This Week’s Prompt:78. Wandering thro’ labyrinth of narrow slum streets—come on distant light—unheard-of rites of swarming beggars—like Court of Miracles in Notre Dame de Paris.
The Resulting Story: The Court
Despite the evocative name, the Court of Miracles is rather mundane in origins. The Court of Miracles was perhaps the banditry of the city of Paris. Inhabited by all manner of individuals, from all faiths and creeds, the Court of Miracles is presented as a society of tricksters and scoundrels at the heart of Paris. That Mr. Lovecraft has a low opinion of such people isn’t surprising—Mr. Lovecraft’s classist tones and dislike of urban mixing means that such place is ascribed as “swarming” for a reason. We will talk of how to remedy this shortly—and one place to start I think is folklore.
The Court of Miracles is, by all accounts, a location in Paris. The Court was inhabited by beggars and immigrants—the name comes from the tendency for individuals to fake injury or illness, and suddenly at night be ‘cured’. Other origins suggest that the Court transformed beggars into bandits, rendering the segement of the city dangerous for law enforcement. Either way, the part of Paris was a dangerous region and impoverished area in local thought. Disney made it into a song:
Not the folklore surrounding such places. Distrust of impoverished immigrants can bring out the worst in folklore and persons, and xenophobia is not a trait I want to encourage. I do not wish to dwell on the particularly viscious rumors and libels that surrounded the Court of Miracles and other places—producing a story today about how the poor and downtrodden engage in conspiracy to fake their injuries would be frankly irresponsible. No, I want to examine some of the folklore of such persons. And if we are going to discuss it, particularly in relation to Notre Dame and its adaptations, we must talk about the Romany (Lindsay Ellis goes into the various adaptations of Notre Dame here).
I am not terribly qualified on the topic of the Romany—So I strongly encourage readers to do their own research as well. But I will present what I know as best I can.
The Romany, as a group, appear to have immigrated from northern India into the Middle East and Europe. Europeans initially—and for a considerable time—mistook the Romany for Egyptians, leading to the origins of the pejorative “Gypsy”. The Romany, for a variety of reasons, lived both nomadic and settled life styles. As outsiders in European communities, who practiced different customs and held to different belief systems, the Romany were viewed frequently in a negative light. Accusations of witchcraft, curses, thievery, and so forth were rampant and if one delves even a bit into folklore it isn’t hard to find such portrayals exaggerated further.
I will not be discussing such portrayals today.
Instead I will be discussing folktales from the Romany. Now a second disclaimer. For the vast, vast majority of my research I rely on public domains or digital resources. In this case, I’ve found a singular text on Romany folklore (linked here) which is rather woefully out of date—it dates to the 1890s. For the interested, I have also linked to Folklore Thursday’s writing on the Romany here—if you have other resources to recommend, I encourage you to leave the titles and links in the comments section below.
One of the first stories to discuss is God’s Godson. This tale recounts a heroic child who sets forth on adventure unbaptized. In the woods, as he sleeps, God and St. Peter come across him and baptize him, giving him the name Handak. God decides to arrange a marriage between Handak and his god-daughter, a heroine of equal skill. Handak receives instructions from a three hundred year old dragon on where to find the god-daughter, and after a fight the two are wed.
Another heroic lad makes his start by killing eleven dragons with saber. After his marriage to a maiden, his mother comes to live with them and finds the living dragon. Infatuated with the youngest dragon, she schemes with her new love to kill her son—sending him on impossible quests and eventually gambling with him, to bind and slay him with her husband. The lad’s miraculous maiden of a wife, who often lent him a twenty-four winged horse, restores him by stitching him back together and filling in the holes with pork meat. She then pours water on him, and he is revived.
Another humorous tale tells of two thieves who enter a brotherhood, and by their cunning trick a king out of all his funds—eventually stealing a priest from a church and becoming princes themselves! The two of course know each others trade, and the king is forced to seek out one of the thieves to catch the other (it fails, as the thieves co-operate despite their separation). Another encounter between a Romany man and a priest ends with the Romany man calling back his cattle from an extortionist priest—and in doing so, gaining the cattle the priest stole from his parishioners.
Another incident with a priest sees a poor Romany impersonate a preacher in the middle of the night—tricking the local priest into thinking he is an angel or God himself. The Romany encourages the priest to bring all his belongings for the end is at hand—and after the priest does so, he offers to carry the priest to heaven in a sack. Needless to say, the priest does arrive in the afterlife in a sack.
Another heroic Rom travels in the woods looking for heroic deeds, and finds his brother lacking kidneys—they have been stolen by a wizard, who the lad goes forth and defeats. The lost organs are restored after being found in jars. After this, the wizard is slain, and there is a brief exchange of hurling objects between the brothers and three maidens, who end up marrying them.
One factor that becomes apparent reading these folktales—that I will not pretend is unique necessarily to the Romany—is the outsmarting of normally serious authority figures. The priest is the most obvious example of course. There is always a supposition that the church is corrupt—especially priests and monks. Later stories add dragons to the list—one is tricked in a manner that reminds me of giants, where the dull but strong dragon looses gambles to the Rom and must forswear eating sheep forever—and kings with the two thieves. A distrust for authority even runs with the story of the dragon and the mother, who are both individuals of power that scheme against the children.
The notion then, of strange rites in the heart of Paris might be one to explore. One thing I will note that Paris is famous for—and indeed, is on the news recently—is the tensions between class. Yes, class in a Marxist sense is universal, but the French Revolution and it’s guilotines have taken on a life of their own in my mind. And I think this might have been why Lovecraft situated his own class fears in Paris. What then can we do with a revolution? The horror that Howard would invoke here isn’t acceptable—we are given a subhuman vision of the poor of Paris (“Swarming” as they are), and parallels with ‘savages’ (“unheard of rites”). The comparison of the poor with the savage is not unique to Lovecraft but it is…untenable.
I think for a horror story then, we might be better to approach this as the onset of violence. The realization by our nameless narrator that, as it is said in Le Mis, “something’s going to happen now, something’s going to give”. Which…well, is still tricky. There is horror potential in upheval, unrest, and strangeness, but moving that fear away from classism can be difficult. The folklore also highlights how the cunning, if impoverished, get the better of those who seem to have authority.
Could these two be combined? Well, the notion of class conflict and the distrust of nobility don’t align perfectly well for a horror story of discovery. There are notions in a number of folktales of getting power from tricking others into giving it up—the King and the Two Thieves ends with a thief as king for instance. In this case, it might be best to move away from trickster lore—while a trickster hero is plausible, I don’t trust my writing to portray such a thing in a horror story without falling into some clear pitfalls.
I think then emphasizing the class conflict would be better. I think there is a primal fear of judgement day—of the realization that the end is upon the world, and that one is powerless to stop it. That does mean this story is a bit more atmospheric, maybe even in the form of a letter—it is really a single scene expanded and extrapolated. Which should be sufficient for our purposes.
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