Edgar Allen Poe Meets King Charles VI: the True Tale of Hop-frog

1460 illumination of the Dance of Savages

1460 illumination of the Dance of Savages

I came across the most remarkable image and tale in Barbara W. Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, one of the foremost works on the 14th century (the “calamitous” 14th century, as Tuchman calls it.) The illustration, from a French chronicle dated to 1460, depicts a group of people covered in straw and burning, while a number of well-dressed ladies look on with expressions of pity. To one side, a lady holds another straw-clad man wrapped in blue cloth, matching her dress. If you look closely, you’ll find it is her skirt.

If you are also a fan of Edgar Allen Poe, you’ve already made the dread connection. If not, you can find his story, Hop-frog as free read online. If you don’t want spoilers, well, it’s already too late, given my opening paragraph. Still, you may wish to read the tale for its particular nastiness.

In brief, the tale involves a king’s dwarf referred to as “Hop-frog” and tormented in every way. But he is known as well to be capable of devising the most marvelous entertainments. On the occasion of the story, he convinces the king and his ministers to dress as apes, in tar and straw, for the amusement of the court. While the guests shriek and run from the maskers, Hop-frog gallantly offers to find out who they are–and leans in close with a torch as if to illuminate the men. . .

But the real Bal des Ardents, or Ball of the Burning Men, was held in the court of King Charles VI of France in 1393. Charles was not well–he had been stricken with bouts of madness, and it was to ease his spirit and to celebrate the marriage of one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting that a ball was proposed. The court was already notorious for lavish spending and debauchery, what was one more extravagance?

Six young men, including the king, were stitched into costumes, spread with pitch and decked with hemp to give the semblance of hairy wild men. Knowing the danger, they forbade torches from the room that night. The entire Dance of the Savages had been planned by a man already known for his savagery, Hugeut de Guisay, a tyrant in his own household who used whips and swordblows to discipline those he claimed beneath his station.

The dancers capered about, howling and making obscene gestures, until the king’s brother, unexpectedly returning, entered with his entourage, bearing torches, and some of the revelers burst into flame. The queen–knowing the king was among the savages–fainted, but the quick-witted Duchesse de Berry threw her skirt over the king and saved him from the sparks. One of the others saved himself by leaping into a tub of water. As for the rest, one died immediately, two the next day, while the devisor of the scheme spent three days cursing in agony before his death, leaving those freed from his tyranny to mock at his funeral cortege.

The relationship between the historical incident and Poe’s tale is unmistakable, yet my recent research on Poe did not suggest where he might have learned of it. When he did, I imagine a dark light in Poe’s eyes as he envisioned the scene, and the tale he could make of it. I have felt that light in my own eyes more than once. History and fantasy, ever together.

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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2 Responses to Edgar Allen Poe Meets King Charles VI: the True Tale of Hop-frog

  1. Wow, you do ferret out the most interesting bits of history! I think that’s why I always liked historical fiction when I was a child and teenager. i hadn’t really discovered fantasy yet, although I read things that would qualify as fantasy as a child (like L. Frank Baum’s Oz books), so history was the closest I could come to what I knew instinctively that I liked.

  2. Pingback: The Literary Dwarf, Tyrion’s Historical Forbears | E. C. Ambrose

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