of it in the 16th century and for Dumas to embrace it in the 19th? We will need to look back about a century to Thomas Malory and Le Morte D’Arthur, and then immediately back another three centuries to French poet Chrétien de Troyes, who inspired Malory. Before you start, yes, King Arthur is originally a Welsh story and an English king. BUT, it was written at and more importantly ABOUT a time when there was both animosity and commonality across the channel. Remember from THIS that every English king between Harold Godwinson and Henry VII was descended from French Normans. It is no accident that de Troyes, who really couldn’t have a more Medieval French name if he tried, is one of the most important Arthurian poets. Perhaps his most important contribution to the Arthurian mythos, and certainly most relevant for my thesis, was the invention of Sir Lancelot du Lac, widely recognized as the most ardent and heroic knight in the canon of chivalry.
Significantly for my purposes, Lancelot was a native of France. He was raised by the Lady of the Lake in, I guess, Avalon, but he was born in Brittany and it shows. He is the greatest jouster and swordsman at the Round Table from the moment he arrives at age 16, he has a tendency to win fights where he is enormously outnumbered, and his colleagues universally acknowledge that he was in every [apparent] aspect the perfect knight. But, as you doubtless remember from the cultural osmosis by which all people learn about King Arthur without consciously reading any stories, he also had a pretty major flaw in the shape of an affair with Arthur’s wife Guinevere. And when his secret is discovered, instead of acknowledging his mistake and accepting their punishment, he allows his pride to get the better of him, kills a dozen of his fellow knights and saves the queen, throwing the nation into civil war over a crime that is certainly romantic but is also unequivocally his fault. Lancelot represents a chivalric morality that seems complex to us but would make absolute sense to the Dauphin, and D’Artagnan, and Cyrano himself.
Even for Lancelot, however, there is a suggestion that his being FROM France would be meaningful to the readers, otherwise it serves no purpose. Lancelot can trace his own literary heritage back to the Chanson de Roland, the final in a series of stories about Charlemagne’s nephew Roland and his companions the Paladins. Charlemagne’s army is marching back to France from Spain when they are betrayed and ambushed by a Moorish army. Roland has the rearguard but refuses to call for help from the main army for fear of being labelled a coward. He does finally blow his famous horn Olifant and call for
aid vengeance after his forces’ destruction is assured. [sidenote: Roland isn’t actually killed by the Saracens, he dies because he blew the horn so hard he broke his own skull. Hand to God. -KH] Roland and his Paladins are widely regarded as the origin and gold standard for literary examples of chivalric behavior, and I don’t think it unreasonable to claim that every other character in this blog owes their existence to Roland’s heroic but ultimately selfish sacrifice.
I hope I have proved both that the Impetuous French Warrior exists and that there is something interesting about that fact. We can observe as time passes that interpretation of the archetype changed from prideful and passionate closer to arrogant and ill-tempered; or perhaps we as a culture became less tolerant of pride in our heroes. Both Roland and Lancelot would have been regarded as unequivocal and uncomplicated heroes to their contemporaries, but as time passes we seem to expect more out of our characters. Their characteristics remained largely the same (brave, dangerous, rash, proud) but the way the audiences interpret them has changed from admiration to indulgence/scorn/frustration. Or maybe you think I’m totally off-base and this whole essay you’ve been getting madder and madder at my understanding of your favorite characters. If that’s the case I would implore you to come to the reading tomorrow night and demand satisfaction. You will not find me wanting.
Even if you DO agree with my arguments, though, you should come to the reading at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop at 7:30PM Friday night. And then, the following day, you should come to the Kennedy Center at noon for a portion of our upcoming Dracula in their Page to Stage Festival. Two DIFFERENT We Happy Few events in the same weekend! And you can go to both! For free! How lucky you are!
Until next time I remain, yr humble Blogslave,