Graciously submitted by the author

The Scarlet Pimpernel

We seek him here, We seek him there.......

We are living on the other side of two world wars in a post-modern world, where the concept of the hero is meaningless to many people. The fight between good and evil is a question of taste and preferences, not about making an absolute choice.

Everything in time and space is contextual, and the great achievement of modernity is the courage to give voice to the diversity of angles found in human life. We are dealing with a collective expansion of consciousness, which means that nothing is suppressed. Although noone would dispute that every voice has a right to be heard, not every voice has a message that is beneficial to listen to.

The point is how you perceive human consciousness. If you consider man to be merely a product of context, i.e. of genes and environment every voice is indeed equally important or unimportant, and there is no freedom. You cannot help who you are, being just a product of factors beyond your control. If, however, you believe in the reality of a spiritual world expressing itself through time and space, you will view man differently. Created by this spiritual reality you are part of something absolute, although you also belong to the world of time and space. In Christian terminology that is what is meant by being created in the image of God. You have a freedom to choose, and not all choices are good.

Western culture is characterized by a growing polarization of rich and poor, and by patterns of behaviour that bear witness to considerable inner pain. Alcoholism, drugs, suicide, racism and broken families are well known phenomena of the modern world. To many middle class people self-esteem is determined by performance at work. In relationships we make great demands on each other. The intoxication of being in love is replaced by the hangover of every day life. Serial monogamy ensures that there is not time to get bored. In many ways we have ended up becoming slaves of some very unempathetic mechanisms that do not contain us, but judge us and reject us unless we conform. The materialistic view of man that characterizes our culture has little therapy to offer.

Books may function as a safe place to seek refuge in when the world becomes too much, but their role can also be that of inspiration and advice on how to improve that human condition of ours. Baroness Orczy's novel The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) about a brave Englishman, Sir Percy Blakeney, aka the the Scarlet Pimpernel, who saves aristocrats from the guillotine during the French Revolution, is one of the novels that works on both levels.

The Archetypal Hero

The Baroness said herself that Sir Percy was a mental vision she got when she was waiting for the train. She wrote the novel in five weeks, no doubt deeply inspired. It is tempting to connect the book with her own life. She was a refugee from Hungary, her family had been in some danger and she had changed culture. It is no coincidence that she receives a vision like this. This male figure is also a symbol of the forces she had to integrate in her new life, which she did by professionally creating a career for herself as a writer in her new country, where a woman at the turn of the century certainly needed an inner hero to help her in a society that despised both foreigners and women. She was apparently happily married, so intimate relationships must have worked for her.

The heroic character that took shape in Baroness Orczy's mind is worth reflecting upon because she, like us today, had to build a world partly out of an experience of chaos.

The Scarlet Pimpernel is not great world literature, but the novel has survived because of its hero whose influence has been considerable. Not only has the novel been filmed numerous times, but dual characters like Batman, Superman and Zorro are in Sir Percy's debt, as is Dorothy L. Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey, whose eyeglass and silly manner hide an intellectual type of detective hero. James Bond, of course, alternating between nonchalance and action is also inspired by the more extrovert sides of the Pimpernel. The latest version of the novel is a Broadway musical, supported by very devoted fans, some of which have seen the show many times, testifying to the pull of the story and its characters.

Sir Percy is the archetypal hero. Handsome, tall, broad shouldered, elegant and, as an extra bonus, witty and intelligent. Typically for a hero he has had a difficult and exposed childhood, which has forced him to to make the choice of either succumbing to hopelessness or constructing a meaningful world. His marriage to the beautiful French actress Marguerite turns out to be an inadequate hook on which to hang his quest for meaning, as Marguerite, apparently without reason, has acted as informer, and now has the heads of an aristocratic family on her conscience.

