Friday, May 22, 2015

The Scarlet Pimpernel & Doctor Who on the Reign Of Terror

Baroness Emma Orczy's description of revolutionary France in her novel The Scarlet Pimpernel brought home to me scenes from "The Reign of Terror," a six-part Doctor Who adventure. In the first episode, "A Land of Fear," the TARDIS lands in a forest. The First Doctor announces that they've reached Earth, but he doesn't know what country or year in which they've arrived.  So he, Ian, Barbara, and Susan step outside. 

Note: Ian, Barbara, and Susan look somewhat different in the TV show.

They travel to an abandoned farmhouse. While the Doctor searches upstairs, Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor's granddaughter Susan find a stock of clothes, food, and identity documents supposedly signed by Robespierre. Suddenly, they know exactly when and where on Earth they have arrived. The Doctor has brought them to France during the Reign of Terror!

Unbeknownst to them, they are not alone. Upstairs, someone knocks out the Doctor. 

Warning: Getting hit in the head by a hammer
can leave you with a nasty bump on the noggin.
Especially if it's Thor's hammer Mjolnir.

Then the Doctor's companions are surrounded by French aristocrats who use the farm house to smuggle people out of the country. By the time Ian, Barbara, and Susan convince them that they're not their enemies, a party of French guards show up. These patriots kill the French aristocrats, and decide that Ian, Barbara and Susan must also be aristocrats or sympathizers. So the Doctor's companions are marched them off to Paris, where they can expect a preemptory trial, a short stint in prison, and finally appointment with Madame Guillotine. 

"Come along captives, keep up the pace,
or we'll Exterminate, Exterminate, EXTERMINATE YOU before we reach Paris!"

Meanwhile, the fate of the Doctor remains uncertain, as the farmhouse in which he lay senseless was set ablaze by the French guards.

The Doctor Who story made me curious about the French Revolution, and the Reign of Terror in particular. The Scarlet Pimpernel built upon this interest, and made this period of history much more real to me. Orczy's short story, then play, and finally a novel about this Englishman who saves French aristocrats from certain death became a sensation in the early 20th century, and earned Baroness Emma Orczy lasting fame and fortune. Some even claim that her character served as a precursor for later heroes with secret identities such as Zorro and Batman. Dennis Spooner, who wrote the Doctor Who adventure "Reign Of Terror" is said to have been inspired by this classic story. Small wonder then that Orczy continued to write stories and novels about her famous hero throughout her career, and that I found this first installment had lost none of its page-turning enchantment in the hundred years since she wrote it.

Dragon Dave

P.S. You have to wonder what J.R.R. Tolkien would have thought of a last name like Orczy, don't you?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Baroness Emma Orczy on Knitting During the French Revolution

Due to personal interest raised by writing posts on my sister blog, Poirot and Friends, I decided to read The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emma Orczy. So I found a free ebook version on, downloaded it to my kindle, and dived in. I found it a bracing novel packed with humor, interest, drama, and excitement. Unfortunately, any internet search of the novel immediately reveals the secret identity of the hero, which drains much of the suspense from the first half, during which the protagonist Marguerite neither respects nor loves her husband, and wonders at the identity of the daring, celebrated Scarlet Pimpernel. Still, Orczy's earthy and colorful prose flows well, and the first half helps us understand the characters, as well as the world in which they live. Once Orczy has made us care about Marguerite and her husband Lord Percy, the second half roars right along, with a daring venture across a storm-wracked sea to France, where Marguerite valiantly tries to save the Scarlet Pimpernel from capture.

Oops. By that last sentence, you've probably just guessed the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Sorry. Really though, the best part of the novel is Marguerite's backstory, the mistakes she makes in the first half of the novel, and her transformation into a valiant heroine. It'd be interesting to read more of the series, and see how she (and Percy) develop in later novels.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is set during a particularly bloody period of the French Revolution known as the Reign of Terror. During this time, anyone suspected of sympathizing with the aristocracy was put to death. Madame Guillotine embraced people from all walks of life, including the lowliest peasant. Ironically, this sometimes included people who believed in the ideals of their glorious new republic. The Executive branch of the France's revolutionary government (the equivalent of the President of the United States, or the Prime Minister in England), the so-called Committee of Public Safety, headed by Maximilien Robespierre, knew no mercy. If any French citizen allowed an aristocrat, any member of his family, or a sympathizer (such as a loyal servant) escape to another country, it didn't matter how vigilantly they tried to prevent their escape, or how faultless their lives were in other respects. They were simply dragged off to the loving arms (and blade) of Madame Guillotine.

Baroness Emma Orczy's novel also offered an insight into the popularity of knitting during the French Revolution.

