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A Legend Amongst Legends

“The Days of Chivalry; Or, The Legend of Croquemitaine”

written by Ernst L'Epine, 1863

translated by Tom Hood, 1866

illustrated by Gustave Doré

“The Days of Chivalry; Or, the Legend of Croquemitaine”

Written by Ernst L'Epine, 1863

Translated by Tom Hood, 1866

Illustrated by Gustave Doré

Rarely has a book had so much history, so much mythology, so much mirth, so much tragedy, and so much controversy as “The Legend of Croquemitaine”. The book I read was online, available via the wonderful folks at Gutenberg. The original was written in France in 1863, and represented the mores of the time. It was illustrated with absolute relish by the incomparable Gustave Doré, and like many of his works, they've gained a life of their own. The book was soon translated into English and quickly became immensely popular on both sides of the Channel.

And today it is largely forgotten.

But its influences are not forgotten. Images and ideas in Croquemitaine have been recreated in everything from Bram Stoker's “Dracula” to the works of HP Lovecraft and other authors of the fantastic.

In “Rogues in the House”, Robert E. Howard's Conan of Cimmeria sneaks into a tower in the fictional nation of Zamora (but named for a real city in Spain) and battles a giant spider. Our heroine Mitaine sneaks into a castle in Spain and does not kill a giant spider... but Doré illustrates her doing just that. Cimmerians, by the way, are mentioned in L'Epine's text.

But above all, Croquemitaine was a major inspiration for JRR Tolkien's “Lord of the Rings”. His shield maiden Eowyn, decked out in chain mail and hauberk, with sword in hand and blond tresses billowing in the wind, is the mirror image of Mitaine herself. Mitaine laughs in the face of the King of Fear as Eowyn laughs in the face of the King of the Nazgul. The mysterious assassin in black who kills Mitaine's brother and almost kills her as a babe is a prelude to the black-hooded Nazgul who seek to slay Frodo and the Hobbits with their daggers. Just before dying at Roncesvalles, Roland blows his horn and it is heard miles away. Boromir does the same just before dying in battle.

Aside from the many authors who found inspiration in the pages of the Croquemitaine, the book stands on its own for its wry humor and delightful illustrations. Reading it, I could not help thinking it would make a terrific movie.

But it won't happen in our era. In this book, Muslims are described as devious cutthroats, liars, cheats, thieves, and braggarts. They are often referred to as heathens and idolaters. In one scene, Roland is whisked away to Heaven where he meets Mahomet (Muhammad) and he slaps the Prophet in the face! Try doing that in a book or movie today and you'll be camping out with Salman Rushdie.

The name Croque-mitaine refers to a French bogeyman—literally it means mitten-eater, or even hand-eater, implying a monster that eats a child's hands if they don't stop sucking their thumbs. But here the term is given a different origin by Mitaine as a child. She invents the term for the nameless assassin who, as she sees it, wants to eat up the little Mitaine.

5 stars.

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