I am loving the way Library of America is encouraging me to finally read authors I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. Yes, they are short works, but at least I am getting a sense of these authors – and that’s a start. This week’s offering is Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-Frog”. Like the other works I’ve blogged about, you can read it online at the Library of America.
I must admit I only knew of Poe as primarily a writer of Gothic and horror stories, so I was a little surprised to discover that “Hop-Frog” is a satire. It starts with:
I never knew anyone so keenly alive to a joke as the king was. He seemed to live only for joking…
I rather wondered if this was going to be a fairy story, but I quickly realised that it was something quite different. We discover in the first paragraph that the surest road to the king’s favour was to tell jokes, and that the king had 7 ministers who were all accomplished jokers. The king’s jokes, however, do not rely on wit. Rather
He had a special admiration for breadth in a jest, and would often put up with length, for the sake of it. Over niceties wearied him … upon the whole, practical jokes suited his taste far better than verbal ones.
Do you sense the likelihood that a trick is to be played? If so, you’d be right. Without giving too much away, I will say that there are two more characters in this story, the king’s fool, because every king should have one, and a young dancer. Now, the fool is the Hop-Frog of the title. He is a crippled dwarf. Here is Poe’s description of Hop-Frog:
…Hop-Frog [the name given to him by the seven ministers] could only get along by a sort of interjectional gait – something between a leap and a wiggle – a movement that afforded illimitable amusement, and of course consolation, to the king, for (notwithstanding the protuberance of his stomach and a constitutional swelling of his head) the king, by his whole court, was considered a capital figure.
Surprising that, eh? The young dancer is Trippetta, also a dwarf but a well-proportioned one. As the story goes, Hop-Frog is asked by the king to come up with an idea for a costume for him and his ministers to wear to a Masquerade Ball. Before obtaining Hop-Frog’s ideas, however, they torment him by making him drink alcohol, something they knew did not agree with him:
But the king loved practical jokes, and took pleasure in forcing Hop-Frog to drink and (as the king called it) “to be merry”.
As you have probably guessed, the resolution involves a practical joke that rather turns on the king – but, other than telling you that, my lips are sealed. To this extent the story is pretty predictable. What makes it a good story, despite this, is not only the way Poe plots it (because it is perfectly set up), but the satirical language in which it is told. I particularly loved this:
“…Characters, my fine fellow; we need characters – all of us – ha! ha! ” and as this was seriously meant for a joke, his laugh was chorused by the seven.
Not knowing much about Poe, I read this as a satire of power, of the way the powerful can have no qualms about humiliating and belittling those less powerful. And, indeed, the story works very well on this level. However, there is, apparently, the possibility of something else also going on. According to LOA’s brief introductory notes, scholars note the parallel between Hop-Frog and his tormenters, and Poe and his critics. The notes also suggest other parallels with Poe’s life such as his being an orphan, and his problems with alcohol. There is more discussion of these parallels in the Wikipedia article on the story.
All that said, it is, in the end, a revenge story – and a pretty fine one at that. I should read more Poe.