“Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

A quick list of Disney misses on the Herakles legend (DeDisnification, Part 3A)

Much is made of Disney’s Hercules being different from all their other animated films, with the exception of Fantasia, because it deals with myth rather than works based on folktales or fiction. But as we saw with Mulan, history and legend often blend, and indeed, many stories ultimately come from what we call myth.

The word myth as it is now used contains the unfortunate implication of something untrue, but the original Greek word (μῦθος) simply means “story”. And indeed, Hercules’ opening number, The Gospel Truth, makes fun of how “impossible” the “truths” depicted in Greek myth are. But it’s important to remember that the “myths” of ancient Greece represent the religion of much of ancient Europe, west Asia, and north Africa as Hellenism became a widespread cultural force. Indeed, this culture underpins all of Western civilization to a great extent, such that logos like that of FTD and emergency services bear images or devices of these gods, so much so the Disney film even mimics the FTD logo when Hermes delivers flowers at Hercules’ birth.

As such, I feel that these tales deserve much greater respect than they are given in general and definitely more than Disney accords them.

From a mythological standpoint, there are a number of elements that are erroneous, which I’ll simply enumerate rather than discussing at length. I’ve presented them roughly in the order they appear in the film. I could have broken them down further to expand the list, but that was not my goal:

  • After their defeat, the Titanes (Τῑτᾶνες, Titans) were imprisoned in the great pit of Tartaros (Τάρταρος) beneath the earth, not beneath the ocean. Tartaros is a sort of anti-sky.
  • The Titanes represented various forces, such as Kronos (Κρόνος); destructive time. Disney essentially invented a whole new set of Titans based on the four classical elements.
  • Kyklopes (Κύκλωψ, Cyclopes) and Titanes are distinct and different creatures—the Kyklopes sided with Zeus against the Titanes. However, the Kyklopes are brothers to the Titanes, along with the Hekatonkheires (Ἑκατόγχειρες).
  • There were nine Mousai (Μοῦσαι, Muses), who’ve been reduced to five.
  • Narkissos (Νάρκισσος, Narcissus) was not a god, and does not belong in Olympos (Ὄλυμπος, Olympus).
  • Although Greek names are used for all the other characters the Roman form of the main character’s name is used rather than Herakles. The Roman version comes from the Etruscan 𐌄𐌋𐌂𐌓𐌄𐌇 (hercle), which derives from the Greek Ἡρακλῆς, but changes because of the Etruscan language’s emphasis on the first syllable.
  • Herakles was actually called Alkeides (Αλκειδης) until immediately before beginning the 12 labors.
  • One of the defining elements of Herakles’ life was Hera’s (Ἥρα) continuous attempts to destroy him, as the product of one of Zeus’ (Ζεύς) many infidelities so portraying him as her son and she as his loving mother is pretty far off base.
  • Pegasos (Πήγασος, Pegasus) sprang from the neck of the Gorgon (Γοργών), Medousa (Μέδουσα, Medusa) when she was beheaded, not clouds. His name, ultimately from the Greek πηγάζο (pegazo), “sprung forth”, reflects this origin.
  • The winged horse later became Zeus’ lightning bearer, so depending on the timeline, he should already have been in Olympos: when Bellerophon (Βελλεροφῶν) tried to ride Pegasos to Olympos, Zeus caused him to be bucked off, but his steed continued on without him.
  • Zeus, Haides (ᾍδης), and their other brother, Poseidon (Ποσειδῶν), drew lots to determine who ruled what realm.
  • Zeus is the youngest of the three.
  • Zeus freed Haides (and Poseidon) from Kronos’ belly—he had eaten them.
  • They fought together against the Titanes.
  • Haides generally seems pretty happy with his realm in myth and never tries to overthrow Zeus.
  • Haides has several attendants in myth, but Panic and Pain are not among them.
  • Pain and Panic are possible translations of the names of the sons of Ares, Phobos and Deimos (Ἄρης, Φόβος, and Δεῖμος).
  • The Moirae (Μοῖραι, Fates) are different from the Graeae (Γραιαι, sea hags with a single eye between them).
  • The Fates were born of Zeus, and so would serve him, never Haides. Indeed, of all the gods, Zeus is said to know what is fated, though even he is not above fate.
  • Herakles was always a demigod, his divinity was never taken away from him, and in fact, Hera breast fed him once, increasing his supernatural power. When he suckled too hard, Hera pushed him away, and the spray formed the Milky Way. The word galaxy reflects this myth, originating from the Ancient Greek name for ours, Γαλαξίας, with the root γᾰλᾰ meaning “milk” This also makes the phrase “Milky Way Galaxy” a bit pleonastic.
