What I’m Reading: The Scarlet Pimpernel and The War of the Worlds

Disclaimer: This post is mostly ridiculous. Two excuses: (1) It’s my day off, and (2) at least I’m not posting on the Nancy Drew book I read with my 10-year-old a while back. (The Secret of Shadow Ranch, for you closet Nancy fans. You know who you are.)


Scarlet PimpernelA few weeks ago I read The Scarlet Pimpernel and The War of the Worlds for one basic reason: because they were there. Literally. They were in a box of books in my basement along with several others I picked up during college for the low, low Wal-Mart price of 2/$1. (Murphy’s law: our basement floods and that box stayed dry, even as a box full of sets by Dickens, Stevenson and Twain—all from the early 1900’s—got drenched.) Anyway, I figured that they’re generally known and it wouldn’t be a bad thing to know what they’re about. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it. And honestly, there is occasionally a gem of an illustration hidden in implausible fiction. (For example, Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper is about as good an illustration of imputation as you’ll find: the two boys are treated in ways that fit their garments rather than their actual identities. That’s exactly the point of justification…but I digress).

The Scarlet Pimpernel (by Baroness Emmuska Orczy) is engaging in the sense that it tells of heroic feats and daring escapes during the French Revolution. A Tale of Two Cities has nothing to fear from this would-be rival, but the Pimpernel is at least entertaining.

It’s also ridiculous. The hero and heroine are just too perfect—too handsome and gorgeous, too smart, too rich, too good. It’s all so “comic-book-ish.”No kidding. Consider this bit of trivia from Wikipedia:

The Scarlet Pimpernel is often cited as an early (perhaps the earliest) precursor of the superhero of United States comic books: he is an independently wealthy person with a secret identity which he maintains in action by disguises, while in public life he appears as a politically irrelevant dandy to draw attention away from himself. In his hero guise, he accomplishes good, in a field in which the state is not competent to act, with his superior reasoning and fighting abilities. However, he never in the entire canon takes a life or indeed seriously wounds a foe. He even has a symbol in his name, which he does use as an emblem, though not on a costume. Johnston McCulley’s Zorro (1919) and Bob Kane’s Batman (1939) later followed the same pattern. In addition, his penchant for disguises and his great intellect are similar to those of Sherlock Holmes.

The hero in the operetta The Desert Song borrows heavily from the character, assuming the identity of a milquetoast in order to carry out his heroic deeds. Similarly, mild-mannered Clark Kent and Superman borrow from the character.

Well, there it is. Interesting, eh? You learn something new every day—even from less-than-stellar 50-cent books.

If The Pimpernel was ridiculous, The War of the Worlds (H. G. Wells) is just embarrassing. Martians arrive on earth looking for food. War of the WorldsThey destroy London, roasting their victims with death rays and poisoning them with a creeping cloud of death. It’s terrible. Then they die: they’re just not able to combat the bacteria that dwells on planet earth, and it finishes them off before they finish us off. Shwew! So why didn’t I just put it down & walk away? Well, it was entertaining in a very insulting, preposterous way. Go figure.

The War of the Worlds gave rise to a host of science fiction “earth invasion” novels and movies. In that sense, it’s a lot like The Scarlet Pimpernel. Both are relatively enduring(?) works of silly fiction that resulted in genres even sillier than themselves.

Last thing: what is it with science fiction fans? I think they may very well be from outer space. Check out this reasoning from Wikipedia on The War of the Worlds:

“A further development of that idea, that the Martians have given up their stomachs and digestive tracts and instead they subsist by introducing the blood of other creatures into their veins, is sometimes criticised (sic) on biological grounds.”

So there are actually people who criticize a book about Martians invading the earth on the basis that the nutritional habits of said Martians are unscientific?? Gotcha. Makes perfect sense.

People are nuts. And no sermon illustrations are coming to mind. (sigh)


7 Responses

  1. Hey, Chris, there are serious comic book aficionados also. Back when I read such things… [back when they were GOOD!!], I always read the letter page. They would write in taking the authors to task for some inconsistency in how they were portraying their hero – misuses of kryptonite, etc.

    The swashbuckling genre has quite a few interesting titles and all pretty good for youngsters. I read the Scarlet Pimpernel to my kids some time back (I think I read a second volume to them as well, can’t remember which one.) There are several titles in the series. Another one I read as a boy and have read to my kids is Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini. The writing is better than Orczy, but the same impossible plot lines and super hero type characters abound.

    Then of course, there is Edgar Rice Burroughs, Zane Grey, and Louis L’Amour … but you don’t have boys!

    Anyway, it is a sort of escapist fiction that can be entertaining. Once in a while when I can’t sleep I’ll pull out one of these. Then of course I stay up all night reading it.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  2. And don’t forget the really really really great comic books by Jack Chick. :-)

  3. Wait, wait, wait, Don. Zane Grey doesn’t fit here. Don’t mess with Zane Grey.

    Joking aside, I do enjoy a pointless book once in a while. And I actually enjoyed these two, at least a little bit, though I’m not proud of that fact.

    And Mike, let’s do forget Jack Chick. Ugh.

  4. To be clear, that smiley face meant I was telling a joke. Jack Chick comics don’t have any part in my evangelism. :-) It was just an association–Comics=Jack Chick.
    I thought I saw a bunch of those comic books at your church this past year Chris.

  5. Oh, I know you’re not serious, Mike. :)

  6. yeah, don’t mess with an Ohio man, eh? Zane Grey is somehow related to the Zanes of Zanesville, I think his mother was a Zane.

    Actually, he writes at a level above the typical swashbuckler, but his subjects are certainly a similar genre.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  7. simply i felt the shivering while blackeney was staying in the loft of the old pub

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