Why didn’t they kill Napoleon?
Some say British honour kept him alive. Others say the feared making a martyr of him. The theories are varied and fascinating.
In most gritty Fantasy novels they would off him long before he had a chance to escape from exile, instead he returns gathers an army and sallies forth to fight, losing narrowly against overwhelming odds, at Waterloo. They still don’t kill him, but instead return him to exile. It really, really bothers me. This is a man who led his armies to war, shattering five of the seven multi-nation coalitions sent against him. He toppled the old monarchies, ended an Empire, spread reforms and did things that were generally considered impossible. If an author wrote a character like Napoleon, and did not concentrate on little venalities, I might be inclined to mock them. If they let such a character live after all the trouble they’d caused, escaping exile one, I would have thrown the book across the room (Although maybe Patrick Rothfuss could pull such a tale off). And yet we have the strange truth.
Google “Why didn’t they kill”. Napoleon’s at the top of the list. He hasn’t even been in the new lately. I’m thinking of him because I picked some Total War games from Steam and Napoleon was cheaper than Empire. Excellent series by the way, I am really looking forward to Total War Rome II. Maybe I’ll get all excited about Caesar when I’m playing that. Regardless, while wandering around my day job, I wondered about how I would go about writing a character like Napoleon. I’m not sure I could. I don’t like descending into caricature for the most part, and pretty much any other presentation of the man is so far into Mary-Sue land that I would get single starred to death on Amazon for writing a power fantasy.
One of my favourite works of philosophy is Voltaire’s Bastards by Jon Raulston Saul. The central premise of the work is that systems based on pure reason, without application of sense or humanity, are prone to breaking down or losing touch with the true complexities of reality. Yeah, we kind of live in that. Mr Saul even touches on heroism in his masterwork, pointing out that guys like Napoleon come along or are created when these systems become broken to the point that the people who live in them start grasping at straws and looking for rescue. A very interesting comment. It has the ring of truth to it, although I am paraphrasing very loosely.
Napoleon wasn’t actually short by the way. He was apparently average height for the time, its just the French pouce was larger than the English inch.
Napoleon is one of those figures that historians generally avoid, unless they need to make money or just want to start the academic version of a bar-fight. Very few people can agree on anything about him. Keegan, one of my favorite military historians was so wary of Bonaparte that he seems to skip him in Masks of Command, his book about the evolution of Military Leadership, tackling Wellington instead. Even the wikipedia article gives an impression of wildly varying opinions. My commenting on Napoleon facebook feed illicited some surprising reactions.
Fictional heroes like Aragorn or even Jon Galt are shadows of men like Napoleon, the rare people who grow so larger than life that hostory cannot quite come to grips with them. Only fiction has a chance to seriously examine such men and women.
And yet, if I were writing Napoleon I would have killed him before his first exile, and I think I’d get laughed off the island if I let him live after Waterloo.
Still, it might be nice to try one day. Here’s an idea I came up with, based on the intro to Total War: Napoleon, I envision it as a fantasy steampunk character a cross between Napoleon and Joan of Arc (sic):
“I have many enemies, but I have no equals. In the streets of Aria they said that a little girl playing at war could never stop the charge of the Monarchists. In the shade of the Citadel they said that my peasant soldiers could never match the well-trained mercenaries of the seven nations. In the land of the Dragon Kings they said we could never survive the endless hordes and the burning sun. Now they say nothing. They fear me. I am the child of reason and revolution. My words are the battle cries of free men, my rhetoric is the thunder of cannon. Je suis Valeria and I say: I am Empress!”
P.S. While reading a little bit about Napoleon last night I found an interesting tidbit. Grognard (French for Grumbler) is a name tabletop players often use to describe particularly hardcore gamers. Grognard was apparently also the nickname for Napoleons most elite infantry formations, the Old Guard. Given the origins of tabletop games as military recreations, including the Napoleonic wars, I find this extra appropriate now…