Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Huckleberry Finn, Henry the Eight and the excellence of innocence in judging character.

It’s a real shame that so many of us see classic literature as something we have forced upon us at school, and if you feel the same way about old books then you’re missing out on some of the funniest texts in existence.

The quote below is taken from Mark Twain’s book ‘Huckleberry Finn’ (originally printed 1884) and echoes the type of humour modern man is still laughing at. Mark Twain is finding humour in mistaken beliefs, and how getting just a few facts wrong can change history’s tale entirely.

‘Huckleberry Finn’ is far darker and more complex that its predecessor ‘Tom Sawyer’ - whereas Tom Sawyer is seen by some as a child’s book Huckleberry Finn tackles some serious subjects (slavery, murder, the futility of violence, religious fraud) and appears to be aimed at a far more adult and intellectual audience.

The scene below takes place while Huck and his comrade (the escaped slave Jim) are floating down the Mississippi on a small raft. Huck has just witnessed their two new travelling companions execute a cruel fraud upon an entire town. These two con men claim through a very thin veil of lies to be a Duke and a King. It’s clear to Huck that they’re not who they claim to be but he lets them indulge in their lies and sees no reason to tell Jim the truth about them either. The Duke and the King are fast asleep and Jim starts to voice doubts about just how royal they really are, giving the opinion that they are ‘rapscallions’. Huck seeks to reassure Jim that they are royalty, and uses his snatched knowledge of history to back up his claims. I find this passage glorious because it has a confusion based on a warped foundation of fact. Huck is nearly right, but to the trusting Jim the details are ultimately irrelevant. I love the fact that Jim patiently listens to Huck and appears to accept that these two tramps could well be Royalty, but unconcerned that these men (within the context of the book) may be his ‘betters’ he complains that they smell bad.

"You read about them once -- you'll see. Look at Henry the Eight; this 'n 's a Sunday-school Superintendent to HIM. And look at Charles Second, and Louis Fourteen, and Louis Fifteen, and James Second, and Edward Second, and Richard Third, and forty more; besides all them Saxon heptarchies that used to rip around so in old times and raise Cain. My, you ought to seen old Henry the Eight when he was in bloom. He WAS a blossom. He used to marry a new wife every day, and chop off her head next morning. And he would do it just as indifferent as if he was ordering up eggs. 'Fetch up Nell Gwynn,' he says. They fetch her up. Next morning, 'Chop off her head!' And they chop it off. 'Fetch up Jane Shore,' he says; and up she comes, Next morning, 'Chop off her head' -- and they chop it off. 'Ring up Fair Rosamun.' Fair Rosamun answers the bell. Next morning, 'Chop off her head.' And he made every one of them tell him a tale every night; and he kept that up till he had hogged a thousand and one tales that way, and then he put them all in a book, and called it Domesday Book -- which was a good name and stated the case. You don't know kings, Jim, but I know them; and this old rip of ourn is one of the cleanest I've struck in history. Well, Henry he takes a notion he wants to get up some trouble with this country. How does he go at it -- give notice? -- give the country a show? No. All of a sudden he heaves all the tea in Boston Harbor overboard, and whacks out a declaration of independence, and dares them to come on. That was HIS style -- he never give anybody a chance. He had suspicions of his father, the Duke of Wellington. Well, what did he do? Ask him to show up? No -- drownded him in a butt of mamsey, like a cat. S'pose people left money laying around where he was -- what did he do? He collared it. S'pose he contracted to do a thing, and you paid him, and didn't set down there and see that he done it -- what did he do? He always done the other thing. S'pose he opened his mouth -- what then? If he didn't shut it up powerful quick he'd lose a lie every time. That's the kind of a bug Henry was; and if we'd a had him along 'stead of our kings he'd a fooled that town a heap worse than ourn done. I don't say that ourn is lambs, because they ain't, when you come right down to the cold facts; but they ain't nothing to THAT old ram, anyway. All I say is, kings is kings, and you got to make allowances. Take them all around, they're a mighty ornery lot. It's the way they're raised."

"But dis one do SMELL so like de nation, Huck."

"Well, they all do, Jim. We can't help the way a king smells; history don't tell no way."

"Now de duke, he's a tolerble likely man in some ways."

"Yes, a duke's different. But not very different. This one's a middling hard lot for a duke. When he's drunk there ain't no near-sighted man could tell him from a king."

And finally no, that’s not a spelling error in the title, Huck refers to ‘Henry the Eight’ in the above conversation.