Heroism without Violence

Much of what constitutes Sir Percy's fascination is the tension between his various roles. There is the self-centered fop reciting his poem We seek him here, We seek him there knowing that noone suspects him of being a hero. As a hero, however, Sir Percy does not embody the conventional confusion of courage with physical aggression (this is where James Bond has learnt a lesson not taught by Sir Percy). He is not macho. Although he is described as a having lots of brawn and not only brain, his ingenuity, his swiftness and his disguises ensure that the guillotine is left temporarily unemployed. He is something so unusual as a non violent, married hero with a pronounced sense of humour. And he has a human dimension, which most of his imitators have not. Caught between the fop and the hero there is a bitter and disappointed but still adoring husband.

Sir Percy is a hero in two ways. He is an extroverted hero whose ideals do not spring from ideology but from compassion. He and his author have often been judged politically incorrect because the rescues involve victims who once were tyrants. In a later novel he saves his arch enemy Chauvelin's daughter. Sir Percy is very much a Christian type of hero, who finds that not even his enemy has a head to lose.

Usually a hero is defined as being all good and the villain all bad. There is no doubt that Baroness Orczy idealized her hero, but although there is a polarity between Sir Percy and Chauvelin, Sir Percy himself has to overcome a major challenge where the enemy is in himself and not outside. The solution of this internal struggle is perhaps the true heroic feat of the story, and no doubt the reason why many readers have returned to this story again and again. It is also the reason why the novel is more than escapist fiction.

Heroic Relationships

Being a hero in situations with people you do not know can be relatively easy, but to overcome the obstacles posed by intimate relationships can sometimes be too much of a challenge. Perhaps it is easier to attach oneself as a Greenpeace activist to whaler than the daily ordeal of dealing with your family. The many divorces bear witness to the lack of attraction of such a venture. To be a hero in personal relationships may be the ultimate test. In these relationships we are revealed as we really are with our most secret longings and deepest wounds.

The couple in the novel has been married for almost a year and would probably, had they lived today, have set up an appointment with a lawyer. We are on the other side of "they lived happily ever after". He has idealized her, putting her on a pedestal, and she has been dependent on his admiration and not indifferent to his money and position. Sir Percy and Marguerite are reunited through the transformation of this egocentric kind of love.

The point is that the happy ending is no regression to the illusory nature of the first phase of a love relationship. What is so moving and unusual about this novel from the beginning of the century is that passion and love is enhanced by the painful procedure of getting rid of illusions and living through disappointment. Marguerite does not get Sir Percy back by seducing him or by using the old trick of crying and humiliating herself in front of him, so that he can feel manly, strong and protective. She acts for his sake putting her life at risk, thereby showing that it is the man and not his admiration that she wants. He, on the other hand, is able to show her his feelings when he understands that she is a human being and not an angel. At the ending of the novel this mutual redemption is shown symbolically by her having to bite through his ropes in order to release him, and by him having to carry her home, since she is too exhausted to walk, "The blind leading the lame" as Sir Percy says.

It is not surprising that the physical and spiritual union of the hero and heroine symbolizes man's primal longing for love, both the longing for complete acceptance, but also the longing for being able to love others equally unconditionally. Many of our disappointments are caused by the fact that we are not gods, that we cannot love or be loved so perfectly. In western culture we idealize - catastrophically - the state of being in love - and the highs associated with it. It is easy to understand why the withdrawal symptoms are so harsh and that like James Bond we are on the lookout for an erotic fix as a remedy to boredom and disappointment.

The Scarlet Pimpernel for all its simplicity has a complex message for the modern mind. We can truly learn from Sir Percy and Marguerite. The challenge of our world is to be able to contain its diversity, yet at the same time select and choose the voices we want to listen to. We need heroes and heroines. A world without heroes would be a collective psychotic universe - a cacophony.- but we do not need heroes that reject and destroy in order to win. We need heroes that feel compassion, who dare act on it and fight against injustice and cruelty. We need human beings who can tolerate their own and others' limitations and still be able to love.

Is he in heaven?
Is he in Hell?
That demmed elusive Pimpernel.

Dorthe Enger
April 2000

 

©Blakeney Manor, 2005