  • The snakes Herakles strangled were sent by Hera to kill him.
  • Alkmene (Ἀλκμήνη), rather than being a hapless foster mother was Herakles’ real mother. She exposed him (i.e., left him to die in the wilderness) to avert Hera’s wrath whence Athena (Ἀθηνᾶ, or some sources say Hermes, Ἑρμῆς) rescued him and took him to the Hera to nurse, as I’ve already mentioned.
  • Amphitryon (Ἀμφιτρύων) and Alkmene were not farmers, but the king and queen of Messene (Μεσσήνη).
  • Herakles did have a troubled childhood—he used a lyre to slay Linos (Λῖνος, Linus), his music tutor, and was sent to the mountains to tend cattle and avoid further such incidents.
  • Herakles did have some very distinctive accoutrements, but an amulet was never one of them. His knobby olive-wood club and lion skin cloak are best known, and do eventually make an appearance in the film.
  • He did visit an oracle, but it was not at the temple of Zeus, it was the famed oracle of Delphoi (Δελφοί, Delphi), where the temple is consecrated to Apollon (Ἀπόλλων, Apollo). He was also advised to complete the 12 labors, and change his name to appease Hera (it means “glory of Hera”).
  • Zeus actually appearing in his temple would never happen in myth; typically an oracle would communicate in such a case and typically in riddles.
  • Herakles was not taught by Philoktetes (Φιλοκτήτη), but Amphitryon (his foster father) taught him to drive a chariot, Autolykos (Αὐτόλυκος, Autolykus) to wrestle, Eurytos (Εὔρυτος, Eurytus) the bow, Kastor (Κάστωρ, Castor) armored combat, and Linos (until the incident) singing and playing the lyre.
  • Philoktetes was the human disciple, friend, and armor-bearer of Herakles—Herakles taught him to use the bow, as well as bequeathing him his archery equipment.
  • Kheiron (Χείρων, Chiron) the Kentauros (Κένταυρος, Centaur)—not Philoktetes and not a Satyros (Σάτυρος, Satyr)—was the teacher of Akhilleus (Ἀχιλλεύς, Achilles), and also a friend of Herakles.
  • Herakles was one of the Argonautes (Ἀργοναύτης, Argonauts)—sort of: he joined them but left the quest in the middle.
  • Herakles predates both the Trojan War and Akhilleus.
  • Perseus (Περσεύς) was also Zeus’ son—it was far from uncommon.
  • Nessos (Νέσσος) the Kentauros tried to rape Herakles’ much later wife, Deianeira (Δῃάνειρα), and had nothing to do with Megara (Μέγαρα). After Nessos carried Deianeira across the river Euenos (Εὔηνος), Herakles slew him using arrows dipped in venom made form the Lernaean Hydra’s (Λερναῖα Ὕδρα) blood. The incident also precipitated Herakles’ own death.
  • Apart from tribute-collecting Orkhomenioi (Ὀρχομένιοι, Orchomenians), Thebai (Θῆβαι, Thebes) didn’t have a lot of problems at this time. All the trouble around Thebes might be a reference to such goings on in Oidipous’ (Οἰδίπους, Oedipus) time (which should be in the past of the Herakles timeline).
  • Herakles met and wed Megara after going to war on behalf of the Thebans against the Orkhomenioi. She was the eldest daughter of Kreon (Κρέων, Creon), king of Thebes. Also, Amphitryon died during the war.
  • The Hydra lived near Argos (Ἄργος), far from Thebes.
  • More specifically, in a swamp, not a gorge.
  • It was a creature of Hera, like so many of Herakles’ foes.
    When any of its heads were cut off two would replace it, not three.
  • It was slain by burning off its eight mortal heads, then burying its immortal ninth head under a massive rock.
  • Its slaying was the second of Herakles’ 12 labors.
  • In the myth, the Hydra has a crab buddy (Καρκίνος, Cancer).
  • Herakles did fight in the Gigantomakhia (Γίγας + μαχία “War of the Gigantes”), which was inspired by anger over the Titanes’ treatment, but did not involve them directly.
  • Megara was either killed by Herakles, along with all their children, during a bout of madness caused by Hera, or was remarried to Iolaus (Ἰόλαος).
  • Herakles visited the underworld twice in myth, to bring Kerberos (Κέρβερος, Cerberus) to the upper world, which was the last of his 12 labors, and then again to take him back.
  • Haides actually agreed to let Herakles take Kerberos if he would just stop killing everyone in the underworld.
  • He found the hound near the Akheron (Ἀχέρων, Acheron) according to most accounts, though to be fair, a few do mention the Styx (Στύξ).
  • He delivered Theseus (Θησεύς) from the underworld, and no one else.
  • Herakles became immortal upon his death.

