Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The History Behind Hop-Frog

(Note: Spoilers Ahead! If you haven't read Poe's "Hop-Frog," drop what you're doing and plow through it now. It's a short, deliciously nasty piece of work.)

Poe's classic revenge tale, "Hop-Frog" may have been inspired by the gruesome death of several nobles in 14th century France. Here is the account from Paris Kiosque:

Be that as it may, in all likelihood the manor belonged to the royal family and was the site of the tragic scene of the Bal des Ardents, a fancy-dress ball held here on 28 January 1393. The feeble-minded Charles VI and five of his friends turned up dressed as savages. The Duc d'Orléans, purportedly curious to identify his brother the King, held a torch close to the faces of the `savages' and (accidentally?) set their costumes aflame. Four of the unfortunate party perished in the fire...
The King was saved by the presence of mind of his aunt, the Duchesse de Berry, who rolled him in her coat, yet, while he did not lose his life, he lost the last remnants of his sanity after this traumatic experience.

Barbara Tuchman's book on the period, A Distant Mirror: the Calamitous 14th Century, describes the costumes as being made of linen cloth sewn onto the bodies of the partygoers, and "soaked in resinous wax or pitch to hold a covering of frazzled hemp, so that they appeared shaggy & hairy from head to foot." Needless to say, when one of them touched a flame, "stop, drop, and roll" probably didn't cut it.

In Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, Arthur H. Quinn points out that the story of a jester's vengeance was nowhere to be found in the historical account. However, the horror of the tale isn't just the terrible death. It's the specific form of cruelty the king inflicts on the jester, which sets the revenge in motion:

He knew that Hop-Frog was not fond of wine, for it excited the poor cripple almost to madness; and madness is no comfortable feeling. But the king loved his practical jokes, and took pleasure in forcing Hop-Frog to drink and (as the king called it) 'to be merry.'

The effect is not good:

"Ah! ha! ha!" roared the latter, as the dwarf reluctantly drained the beaker.—"See what a glass of good wine can do! Why, your eyes are shining already!" Poor fellow! his large eyes gleamed, rather than shone; for the effect of wine on his excitable brain was not more powerful than instantaneous. He placed the goblet nervously on the table, and looked round upon the company with a half—insane stare. They all seemed highly amused at the success of the king's 'joke.'

This is a common Poe theme, and Quinn suggests something I find very interesting, and a little creepy:

Perhaps Poe's own reaction to those who urged him, against his will, to drink the one glass that took away his self-control, was the model for the behavior of the dwarf.

Think about it for a second. You're an addict. You're always a single drink away from an ugly and potentially lethal spiral. And the people who help you to that glass? The ones you hate and fear most, the ones who inspire you to write this murderous tale in which you kill them all off? They're probably your friends.

UPDATE: I have found a wonderful movie version of this story featuring puppets and live actors, including an actor from "Twin Peaks" as the jester. Watch Part 1 here. And here are Parts 2, 3, and 4. Enjoy!


  1. Thanks for the historical background. Hop-Frog is one of the Poe stories that really captures my imagination because of the vivid and shocking imagery. Rue Morgue also produces the same effect in me. Hop-Frog is a very interesting character, and the effect of alcohol upon his mind is also reminiscent of the opening scene in Pym. It's almost like Poe portrays alcohol in a bizarre and alien way--like it's closely associated with madness. I definitely think there is a biographical connection with the portrayal of alcohol in Pym and Hop-Frog (at least from what I understand of Poe's unique intolerance for drink).

  2. I've never read Pym, but now I have to. Thanks.

  3. Makes me want to go back and read the remembrances of Poe by his classmates again. There was apparently a long, detailed article in the Virginia University Magazine or the Alumni Magazine (don't remember which) by one of his classmates, discussing his time as a student, in which his relationship with alcohol was discussed.


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