Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by  Victor Hugo

The Year of Grace 1482 is going to be the big one for Pierre Gringoire; he just knows it!  The poet, philosopher and would-be playwright is debuting his new mystery play for the Cardinal of Bourbon and the Flemish ambassadors on January 6th, the Day of Kings and Feast of Fools.  A good reception will net him rich rewards and fame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Poor Gringoire!  First, the important guests are delayed coming to the Hall of Justice, and the audience nearly riots to get the play started on time.  Then a cheeky beggar heckles the audience for spare change.  Then the Cardinal and crew finally arrive, drawing all attention from the stage.  The Flemish ambassador pans the performance, and starts the election of the Pope of Fools.  And the few audience members left are drawn away by the mysterious La Esmeralda!

Gringoire is in for even more suffering tonight, but he is not the fellow the book is named for, but just one of the many characters who live near the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Victor Hugo wrote two great novels that still inspire adaptations today; Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris.  The latter got a title change in English to focus on the most memorable character.  Quasimodo isn’t the protagonist either; the closest to a central character is La Esmeralda (“the Emerald”, named after her necklace), the beautiful dancer and goat trainer.  All the important male characters are defined by their relationship to her.

The 15th-Century date seems significant, a decade before the discovery of the New World would change everything, and so the characters behave as though the Old World will always be.

It’s interesting to me how the changing fashions in literature affect some of Victor Hugo’s story beats.  In the Nineteenth Century, the tall, brave and handsome warrior on a horse was almost invariably the hero of books, while a deformed or disabled or ethnic minority character (Quasimodo is apparently Roma by birth) is cast in a villainous role.  The partial reversal of roles between Phoebus (who is only interested in La Esmeralda for sex) and Quasimodo (who defends La Esmeralda even though it’s clear she is revolted by him) was shocking at the time.  Nowadays, there’s more variation in who gets to be the hero of stories.

And then there’s Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and very much the villain of the story.  A teen genius and rising star in the religious hierarchy, he loved his little brother Jehan and had good intentions when he adopted Quasimodo.  Claude Frollo was a loving (if excessively stern) adoptive father to Quasimodo, and the local expert on alchemy.  Until he saw La Esmeralda dance, and for the first time had sexual feelings he could not pray away.

With no experience of how to deal with women, and bound by a rigid set of personal and religious codes, Frollo chose to interpret the girl’s effect on him as witchcraft, and began the rapid mental decline that ends with him seeing La Esmeralda hang rather than be with anyone else.

Between this book and Les Miz, I get the distinct feeling that Victor Hugo was not a fan of the French legal system.  Every time a character comes up against the courts and law enforcement, injustice is what ensues.  This is most symbolized by the auditor (assistant judge) who is deaf, and cannot hear that Quasimodo (who is also mostly deaf) isn’t responding to his questions.  He condemns the bellringer based on what he imagines Quasimodo might have said, and increases the punishment when someone tries to convey the truth to him.

The representation of Quasimodo as a person with disabilities is pretty good for the time when the novel was written.  I can’t say the same for the representation of the Roma people, called “Gypsies” or “Egyptians” here.  They’re depicted as a thieving, superstitious lot who hang out with the other worst elements of society.  Part of establishing La Esmeralda as a good person is the reveal that she’s adopted.  (As part of the “stolen by gypsies” myth.)

Mr. Hugo often takes the opportunity to spend a chapter talking about architecture, geography or how technology changes culture.  This can be fascinating, but may irritate people who just want to get on with the story.  He also uses some contrived coincidences to move the tale along.  (In particular, one moment towards the end of the book would in a normal melodrama have been the end of Frollo’s scheme and La Esmeralda’s triumph.  But it is ultimately useless.)

Definitely worth reading if you’ve liked any of the movies and are ready for more moral complexity.

Here’s a bit from the 1939 Charles Laughton film:

Book Review: The Year of Three Kings 1483

Book Review: The Year of Three Kings 1483 by Giles St. Aubyn

This history of the eventful year 1483 (and surrounding events) in England was written for the five hundredth anniversary in 1983.  The three kings in question are Edward IV, Edward V and of course, Richard III, formerly the Duke of Gloucester.   1483 ushered in the final act of the War of the Roses, a series of succession crises about the throne of England.

The Year of Three Kings 1483

Richard is the most famous of these kings, his actions to take the crown being controversial even in his own time.  The public may be most familiar with his depiction in William Shakespeare’s play Richard the Third.   That play was heavily based on a negative portrayal by Sir Thomas More in his history of the period.  There have since been revisionist versions of Richard’s life, both negative and positive.

This book seeks to sort through the primary sources for the actual facts available, and examine what probably really happened.  It comes with a dramatis personae, numerous family tree diagrams, some black and white photographs, extensive end notes, a limited bibliography (only those works directly cited in the volume) and an index.

While the author attempts to be even-handed, he is not above editorial comment, showing disapproval of certain historical personages.  He also is somewhat dismissive of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (a novel in which a hospitalized detective applies himself to the historical mystery of whether Richard murdered his nephews) as part of a trend by “women” to favor unduly positive views of Richard.

There’s also 15th Century sexism on display in several of the direct quotes from the sources of the time.

The author’s conclusion seems to be that while Richard III was not the villain painted in the Tudor propaganda, he was no innocent either.  He did some very good things for the people, but only in the service of claiming and keeping the throne.  The disastrous circumstances caused by the murky succession and various dubious favoritism moments by kings before him made Richard’s power grab vital to his self-defense.  But he may not have planned to go so far as he did.

This is a good starting point for those interested in this period of history, but the serious student will want to supplement it with other scholarly biographies and histories of Richard and the other people involved.

Book Review: The Stone Lions

The Stone Lions by Gwen Dandridge

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Stone Lions

Ara is the daughter of the Sultan of Granada in the early  15th Century.  She has lived all her life in the Alhambra, the Red Palace.  Frustrated by her cloistered existence,  Ara sneaks out of the walls to see the arrival of her distant relative, the Sufi mathemagician Tahirah.  Before she can re-enter the palace, Ara witnesses a strange scene involving the Wazir, Abd al-Rahmid.

She has little time to think about this, as she is caught by her tutor Suleiman, a learned eunuch, and returned to the women’s quarters.  Suleiman worries that Ara could have fallen into the hands of evil Christians.  Turns out that Christians are the least of the dangers afoot, as the magic that protects the Alhambra from disaster and summons its faithful stone lions is under attack from within.

Suleiman soon falls victim to dark magic,  and it is up to Ara and her graceful cousin Layla to learn the seven symmetries from Tahirah  to restore the Alhambra’s defenses.

This is a children’s edutainment book, supported through the National Science Foundation.    The science part is teaching the concept of band symmetry, one of the mathematical foundations of geometry.  In addition, there’s some history and cultural information that could be helpful to a young reader.  The back has glossaries, maps and a summary of the symmetry lessons taught in the story.

The story itself is pretty good, if perhaps a little heavy-handed at points; the Wazir is a little too obviously evil to have kept it a secret so long.  Ara doesn’t have much of a character arc, her job is to learn the symmetries so she can spot the problems.  Layla has a bit more growth, learning that math can be easier to learn than she thought.  The real character development is for Suleiman, who must learn wisdom from his curse and the changes it brings.

This book is primarily aimed at children about 10-12 (Ara is ten in the back cover text, but twelve in the story) but  should be engaging for readers up to junior high level, especially girls interested in geometry.  Parents may wish to bone up on Spanish history of the period and Muslim culture of the time so they can discuss the book with their kids.

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