The women who drove the carts usually spent their day on the Place de la Greve, beneath the platform of the guillotine, knitting and gossiping, whilst they watched the rows of tumbrils arriving with the victims the Reign of Terror claimed every day. It was great fun to see the aristos arriving for the reception of Madame la Guillotine, and the places close by the platform were very much sought after. Bibot, during the day, had been on duty on the Place. He recognized most of the old hats, "tricotteuses," as they were called, who sat there and knitted, whilst head after head fell beneath the knife, and they themselves got quite bespattered with the blood of those cursed aristos.

PinkyKeep on knitting, you two.
Oh, and Captain Scarlet, I want that guillotine built by sunset,
or it's off with your dome!

Perhaps I can be forgiven for pointing out that this passage from Baroness Emma Orczy's novel gives an entirely different definition to the knitting term dye lot. Perhaps not. (Perhaps I'm fortunate that France no longer enlists Madame Guillotine to secure Public Safety). Still, doesn't it makes you wonder what types of hats, scarves, gloves, or clothes the women were knitting, and how they got the bloodstains out of their projects?

Dragon Dave

Monday, May 18, 2015

Oh, The Places We've Seen: Part 3

As I said in Part 2, London falls outside the itinerary for this year's trip to England. But there were many great sites we visited, and as we plan out this year's trip, I thought I'd share some of special moments with you.

Two of our favorite British sitcoms (or, if you prefer, Britcoms), are "Yes Minister" and its sequel "Yes, Prime Minister." As in the United States, the British Prime Minister lives and conducts business with politicians, civil servants, and world leaders from his home in the nation's capital. 10 Downing Street isn't like the White House: it's just a row house, connected to other row houses in Whitehall. While I didn't expect the grandeur of the White House, on our first trip to England I had hoped to get a clear view of the doorway through which James Hacker, Bernard Wooley, and James Hacker came and left. Sadly, the home of the British Prime Minister doesn't make for a very good photograph, at least not for the casual overseas visitor. 

Unless, that is, you like photos of guards with guns. Then it's awesome.

Oh yeah, show me that heavy artillery! Yes!!!

This year, we've been watching another Britcom that was recently released on DVD. It's called "No Job For A Lady," and stars Penelope Keith, best known for her role as Margot Ledbetter on "Good Neighbors" and Audrey fforbes-Hamilton on "To The Manor Born." In this series she plays Jean Price, a member of Parliament for the Labour Party. She sees herself as an ordinary woman: a woman for the people and of the people. She's not rich, nor does she readily align herself with businesses, unless she's sure the result will be to help the poor and needy. She doesn't even own a car. She rides her bicycle into London each day, chains it to the fence outside the Palace of Westminster, and goes into the House of Commons, where she meets with other politicians and the people she represents. 

"No Job for a Lady" may not be as important as "Yes, Minister" and "Yes, Prime Minister," but it shines a bright light on the life of the ordinary, lowly MP. Yes, that's right, I said lowly. As a member of the Labour Party, set before Tony Blair's big win in 1997, Jean Price serves in the Opposition. Consequently, she and her fellow Labour MPs hold little power beyond influence. Still, through grit and determination, Jean Price manages to get some good things done, while working in one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

On our most recent visit, in November 2013, we walked the streets of London dressed in our thick jackets, with knitted hats covering our heads and gloves on our hands. Between sites of interest, we hopped on the bus, and enjoyed a few brief moments out of the cold and the wind. One day, we decided to try something different, and boarded a water taxi instead. This allowed us to see the Palace of Westminster as many other visitors and locals see it: from the River Thames. 

As for the Daleks, the water taxi ride allowed them to relive a moment of glory, when their fellows invaded London and ruled the world, in the classic Doctor Who story "The Dalek Invasion of Earth." 

Dragon Dave

Related Internet Links
Watch the trailer for "No Job for a Lady"

Thursday, May 14, 2015

An Ascension Day Sketch

Whether or not you're religious, I'm sure you'll agree that some of our most vivid stories originate from what we call scriptures. One story, which holds particular power with Christians, is that of Jesus' ascension.

I began this picture in church one Sunday, drawing the image of a white life-size plaster figure hanging on the wall high above our heads. (At least, I assume it's plaster: it's too high up to tell). Somehow, over a period of weeks, and various sermons, it transformed into this. I think the mention in the bulletin of a special Ascension Day service must have influenced the final result.

Today, wherever you are, and whatever you believe, Happy Ascension Day. May your thoughts and spirits be elevated today!