This list is quite large, and there are more such issues, but I didn’t want to make it any bigger after a certain point. It has been said that of all the many retellings of the story of Herakles, Disney’s is the farthest off the mark, mythologically, and this list is more than enough to bear that out.

Next time, I’ll discuss the film more on the basis of its storytelling.


Read Subsequent Articles in this Series

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with Tarzan

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than


Read Previous Articles in this Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Making Over “Mulan”

The repeated appropriation of a woman warrior’s tale (DeDisneyfication, Part 2)

In my exploration of how Hunchback went wrong it seemed that the problem was one of scale—not only was Hugo’s work one of massive physical size, but the metaphors and social context did not fit neatly into a 90-minute package, to say nothing of the ambiguous themes of ugliness and darkness. Mulan, by contrast, is drawn from a poem of some 42 stanzas sketching the tale of a woman warrior which might seem better suited to the Disney treatment. They even had women—one of them Chinese—on the writing staff and they seem to have done actual research but it still turns to ethnic stereotypes and tired gags, ultimately yielding a film whose girl power is pretty weak. Reasonably successful in the West, it got a much worse reception in China where it was seen as “foreign looking” and reflecting but little of their legends although certainly unfair trade practices may have been a factor.

The Disney version of the film first builds a strawman Chinese culture where women are best seen and not heard and then knocks the flimsy construct down. They do so by “making a man” of Mulan—she shows little competence at anything with the possible exception of xiàngqí (象棋), a game sometimes called “Chinese chess”; a skill for which there is no pay-off. She can’t even hold a sword, and her method of using her dog, Little Brother, to feed the chickens defiles the family shrine—until she receives training in the army.

Even this half-hearted foray into the woman warrior genre came after the waters had been well tested by those who didn’t have to dress in drag or need training from men to do it, like Buffy and Xena. Even so, in the end, Mulan goes back to the life she previously dreaded, turning down the government post offered by the Emperor for her heroism, also (it is suggested) becoming romantically involved with her former captain, Li Shang, and returning to the role of obedient, quiet wife.

Other characters are more disturbing, including the large, mannish matchmaker, who first has a beard and moustache drawn on her, and then is set on fire. And still moreso, Chi-Fu, the Emperor’s advisor, a misogynist bad guy, who is also effeminate—contrasting strongly with Mulan’s “manly men” army pals as a clear gay stereotype. Unlike some of James Hong’s other roles, this is problematic, as the portrayal of Asian men as villainous and asexualized in Western media has a long and troubled history, as it was employed to make men of “other races” seem less attractive to white women.

Another issue comes in the form of Mushu, portrayed by Eddie Murphy in a performance nearly identical to his Donkey in Shrek, and which cuts still closer to the bone of cultural insensitivity. Naming this comedic character after a well-known American-Chinese food (moo shu pork, 木须肉) conjures images of ’70s cartoon character Hong Kong Phooey. Hong Kong Phooey is set to be voiced by Murphy, who is apparently the go-to for broad characters like this, in an upcoming live-action film. The Ah-Chu-God-bless-you gag occurs, eggrolls are called for—one wonders if a racist lightbulb joke was pitched at some point.

