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Edgar Allan Poe, Hop-Frog

August 12, 2010
Edgar Allan poe

Edgar Allan Poe (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

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.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. August 12, 2010 11:53 pm

    “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I wondered, weak and weary”.
    Poe is unmatched and the Raven is unlike any other poem ever written.
    I loved Edgar Allen Poe when I read him in high school and you have reawakened that love for me here Sue, thank you!!! I didn’t know about this work either but I do want to go back and re-read Annabel Lee!

  2. August 13, 2010 5:07 am

    What a bad American I am, as I did not know Poe wrote satire either. The gothic tales are all I ever got in school, all that ever got translated to TV movies starring Vincent Price. When I think of Poe, and when most people think of Poe, we think of the tales of horror and shiver in delight. I will have to find the time to read Hop-Frog (yes I know it is short but so is my spare time!)

  3. August 13, 2010 8:09 am

    Farnoosh: I do like poetry and have always felt I should read The raven. Maybe it will be one of my Kindle reads! I’m gathering up ideas and will add this one to it.

    Stefanie: Glad to be of service – and glad I’m not the only one. I understand completely re finding time to read it – albeit its being short. I tend to read short pieces like this over breakfast when I *should* be reading the newspapers. I figure listening to current affair radio after breakfast is good enough for that! I prefer to read my literature but am happy to hear my news!

  4. August 13, 2010 1:10 pm

    What’s that you say? Your own daughter did a year at UVA, where Poe also spent some years as a college student (before being expelled)? Why, I think she did!

    (For some reason, I kept expecting someone to kiss Hop-Frog and turn him into a Prince. Not quite.)

  5. bmpermie permalink
    August 13, 2010 1:18 pm

    Thank you for suggesting a great way to eat lunch and I had to turn off the radio on the election – another bonus.

    I too only knew of Poe and his tales of horror, liked the story, the writing and now another new site.

  6. August 13, 2010 2:58 pm

    Hannah: Well did he? He died very young which was sad.

    Bmpermie: Glad to be of service – and LOL re the election. Once another commenter read one of the stories on her commute home. They are useful for little spots like that. It’s an interesting site. I can’t keep up but I read (and blog on it) as much as I can.

  7. August 13, 2010 6:56 pm

    I think I read some of his stuff when I was at school, in some anthology we had?
    I don’t think I’d better start reading books over breakfast…I’d never get off to school on time!

    • August 13, 2010 7:22 pm

      LOL Lisa … something to look forward to when you retire. I guess it’s very likely there were stories of his in anthologies…but I don’t recollect coming across them in my schooling BUT that’s not to say I didn’t of course!

  8. August 14, 2010 7:40 pm

    Very good article. I have been reading Poe myself over the last two or three years and have his collected stories and also a critical work by Daniel Hoffman. There is much more to this writer than the Tales of Mystery and Imagination – although they kept me enthralled as a boy. Glad you enjoyed the story

  9. June 26, 2011 2:38 am

    Pow actually wrote some hilarious stuff – particularly in the area of oblique literary criticism. Check out “How to Write a Blackwood Article” and its companion piece “The Predicament – or the Scythe of Time”
    🙂

    • June 26, 2011 2:40 am

      Yowtch – Poe, not Pow. Sigh. Shouldn’t leave comments before I have caffeine.

      • June 26, 2011 2:52 am

        I knew who you were talking about! Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll look out for them – I guess I might find them online?

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