Last week got a bit heavy, so I’ll try to keep things a bit more lighthearted this time…as best I can. We’ll be dealing with French melodrama and Greek mythology, and those genres don’t often lend themselves well to happy stories, but we’ll still have fun. Maybe…
First off, we have:
The Story We Know: kind-hearted Quasimodo, ward of the corrupt Judge Claude Frollo, lives alone in the bell tower of Notre Dame cathedral. During a vicious purge of Gypsy inhabitants of Paris, Quasimodo ends up helping the Gypsy Esmeralda and the army captain Phoebus escape from Frollo’s clutches. A trio of happy animate gargoyles keep the story from descending into oppressive tragedy.
The Actual Story: Published in 1831 by Victor Hugo as Notre Dame de Paris, the story begins fairly similarly to Disney’s film. It’s 1482 and the Feast of Fools is in full swing and Quasimodo, a man who was born deaf and hunchbacked, joins in the festivities, being elected the Pope of Fools for being so ugly. But the festivities are cut short when Archdeacon Claude Frollo, Quasimodo’s adopted father, breaks things up. On their way back to the palace, they spy La Esmeralda, a Romani street dancer, and Frollo, overcome by desire, orders Quasimodo to capture her for him (because that’s a classy first date idea). But the King’s Archers led by Phoebus de Chateaupers just happen to show up (because it’s a melodrama) and capture Quasimodo and drag him off. Frollo and La Esmeralda escape.
Quasimodo is publicly tortured the next day and begs for water and only La Esmeralda comes forward to help him. While she is on the platform, a reclusive woman named Sister Gudule shrieks at La Esmeralda and calls her a child thief, blaming her for the loss of her child some years past.
Fast forward a whole bunch, and La Esmeralda (OK, the “La” is exhausting so I’m going to set it aside) has now fallen in love with Phoebus (while literally every other male character has also fallen in love with her). Frollo, on the other hand, has had a less fun time. He has taken up the study of black magic and alchemy and has renounced his faith in God, all driven by his overpowering lust for Esmeralda (The song “Hellfire” from the Disney movie is pretty spot on). Frollo sees Esmeralda and Phoebus together getting sweet on one another, and he plots to get her for himself. Later on, he interrupts their nighttime meeting, stabs Phoebus a whole bunch (“And then he ran into my knife. He ran into my knife ten times”) and Esmeralda is captured (there’s lots of capturing going on) by the King’s guard who think she stabbed Phoebus. Frollo escapes yet again (the worm…).
Esmeralda is tortured into confessing that she is both a witch and the murderer of Phoebus (not sure why they threw in a witchcraft charge, but it was the 15th century). Frollo visits her in her cell and professes his love for her, but she is all “Eeeeew!” and shoots him down. Then, while she is being tortured publicly again, she sees Phoebus (who is all not dead and engaged to someone else now) and calls out to him, but he ignores her (which was a dick move). Finally, Quasimodo swings down dramatically from the tower, carries Esmeralda off and claims sanctuary in the cathedral because he’s literally the only good guy in the whole story (aside from a poet named Pierre Gringoire, who shows up now and again).
Frollo sends a group of vagabonds to capture Esmeralda and while Quasimodo is fighting them off (and doing pretty well seeing as how he kills a number of them), Frollo sneaks in the back way and grabs Esmeralda, telling her she can love him or be hanged. She chooses execution because he’s gross. She is left with Sister Gudule who, surprise surprise, is revealed to be her mother (because it’s a melodrama).
Fast forward a bit.
Shortly after, looking off in the distance, Quasimodo sees Esmeralda’s body in a white dress, hanging by a rope on the scaffold. Blinded by rage at her execution, he grabs Frollo and straight-up murders him, hurling him off the top of the cathedral.
Quasimodo is never seen again, but a gravedigger, coming across Esmeralda’s remains some time later, finds Quasimodo’s skeleton entwined in hers. The heartbroken hunchback waited by her grave until he died of starvation (did I mention this was a melodrama?)
So…not a very happy story…but it’s a classic of Gothic Romanticism and the Disney film does a good job of really portraying the tone of the novel. They add in some fun musical numbers to keep things light, but when they get into some of the darker stuff, they really don’t pull their punches. I do like how they gave Esmeralda more agency and control over her world. In the novel, she is just an object to be pursued and rescued.
Also, a note on the use of the word “Gypsy.” The term has become tainted by political incorrectness, and so the more appropriate way to refer to Esmeralda’s people would be Romani or Roma. The word “gypsy” is derived from the Greek “Aigyptioi” which means “Egyptian,” and in Middle English the word was shortened to “gypcian.” Hugo has all of his characters refer to the Romani people as “Egyptians” and Frollo sometimes calls them “Bohemians.” The use of the word “gypsy” is more common in the Disney film and in scholarship on the novel.
But moving on, now we have:
The Story We Know: Hercules, son of Zeus and Hera, is captured and made mortal by the minions of Hades, lord of the dead. In order to regain his godhood, he must prove himself a true hero. Winning the heart of the willful Megara who is trapped by a deal she made with Hades, Hercules must save her as well as stop an invasion of Titans that Hades has released on the world.
