As ever, welcome, dear readers.
If you regularly follow us, you know that we reread the “Alice” books some weeks ago, beginning with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).
In that first volume, we meet the Red Queen,
whose favorite command is “Off with his/her/their head/s!”
Looking at Tenniel’s original illustration, we see what appears to be a small, plump woman perhaps of middle age? with a large mouth and a dictatorial manner. Tenniel (1820-1914) was famous as a political cartoonist for the satirical magazine Punch (here’s a sample, called “Dropping the Pilot”—local pilots being used to guide ships outside harbors into ports—
in which we see the new Kaiser Wilhelm II—at the top of the picture–getting rid of Otto von Bismarck, the statesman whose work had turned Prussia from the junior partner in the German-speaking world in 1860 to the center of the new German Empire in 1871.).
(That’s Bismarck, in the white uniform.)
Tenniel’s reputation then made us wonder: was his choice of how to depict the Red Queen just fantasy, or was he having fun with someone? We had a look at what we thought might be a typical deck of Victorian playing cards.
There’s the Queen of Hearts, lower left. Comparing her with the Tenniel, other than the clothing, there doesn’t appear to be much similarity. Perhaps, we thought, Tenniel used another deck—or perhaps he had a different model?
In any event, the Red Queen’s favorite sentence (in both senses) made us think where the cutting off of heads turns up in our favorite fiction beyond Alice. After a few moments, here were the first examples which came to mind.
We begin with the 14th-century Middle English poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—and there’s a Tolkien connection with this, as he collaborated with E.V. Gordon to publish a critical edition of the poem in 1925.
In the poem, a mysterious figure, dressed all in green, appears at King Arthur’s court on New Year’s Day and offers a wager: he will allow one of Arthur’s knights to take a whack at him with his axe if, in a year and a day, that knight will come to him and allow him to do the same to that knight. After some hesitation, Sir Gawain agrees and, with one blow, beheads the figure—who then picks up his head, mounts his horse, and reminds Sir Gawain that they have a date.
What happens in a year and a day? If you want to know more, you might read it in the original, using the Gordon/Tolkien (revised and republished in 1967). If you’ve already enjoyed Chaucer in Middle English, you’ve got a good start, but this is written not in the London area dialect. Instead, it’s in a northern dialect and is a bit tougher (there is a very useful glossary with the Gordon/Tolkien). If you’d like to try it in translation, we came upon this free one which, if it can’t give you the rather chewy original–it really was meant to be read aloud—here’s Chaucer himself reading from his poem, “Troilus and Cressida” in an early 15th century illustration—
the translator, A.S. Kline, has made a very good attempt to suggest the rhymes and sound patterns of the original (being, we believe, influenced by Tennyson and Idylls of the King when it comes to “feel”). Here’s a LINK so that you can see for yourself: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/GawainAndTheGreenKnight.php
Heading on (and we promise not to litter our text with head puns after this, although we may have to remind ourselves to keep a cool head, as we go), there is Washington Irving (1783-1839)
and his collection of short stories, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-1820).
(This is the first British edition of 1820.)
Included in this volume are “Rip Van Winkle”, about a man who goes hunting, encounters spirits, drinks spirits, and wakes up an old man, 20 years later,
(An Arthur Rackham illustration, from his 1905 edition. Here’s a LINK, if you’d like to see more: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/60976/60976-h/60976-h.htm )
and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”. We first encountered this story in childhood in a Disney short film,
which, since we were small and easily spooked (no, no pun here!), scared us silly.
In Irving’s story, an itinerant schoolmaster appears in a tiny village along the Hudson River at the beginning of the 19th century. He is very successful at slipping into local society, but goes one step too far when he appears to be on his way to gaining the hand of the daughter of a rich landowner. Her previous suitor, deciding to scare him off, tells the story of the “Headless Horseman” to the gullible schoolmaster, then impersonates the Horseman
and the schoolmaster—heads for the hills. (To make up for that last pun—sorry!—here’s a LINK so that you can read both of these stories and more for yourself—it’s the 1820 London edition, in two volumes:
The Green Knight in the poem is able to deal with decapitation because he is (medieval spoiler alert!) under a protective spell. The Headless Horseman in “Sleepy Hollow” isn’t (early American Romantic spoiler alert!) actually headless, but a young man playing a vicious prank to rid himself of a rival. Our third fictional example, however, is based not upon the world of Faery or practical joking, but upon a horrible piece of real history: the violence of the French Revolution.
Our author here is the Baroness Emma Orczy (1865-1947)
and our main character is an heroic one, who works to save people from decapitation, Sir Percy Blakeney, aka, “The Scarlet Pimpernel”. Originally a wildly popular play, the story was then published in novel form in 1905.
(This is the 1908 edition.)
Sir Percy is an English nobleman who fights against the French revolutionary government and its agents, slipping in and out of Paris to rescue noblefolk from public execution. He sometimes does this in disguise, but, in fact, to do what he does, he turns his whole life into a charade, in public being what is recognized as the first “incredibly competent hero who disguises himself as weak/cowardly/inept”, a figure we all would recognize as everyone from Zorro to Batman. (If you would like to sample his adventures, here’s a LINK to that first book: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/60/60-h/60-h.htm We will put a small warning label on this, though: the Baroness was a real noblewoman of the 19th century. Her view of ordinary people and of the real reasons for the Revolution will not be those of us who live in the 21st century. If you can suspend modern beliefs, she can tell a good adventure story.)
Films about the Pimpernel–which is a small wayside flower—
begin all the way back to 1917, but our favorite is this, with the English actor, Anthony Andrews, as Sir Percy, from 1982.
(For those of us who are Gandalf fans, we can also see a young Ian McKellen as the villainous Chauvelin.)
But how shall we head away from this subject? Perhaps with another quotation from the Red Queen? In Chapter IX, “The Mock Turtle’s Story”, Alice and the Duchess, while at a very strange croquet match,
meet Her Violent Majesty, who says to the out-of-favor Duchess:
“Now, I will give you fair warning…either you or your head must be off, and that in about half no time! Take your choice!”
And so we will.
Stay well and know that there is