Turning to the “real” Mulan, there is doubt as to whether she belongs to history or legend, and moreover, whether she was even Chinese. Even her name is not entirely agreed upon: while Mùlán (木蘭, “magnolia”) seems consistent for her given name, Disney gives her family name as Fa—which is the Cantonese version of the more commonly used Huā (花, “flower”)—but Zhū (朱, “cinnabar”) and Wèi (魏, from the Kingdom of the same name) have also been used in various works.

The first known story about her was told in a ballad which is completely lost to us but which was documented by Zhi Jiang (智匠) of the Chen dynasty (陳朝) in approximately 568 AD.¹ The “definitive text” that is both available and most commonly referenced was collected in an anthology by Guō Màoqiàn (郭茂倩) during the Song dynasty (宋朝) in the 12th century.² Recent scholars have concluded based on Guō’s inclusion of the work among Northern poems, as well as its character that it most likely was created sometime in the 5th or 6th century.³

The Northern Wei dynasty (北魏) that this ballad would therefore be identified with was founded by the Xianbei (鮮卑) tribe, a non-Han (漢) nomadic people. It’s important to note that the language spoken by these peoples was likely a Mongolic one, and that the name Xianbei is either a transliteration of their own demonym or, more likely, an exonym.

Furthermore, the depiction of a woman warrior runs against the image of the gentle and graceful ladies that the literary tradition of Confucianism (儒家) favors, whereas tales of horsewomen with traits similar to Mulan’s—bravery, martial prowess, and military resourcefulness—do appear among the poems of the Northern tradition, such as Li Bo xiaomei ge ( 李波小妹歌, The Song of Li Bo’s Younger Sister) and Ziliu ma (紫騮馬, The Black-Tailed Red Horse), both yuèfǔ (樂府) poems from the same period as the Ballad of Mulan. Such songs make sense to the state of constant warfare in the region, making these traits admirable in individuals without regard to their gender. As the poem says in closing:

双兔傍地走,安能辨我是雄雌?

Two hares running side by side close to the ground, How can they tell if I am he or she?

This is the original Mulan, an independent, accomplished horsewoman, skilled with sword and bow, and with a keen mind for military strategy. She is not lacking in confidence in any way, is not in need of any training from anyone, doesn’t whine about hardship, and camps alone on her way to join the fighting. Neither does she fight for the couple of days that the Disney film presents, but instead for 10 years, and those not easy ones:

将军百战死 […].

Generals die in a hundred battles […].

One element, Hua’s taking up of her aging father’s sword, was seized upon as an opportunity to change the story into a Confucian fable. Already in Guō’s work, he records a so-called “Second Mulan”, retelling the tale in the 8th century with significant revisions that stress Confucian virtues, in particular, that of filial piety (孝, xiào). Where in the original, Hua declines a government post after returning from war triumphant, Tang dynasty (唐; 618–690, 705–907) official Wei Yuanfu (韋元甫) omits that part, as giving a woman political power would be inconceivable to his worldview. Finally the first-person perspective of the original disappears, and an impersonal, moralizing third-person narration takes over instead.

I hadn’t known it when I began this piece, but apparently a live-action version of Mulan is set to be released by Disney two years hence. I’d like to see them treat the cultural issues with more sensitivity, peeling away the layers of appropriation the story has already undergone in Chin—which made it into a legend of Confucian orthodoxy in support of the empire—as well as steering clear of the ethnic biases Western media have applied to portrayals of Asians. It is also my hope that they present a proud, strong horsewoman from the Xianbei nomadic tribes fighting to defend her family and her homeland of the Northern Wei, perhaps with badass female warrior buddies instead of anthropomorphized animals and stupid macho dudes.


Addendum A

There was one additional point I think worth making, which I did not include in my initial post: the choice of the Huns, also known as the Xiongnu (匈奴), as the invaders that had to be fought off always struck me as odd. The Huns’ activities in Asia, were in fact fairly limited, and Mulan’s people, the Xianbei supplanted them on the steppe, perhaps driving them to their better known invasions of Europe. Shan Yu, despite being the villain, is strong, clever, skilled at riding, use of the bow and the sword, living off the land, and falconry; all things still associated with these Northern tribes. In short, I’d conclude his portrayal, minus the two-dimensional evil, is actually closer to an authentic Mulan.


Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with Tarzan

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of Its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than


Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Straightening out “Hunchback”


Notes

  1. In 古今樂錄 (Gǔjīn Yuèlù, Musical Records of Old and New).
  2. It was compiled in 樂府詩 (Yuèfǔshī, the Music Bureau Collection) an anthology of lyrical pieces from the Han dynasty (漢朝) through the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (五代十國, 2nd century BC–10th century AD).
  3. Map by Khiruge, 2015.

Straightening out “Hunchback”

Disney’s myths and Victor Hugo (DeDisneyfication, Part 1)

Reading Barthes’ Mythologies helped me put my finger on what bothers me about the Disneyfication of fairy tales and other works. His definition of “myth” is nonstandard—here it is the creation of symbols. I almost always find the book misfiled in used bookstores and quietly repair their error. I jotted some notes about the systematic appropriation of the cultures represented by these tales and how they have been turned into bourgeois myths. But writing a piece so purely critical, though it might provide some entertaining venting of my spleen, seemed somewhat pointless and ultimately unlikely to win me any friends. And indeed, later in the book, Barthes himself cautions:

But when a myth reaches the entire community, it is from the latter that the mythologist must become estranged if he wants to liberate the myth.

And ultimately he came to question the relevance of his work still further when corporations began to approach him to create such myths for them as well.

But then I encountered Richard Wolfgramm’s excellent article, “Moana and Resistance Spectating”, and realized that this is what I had been doing to some extent, and that the taking back that I’ve tried to do with Norse esoterica would be a much more constructive approach to Disneyfication than a vitriolic rant.

I’d also like to acknowledge a positive aspect to these Disney films—they expose a broad audience to works they might otherwise know nothing about. My hope is that this fosters curiosity about the source material, rather than simple acceptance of the symbols the studio has created.

Firstly, let’s define our terms: Disneyfacation, as I’ve already noted, involves cultural appropriation and the creation of bourgeois myths. It is one of the most aggressive forms of Hollywoodization, part of which involves a nearly fetishistic focus on the redux, and another is the culture of the final cut which, if it encounters a work of art, seeks to render it into entertainment instead.

A classic example of both comes in the Hollywoodization of the 1985 German film Zuckerbaby into 1989’s horrifically saccharine Baby Cakes: The award-winning German film has the main character, Marianne, throw herself under the wheels of the train being driven by the lover who has spurned her. Whereas in the nearly unknown US version, the protagonist, renamed Grace, decides to quit being afraid of what the world thinks of her and to follow her dreams, becoming a beautician, while Rob (her lover) realizes that his wife will never accept him as he is and that he really loves Grace.

Please don’t imagine for a single second that the first one is regressive and horrible and the second is empowering—go watch them (if you can even stomach the latter version) and you’ll see a lion whose teeth have been extracted. But as they say in Hollywoodese, “That one wasn’t going to sell a lot of popcorn.”

So now to the task—first up: The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

This infinitely forgettable mid-’90s mediocrity derives from a Victor Hugo novel, so it differs a bit from typical Disney fare. As with nearly everything Disney, there are numerous redux from which they have drawn and adapted this version, including 10 films, nine theatrical versions, three ballets, two TV miniseries, and two musical retellings, to say nothing of all the translations into various languages over the years. The 1939 version, starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara, in particular seems to have formed the basis for the Disney film. Rather than breaking down the entire plot structures of the Hugo and Disney versions, I’ll focus on a few key differences.

Let’s begin with the title: the original was called Notre-Dame de Paris, placing the focus not on the characters, but on the cathedral itself, as the book was ultimately about the architecture of Paris. Hugo hated the English title, which shifted this emphasis and prompted filmic adaptations criticised as vulgar freakshows. If anything, the double meaning of the title was a reference to Esmeralda, as the dame—“lady” of the cathedral she claims sanctuary in, and who, ultimately, is the main character rather than Quasimodo.