The Actual Story: First off, I’ll go over everything Hercules is not. First. He is not the son of Zeus and Hera; he’s the bastard son of Zeus and a human woman named Alcmene after Zeus impersonated her husband Amphitryon. Second, his name is Heracles, which means something along the lines of “the glory of Hera.” The Romans later called him Hercules and the name stuck, but his Greek name is Heracles (or Herakles).
In terms of his personality, Heracles was homicidally brave and reckless to a fault, but he tended to be a bit of a dim bulb. One story has him shooting an arrow at the sun because it was too hot that day. Well, at least he’s pretty, I guess. A good description of his personality would be Lancelot from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (“You killed eight wedding guests!” “Oh? Oh yes! …sorry…”)
Now, Heracles’ “story” is more like a novel’s worth of other stories, so I’ll hit on the big ones. I’m using Edith Hamilton’s Mythology as my source, but there are variations of the stories that exist throughout history.
Megara was his wife, but her story is not a pretty one. She was given to Heracles as a thank you (they were out of Edible Arrangements) for his routing of the exploitative Minyans who demanded tribute from the people of Thebes (if only Heracles had made it to Panem). He had three children with her and was devoted to his family. But Hera (who was most definitely not pink and sparkly as in the Disney movie) made Heracles go mad to get back at him for existing. In his delusional rage, he killed Megara and his children. He came to, saw them, and crumpled under the weight of what he had done. He tried to kill himself, but Theseus (who sounds like a sleazy lawyer in this story) showed up and tried to convince him that it wasn’t his fault. Heracles didn’t believe him, but he didn’t commit suicide either. He went on to work for the King of Mycenae and offered to do whatever he asked for him as a way to atone for his great sin.
The King, who was named Eurystheus, assigned him to do 12 tasks, the famous 12 labors of Heracles which are fan favorites for dinner parties:
- Kill the Nemean Lion – Easy peasy. He killed the Thespian Lion earlier in his life and wore its pelt as a trophy. This feline was tough, but Heracles just squeezed the life out of it.
- Kill the Hydra – No, not the anti-Avengers organization. The dragon-y swamp thing with nine heads, one of which was immortal. The rest of its heads were like weeds. Chop one off and two more grow in its place. But still pretty easy for Heracles.
- Capture a stag with golden antlers that was sacred to Artemis – Killing it would have been easy, but it took a whole year to capture the thing alive without hurting it.
- Capture a super huge boar that lived on Mount Erymanthus – Heracles’ stamina was higher than the boar and he literally ran the thing until it was too exhausted to escape.
- Clean out the stables of Augeas in a single day – These were no mere stables. He had thousands of horses and apparently no stablehands to muck them out. It took diverting two rivers to clear them out. No shit. (I’m so sorry. I had to.)
- Drive away the Stymphalian birds – these avian man-eating nightmares were clustering in such numbers that it was really becoming a problem. Think Hitchcock’s The Birds combined with that crazy scene from Jurassic World where the Pteranodons and Dimorphodons got all up in everyone’s business.
- Capture the Cretan Bull which was a gift from Poseidon to Minos – no word if Poseidon approved of this relocation…
- Take care of the man-eating mares of King Diomedes – Heracles killed the king but just drove off the mares…so like they’re still out there…eating people…so…
- Capture the girdle of Hippolyta the Queen of the Amazons – Yes…it was a panty raid, and it was kind of a bloody one. Hippolyta thought Heracles was hunky so she offered to give him the girdle free and easy, but Hera (UGH) drove the rest of the Amazons crazy and they attacked him. Without asking Hippolyta if she ACTUALLY had authorized this attack, he killed her (SIGH) and fought his way out of the horde of Amazons.
- Recover the cattle that belonged to Geryon, a three-bodied monster – Yes. Three-bodied. I don’t know how it works. Maybe a small Borg collective? Another version of the story describes Geryon as three-headed, but I kind of like the weirdness of having three bodies better.
- Capture the golden apples of the Hesperides – They were guarded by Atlas, the dude who held up the sky. Heracles tricked him into getting the apples for him by saying that he’d take the weight of the sky for him. The fact that Heracles, Mr. Shoot-The-Sun-Because-It’s-Hot, was able to outwit Atlas doesn’t speak well for Atlas’ wits…
- Capture Cerberus, Hades’ three-headed dog – Heracles did so and brought him up, but Cerberus wasn’t house-trained and didn’t go with the decor so Eurystheus made him take Cerberus back down into the underworld. It’s probably better off that he did.
He did lots of other stuff, of course. He was a crewmember on the Argo, Jason’s ship, and he fought lots of other monsters and rescued lots of folks. As one story goes, when he died, he was taken up to Olympus where he was made a full immortal and reconciled with Hera when he married her daughter Hebe. So that’s nice, at least. For a story so filled with tragedy, I like that Heracles’ story ends well. One of my favorite film portrayals of Heracles is in the classic film Jason and the Argonauts, but Dwayne Johnson’s recent goofy film portrayal actually is the most mythologically correct version I’ve seen. You should check it out.
Next week, we’ll be looking at Mulan and Tarzan! See you then!