Folk-Tales of Napoleon

Honore de Balzac

Folk-Tales of Napoleon Page 02

The only feature that the two tales have in common is the recognition of the supernatural as a controlling factor in Napoleon's life. The French peasant believes that he had a guiding star; that he was advised and directed by a familiar spirit in the shape of a "Red Man"; and that he was saved from dangers and death by virtue of a secret compact with the Supreme Being. The Russian peasant asserts that he was created by the Devil, and that God, after having given him a soul by accident, first used him as a means of punishing the Russian people for their sins, and then made him really a man by inspiring him with the human feelings of sympathy and compassion. In the French story Napoleon appears as a great military leader, whose life and career reflect honor and glory upon France. In the Russian story he is merely the leading actor in a sort of moral drama, or historical mystery-play, intended to show the divine nature of sympathy and compassion, the immorality of war, and the essential solidarity and brotherhood of all mankind.


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[Footnote 1: The Russian peasant's name for Napoleon Bonaparte. The final syllable "der" has perhaps been added because to the ear of the peasant "Napoleon" sounds clipped and incomplete, as "Alexan" would sound to us without the "der."]

Long ago--but not so very long ago; our grandfathers remember it--the Lord God wanted to punish the people of the world for their wickedness. So he began to think how and by what means he could punish them, and he called a council of his angels and archangels to talk about it. Says the archangel Michael to the Lord God: "Shake them up, the recreants, with an earthquake."

"We've tried that," says the Lord God. "Once upon a time we jolted to pieces Sodom and Gomorrah, but it didn't teach them anything. Since then pretty much all the towns have become Sodoms and Gomorrahs."

"How about famine?" says the archangel Gabriel.

"It would be too bad for the babies," replies the Lord God. "Famine would kill the babies. And, besides that, the cattle must have food--they're not to blame."

"Drown them with a flood," suggests Raphael.

"Clean impossible!" says the Lord God. "Because, in the first place, I took an oath once that there should be no more floods, and I set the rainbow in the sky for an assurance. In the second place, the rascally sinners have become cunning; they'll get on steamboats and sail all over the flood."

Then all the archangels were perplexed, and began to screw about in their seats, trying to invent or think of some calamity that would bring the wicked human race to its senses and stir up its conscience. But they had been accustomed, time out of mind, to do good rather than evil; they had forgotten all about the wickedness of the world; and they couldn't think of a single thing that would be of any use.

Then suddenly up comes Ivan-angel, a simple-minded soul whom the Lord God had appointed to look after the Russian muzhiks. He comes up and reports: "Lord, Satan is outside there, asking for you. He doesn't dare to come in, because he smells bad [Footnote 2: That is, he brings with him the sulphurous odor of hell.]; so he's waiting in the entry."

Then the Lord God was rejoiced. "Call Satan in!" he ordered. "I know that rogue perfectly well, and he has come in the very nick of time. A scamp like that will be sure to think of something."

Satan came in. His face was as black as tanned calfskin, his voice was hoarse, and a long tail hung down from under his overcoat.

"If you so order," he says, "I'll distribute your calamities for you with my own hands."

"Go ahead with your distribution," says the Lord God; "nobody shall hinder you."

"Will you permit me," Satan says, "to bring about an invasion of foreigners?"

The Lord God shook his finger at Satan and cried: "Is that all you can think of? And you so wise!"

"Excuse me," Satan says. "Why doesn't my plan show wisdom?"

"Because," replies the Lord God, "you propose to afflict the people with war, and war is just what they want. They're all the time fighting among themselves, one people with another, and that's the very thing I want to punish them for."

"Yes," says Satan, "they re greedy for war, but that's only because they have never yet seen a real warrior. Send them a regular conqueror, and they'll soon drop their tails between their legs and cry, 'Have mercy, Lord! Save us from the man of blood!'"

The Lord God was surprised. "Why do you say, my little brother, that the people have never seen a real warrior? The Tsar Herod was a conqueror; the Tsar Alexander subdued a wonderful lot of people; Ivan-Tsar destroyed Kazan; Mamai-Tsar the furious came with all his hordes; and the Tsar Peter, and the great fighter Anika--how many more conquerors do you want?"

"I want Napoleonder," says Satan.

"Napoleonder!" cries the Lord God. "Who's he? Where did he come from?"

"He's a certain little man," Satan says, "who may not be wise enough to hurt, but he's terribly fierce in his habits."

The Lord God says to the archangel Gabriel: "Look in the Book of Life, Gabriel, and see if we've got Napoleonder written down."

The archangel looked and looked, but he couldn't look up any such person.

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