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Conjunction of Roger Zelazny & Stephen R. Donaldson

I always start the New Year full of ambition. Sadly, life has a way of whittling down my grand plans to size. Such proved the case this year, with my desire to recognize the birthday of every author I admire. In the past thirty days, I've missed out on celebrating the birthdays of Mystery authors Bernard Knight and Reginald Hill, Science Fiction and Fantasy authors Larry Niven, Terry Pratchett, Avram Davidson, Cressida Cowell, and Dan Simmons, Doctor Who story editor, writer, and novelist Terrance Dicks, and classic author Charlotte Bronte. So many great authors, all deserving of recognition, and little time for all the blogging I'd love to do. But when I glanced at my list this week, and noted two particular authors who shared the same birthday, I couldn't let such an auspicious event pass unrecognized. So today I wish to honor Roger Zelazny and Stephen R. Donaldson. Both were tremendously important in my past, and inspired my desire to write Fantasy and Science Fiction. 

The first milestone was a series of five novels, entitled The Chronicles of Amber, published in two hardcover volumes by the Science Fiction Book Club. These were some of the first novels I purchased from SFBC, and proved a powerful introduction of Zelazny's unique brand of Fantasy. Imagine waking up in a hospital, and not knowing your name. The protagonist soon realizes that the staff are holding him there, and he executes a bold escape. As he runs, reality begins to warp around him. It's as if he's traveling through different realms, where different laws of physics apply. Eventually he ends up in a place called Amber, where he walks a particular pattern in a room in a castle. To deviate from the pattern means death, and it takes great strength to complete it. But when he succeeds, his faculties and knowledge are restored. He is Corwin, a prince of Amber, the one true realm. All other realms, including that of our own Earth are but a reflection or shadow of Corwin's Amber. He stands in line to inherit the throne of Amber, and thus rule all the realms of existence. But to do so, he'll have to battle his brothers and sisters (one of whom sent him to be held hostage in that hospital) if he wishes to claim his destiny. 

Once I read that first novel, I had to read the second, the third, and the fourth and fifth in the series immediately. I still remember reading those five novels the first time, while on a family trip to San Diego in my teens. Later, Roger Zelazny would write a further five Amber novels, but this time I would be forced to wait, ever so impatiently, for each novel's publication. At least by this time, I was married, and my wife had read the earlier novels too. So it was a joy to read these later books together, and discuss the various aspects of this sequel series.

Another series I discovered as a teen was Stephen R. Donaldson's trilogy of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. In the Bible, Jesus heals people with leprosy. It sounds like a terrible disease, and indeed people in Biblical times shunned lepers. These ailing people had to cry out "Unclean, unclean!" wherever they went, so the healthy could get out of their way, and thus limit the chances of contamination. In these three novels, Donaldson introduces us to Thomas Covenant, a man living in modern times who has contracted this ancient disease. His wife and child have left him, and no one will hire him. He has little contact with the outside world, and those around him treat him very much like the lepers of two thousand years ago. So imagine his surprise when he suffers an injury, loses consciousness, and then awakens to find himself in another land. 

Unlike Corwin, Covenant finds himself in one realm, but it is just as fantastic as any Zelazny ever dreamed up. There the people see him as a religious figure, a messiah who will deliver them from Lord Foul's despotism. He also meets a pretty girl, to whom he's attracted. Before he knows it, he's suddenly taken over by all the impulses and feelings leprosy robbed him of back on Earth. They rush in upon him, and as he believes he's living out a dream (It's simply too fantastic to be real), he gives into his feelings, and takes her. Afterward, as he travels through The Land to confront Lord Foul, the world becomes more real to him, and he grows increasing plagued by the guilt that accompanies his actions. 

Like Zelazny, Donaldson wrote a sequel series. Unlike Zelazny, he followed up his first trilogy rather quickly, so I was able to read that second series of books before I graduated from High School. But again, as with Zelazny, there came a time when my wife and I read them together. We were spending lots of time on the road, driving between visits to family. As I drove, she would read Thomas Covenant's adventures to me, and when she took over the driving duties, I assumed the role of reader. In this way, the miles passed quickly, and even bumper-to-bumper traffic was made more pleasant by following Covenant's adventures together.

Like other writers of my youth, Roger Zelazny and Stephen R. Donaldson proved important to me in numerous ways. Having enjoyed the adventures of Corwin and Covenant, I would go on to read other stories and novels by Zelazny and Donaldson, and those proved enjoyable and memorable as well. But these two series proved particularly inspiring in my youth, and entertained my wife and me early in my marriage, in a way few others did. Thus, they will always claim a special place in my heart.

Happy Birthday, Roger Zelazny and Stephen R. Donaldson. 

Dragon Dave