The hunchback himself is another metaphor for the cathedral that is his home, which in turn is one for Parisian architecture, and even that of every city of significant age: though its features can be seen as monstrous (or at least asymmetrical), ultimately they are a part of a character with a heart of gold. This theme of the majestic messiness of reality runs through the whole work, encompassing, in particular, the relationships among the characters. The book is largely a response to a movement to renovate the city afoot in Hugo’s time and of which he was not a fan:

Thus it is that the wondrous art of the Middle Ages has been treated in almost every country, and especially in France. In its ruin three sorts of inroads are distinguishable, having marred it to different depths; first, Time, which has insensibly made breaches here and there, and rusted its whole surface; then, religious and political revolutions, which, blind and furious in their nature, have tumultuously wreaked their wrath upon it, torn its rich garment of sculpture and carving, shivered its rose windows, shattered its necklaces of arabesques and quaint figures, torn down its statues, here for their mitre, there for their crown; and lastly, changing fashion, growing ever more grotesque and absurd, commencing with the the anarchical yet splendid deviations of the Renaissance, have succeeded one another in the unavoidable decline of architecture.

Nonetheless, as is implied here, he is willing to accept the changes that have been made, but feels these should stop, leaving the cathedral, the city, the world in this imperfect yet glorious state.

It’s easy to see why Disney would not have been comfortable with this message even if this amount of nuance was anywhere near their wheelhouse as their stock in trade involves creating consumerist utopias on swampland. Rather than dealing with these metaphors we are left instead with an empty shell.

Next, let’s move to “Quasi’s” cutesy gargoyle sidekicks, Victor, Hugo, and Laverne. Disney always likes to insert characters like these, as well as, in this film, a horse named Achilles (apparently entirely to set up the laff line “Achilles, heel!”). Certainly, I understand their thinking; many of the dialogues that are internal in novels and fairy tales become conversations between these creatures and the people they are associated with—not to mention the toy sales. But this trio is particularly weird and unneeded, and while the names of the first two form a dubious homage to the author from whose work the film is drawn, the last one is “wackily” named after one of the Andrews sisters.

On to the Cour des miracles: Disney’s Esmeralda entrusts a pendant containing a map to the gypsies’ hideout, the Court of Miracles, which proves problematic when it falls into the wrong hands. This is simply ridiculous. While the various slums of Paris were known by this name, the film implies that there is one such place, and that its location is somehow secret. Some claimed these were simply squalid cesspits of lawless villainy, while others held that guilds of thieves and beggars organized their trades, and, in order to be exempt from “taxes” to the Grand Coësre, archissupots provided lessons on argot to new recruits. The Grand Coësre is the head of the thieves’ and beggar’s guild and an archissupot is a scholarly rogue—both themselves argot terms. These areas, which inspired both Notre-Dame de Paris and Les Misérables were cleared, an effort that began 1667, and was finally completed by the Haussmannization of Paris in the late 19th century. Georges-Eugène Hausmann’s renovation of Paris occurred between 1853 and 1870, following the publication of Notre-Dame de Paris, so even though his work was celebrated, Hugo’s warnings were not heeded. Ironically, one of the areas on the Rive Droite created in this effort was Place Victor Hugo.

Finally, the endings of the two works differ the most dramatically: In the animated film, Frollo “accidentally” falls to his death in the molten lead-flooded streets surrounding the cathedral, Esmeralda marries Phoebus, the Captain of Frollo’s guard (Captain of the Archers in the novel). and in a Baby Cakes-esque turn of events, Quasi is accepted by society.

Hugo, on the other hand, has Frollo turn Esmeralda, condemned of attempting to murder Phoebus, over to the troops, and when he laughs during her hanging, Quasimodo pushes him from the top of the cathedral to his death. The hunchback later finds Esmeralda’s dead body at the mass grave for criminals at Montfaucon and remains there to eventually perish of starvation. Their intertwined skeletons are found some time later, which, when an attempt is made to separate them, crumble into dust.

In closing, I actually doff my hat to Disney for embracing one dark element of the original in particular: Frollo’s mixture of lust and loathing for Esmeralda, treatment of which, mainly embodied in the musical number, “Hellfire”, garnered the flick an unheard of (for Disney) PG rating. It would have been easy to leave out, but the creative team seems to have successfully fought the studio execs to keep it in. As it’s ultimately a commentary on the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy, it’s a fairly charged theme to have made it into such an otherwise vanilla effort.


Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 2: Making over “Mulan”

Part 2 Addendum B: Your Western Wuxia Is Weak

Part 3A: “Hercules”: Myths and Mistakes

Part 3B: Doing Hera’s Work

Part 4: “Belle” Epoch

Part 5: Putting “Pocahontas” to Rest

Part 5 Addendum: Powhatan’s Mantle

Part 6: Trouble with Tarzan

Part 7A: Down the Rabbit Hole

Part 7B: Alice’s Adventures in the Cousins War

Part 8: Guerrillas and the “Jungle”

Part 9A: Through a Magic Mirror Marred

Part 9A Addendum: The Woods “Over the Wall”

Part 9B: The Sum of its Versions

Part 9C: The “Snow White” Studio

Part 9D: Snowhaus

Part 10: The Little Less-Than

Wanting to be Magic

A starry robe, a pointy hat, and thou, Rilke (Translating Poetry, Part 3)

Poring as I have over Borgesessays on translation, particularly of poetry, I still nearly missed a line that finally reveals his thoughts on the topic:

Words become incantations and poetry wants to be magic.

Even his essays are far from straightforward and must be carefully read. This sentence is drawn from “Two Ways to Translate” (“Las dos maneras de traducir”), and it is not at all elaborated on.

And again, I find myself in accord: the process of reading poetry is different from reading other types of works. Or at least it should be, and then too, there are works of prose for which the process is like reading poetry—Finnegan’s Wake comes to mind. The writer’s choices must be carefully made, but even more is demanded of the reader, who must study and perform the magic. You can’t simply glean the meaning and move on; each line, and maybe each word, must be lingered over, read aloud, and allowed to reverberate, whereas in “normal” reading even moving your lips is worthy of derision.

There is perhaps no better example of this than Rainer Maria Rilke, whose work is often described as mystical and lyrically intense. His words are invocations, using haunting images to express highly existential themes, such as the difficulties of communion with the ineffable in the disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety of the fin de siècle.

So when a friend posted a version of a Rilke poem on Facebook, it caught my eye. I haven’t been able to identify the translator of this version. Sometimes called “Passages”, it is actually untitled:

Understand, I’ll slip quietly
away from the noisy crowd
when I see the pale
stars rising, blooming over the oaks.
I’ll pursue solitary pathways
through the pale twilit meadows,
with only this one dream:
you come too.

Some great stuff here, but again, I wanted to see it as Rilke wrote it, which was:

Weisst du, ich will mich schleichen
leise aus lautem Kreis,
wenn ich erst die bleichen
Sterne über den Eichen
blühen weiß.
Wege will ich erkiesen,
die selten wer betritt
in blassen Abendwiesen—
und keinen Traum, als diesen:
Du gehst mit.

I found the original more haunting and beautiful and containing themes I related to. It’s just two sentences, but invites the imagined lover/ reader, to flee the urban masses into a luminous countryside.

There’s also an ABAAB rhyming scheme present, but I remain committed to free verse as being the best choice for the translation of poetry. The rhymes rely mainly on the -en endings of both plurals and infinitives in German (used for all the As). While it might seem a strange aesthetic to apply, Blixa Bargeld’s (The Lead singer of Einstürzende Neubauten) lyrical style of using single-syllable words rich with multiple meanings is one that I’ve long since adopted in my own writing, and seemed especially appropriate here—at one point he simply made a list of these evocative words and used them as a lyric, described as “sound scenery”. “Compressors in the Dark”, whose refrain, “ich gehe jetzt” (“I’m leaving now”) is nearly a reply to Rilke.

These are a few of the sensibilities that went into my version:

Know that I will slink
quietly from the noisy crowd,
when first I sense that ghostly
stars crest the oaks
blooming white.
I’ll choose to make tracks
where a rare few walk
in pale twilight meadows—
with no dream but this:
You go with me.

The final line I deemed then, and still do, a bit overly literal, and perhaps demonstrative of the limitations of the English language, but perhaps this is a result only of my own “exhaustion” as a translator as Borges would say. I did remark at the time, and still fancy that the Japanese phrase issho ni (一緒に) might express the idea better than English, or even the original German could. It is often translated simply as “together”, but as with a lot of the diction we’re dealing with, the nuances run deep.


Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Faithful Treason

Part 2: The Middle Way