Folk-Tales of Napoleon


Honore de Balzac

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Folk-Tales of Napoleon

by Honore de Balzac and Alexander Amphiteatrof

NAPOLEONDER From the Russian

THE NAPOLEON OF THE PEOPLE From the French of Honore de Balzac

Translated With Introduction By GEORGE KENNAN






Most of the literature that has its origin in the life and career of a great man may be grouped and classified under two heads: history and biography. The part that relates to the man's actions, and to the influence that such actions have had in shaping the destinies of peoples and states, belongs in the one class; while the part that derives its interest mainly from the man's personality, and deals chiefly with the mental and moral characteristics of which his actions were the outcome, goes properly into the other. The value of the literature included in these two classes depends almost wholly upon truth; that is, upon the precise correspondence of the statements made with the real facts of the man's life and career. History is worse than useless if it does not accurately chronicle and describe events; and biography is valueless and misleading if it does not truly set forth individual character.

There is, however, a kind of great-man literature in which truth is comparatively unimportant, and that is the literature of popular legend and tradition. Whether it purports to be historical or biographical, or both, it derives its interest and value from the light that it throws upon the temperament and character of the people who originate it, rather than from the amount of truth contained in the statements that it makes about the man.

The folk-tales of Napoleon Bonaparte herewith presented, if judged from the viewpoint of the historian or the biographer, are absurdly and grotesquely untrue; but to the anthropologist and the student of human nature they are extremely valuable as self-revelations of national character; and even to the historian and the biographer they have some interest as evidences of the profoundly deep impression made by Napoleon's personality upon two great peoples--the Russians and the French.

The first story, which is entitled "Napoleonder," is of Russian origin, and was put into literary form, or edited, by Alexander Amphiteatrof of St. Petersburg. It originally appeared as a feuilleton in the St. Petersburg "Gazette" of December 13, 1901. As a characteristic specimen of Russian peasant folk-lore, it seems to me to have more than ordinary interest and value. The treatment of the supernatural may seem, to Occidental readers, rather daring and irreverent, but it is perfectly in harmony with the Russian peasant's anthropomorphic conception of Deity, and should be taken with due allowance for the educational limitations of the story-teller and his auditors. The Russian muzhik often brings God and the angels into his folk-tales, and does so without the least idea of treating them disrespectfully. He makes them talk in his own language because he has no other language; and if the talk seems a little grotesque and irreverent, it is due to the low level of the narrator's literary culture, and not to any intention, on his part, of treating God and the angels with levity. The whole aim of the story is a moral and religious one. The narrator is trying to show that sympathy and mercy are better than selfish ambition, and that war is not only immoral but irrational. The conversation between God, the angels, and the Devil is a mere prologue, intended to bring Napoleon and Ivan-angel on the stage and lay the foundation of the plot. The story-teller's keen sense of fun and humor is shown in many little touches, but he never means to be irreverent. The whole legend is set forth in the racy, idiomatic, highly elliptical language of the common Russian muzhik, and is therefore extremely difficult of translation; but I have tried to preserve, as far as possible, the spirit and flavor of the original.

The French story was first reduced to writing--or at least put into literary form--by Honore de Balzac, and appeared under the title of "The Napoleon of the People" in the third chapter of Balzac's "Country Doctor." It purports to be the story of Napoleon's life and career as related to a group of French peasants by one of his old soldiers--a man named Goguelat. It covers more time chronologically than the Russian story does, and deals much more fully and circumstantially with historical incidents and events: but it seems to me to be distinctly inferior to the Russian tale in power of creative imagination, unity of conception, skill of artistic treatment, and depth of human interest. The French peasant regards Napoleon merely as a great leader and conqueror, "created to be the father of soldiers," and aided, if not directly sent, by God, to show forth the power and the glory of France. The Russian peasant, more thoughtful by nature as well as less excitable and combative in temperament, admits that Napoleon was sent on earth by God, but connects him with one of the deep problems of life by using him to show the divine nature of sympathy and pity, and the cruelty, immorality, and unreasonableness of aggressive war.

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