Thursday, August 19, 2010

Prehistory of Geekdom, Part 3

Orson Welles once called The Count of Monte Cristo “the most ingenious tall tale ever perpetrated by the mind of man.”

He very well may have been right. It’s well-known that Alexander Dumas used ghost writers to help produce the volumes of fiction he did, but he is still the guiding hand that dropped poor Edmund Dantes into prison, then helped create an ingenious escape plan. His was the mind that led D’Artagnan to join up with the Three Musketeers. He was responsible for turning Cardinal Richelieu and Milady de Winter into fiction’s most memorable villains. It was he who forever trapped Louis XIV’s luckless twin brother in a mask made of iron.

Dumas’ influence on adventure fiction can’t be underestimated. But during the same century he was arranging for Athos, Porthos and Aramis to once again face off against the Cardinal’s Guards, one of his countrymen was also putting his mark on the adventure genre.

It was Victor Hugo who set Quasimodo to ringing the bells of Notre Dame and had him fall tragically in love with the beautiful Esmeralda. Hugo had Inspector Jalvert obsessively hunt the escaped convict Jean Valjean for decades, only to finally realize his prey had become a better man that he was.

Dumas and Hugo created or popularized character archetypes and themes that would forever permeate geeky fiction, movies and comics. Loyalty, heroism, generosity in spirit and in action, mercy, and really cool sword fights—the two Frenchmen covered all these bases and more.

But it wasn’t only the French who were kicking literary butt in the 19th Century. Robert Louis Stevenson pretty much handed us our modern view of old-time pirates when he wrote Treasure Island. Long John Silver is another of the great villains of literature and his complex relationship with Jim Hawkins gives that adventure novel a backbone that ensures its status as a classic pretty much forever.

And James Fenimore Cooper, whose Deerstalker tales actually don’t hold up over time as well as Dumas, Hugo and Stevenson, still gets credit for popularizing tales of the American frontier, which would soon evolve into the American Western. Without Cooper, we quite possibly wouldn’t have John Ford or Howard Hawks movies. We almost definitely wouldn’t have Two-Gun Kid and Jonah Hex (the original comic book character—not the lame version that appeared in a recent film). And then where would we be? So we’ll forgive Cooper’s stilted prose and give him the credit he is due.

Of course, there had been great adventure fiction before the 19th Century: Homer’s ancient poems, Beowulf and Don Quixote all come immediately to mind. The later authors were building on that foundation. But Hugo, Dumas, Stevenson and Cooper pretty much perfected the genre, laying the ground work for much of the sort of storytelling we geeks most often geek-out on today.

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