January 30, 2016 3 Comments
It’s probably just the Romantic in me, but I’m a sucker for lost causes – I guess it’s the historical equivalent of wanting to look after lost puppies or stray cats, and I’m invoking my female privilege as an excuse for being a soppy thing here. We celebrate the victors, but what about the Romantic losers?
Over at my place today, I wrote about my favourite lost cause, Charles I, the only king of England to be executed in public, but I can get equally emotional about Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI and Tsar Nicholas II and his family. As Shakespeare recognised in his great Richard II there is something about the fate of fallen royalty which stirs the emotions. That rise and fall on the wheel of fortune was a commonplace of medieval writing, and remains one to which novelists are attracted. I have always found the fallen Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More easier to sympathise with than when they were in the height of their pomp. Poor, supposedly mad Henry VI, is another who stirs my sympathy – and perhaps retreating into madness was actually a sane way of reacting to the horrors of the Wars of the Roses?
On this side of the Atlantic, I have a soft spot for the Loyalists in the American Revolution, whose loyalty was (as it has been so often) ill-requited by the English Crown, and the Confederate cause could hardly not have something romantic about its doomed course (yes, I know, politically incorrect, but if I can’t be that here, there’s no hope).
For this to work for me, there needs to be some high cause, perhaps one that seems doomed, but which demands a commitment and a sacrifice beyond the norm. It’s one of the things which makes Aragorn immediately attractive in Lord of the Rings. We first meet him as ‘Strider’ the ‘Ranger’, the ragged descendant of a race of noble kings long in exile. For anyone of my temperament, that’s the trigger for sympathy – the first time I read the book at the age of 10 I was away. Someone, when he becomes the King, he loses something for me – so I can switch my sympathy to Frodo, who seems to me in many ways the real loser in the trilogy. Yes, his cause wins, but it is Samwise and his family who will inherit all that might have been Frodo’s. It was one of my frustrations with the films, good though they were in many ways, they did not bring out the way the book does the self-sacrificing nature of Frodo’s actions.
Victory, they say, has many fathers, defeat is an orphan. Not while I am around. One of the things which makes The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance such a powerful film for me, and never ceases to have me in tears by the end, is that it is John Wayne’s character, Tom Doniphon, to whom Hallie is initially attracted, as he is to her, although he cannot find the way to say so. She begins to fall for Jimmy Stewart’s character, Ransom Stottard, whom she will marry, and it would have been easy enough for Tom to have let the villain of the piece, Liberty Vallance (Lee Marvin at his best) kill his rival, but instead, Tom does it and lets Ransom take the credit – which gives him the girl, his first steps on the road to success which will lead to the Senate and an ambassadorship. But at the end, Ransom and Hallie come back to town for Tom’s funeral: he may, in the eyes of the world, have been a forgotten man, but those for whom he had sacrificed his own future, came to celebrate his past. Gets me every time.