Reading Notre Dame

Vision of Notre Dame: a sketch by Victor Hugo

It has to be the worst possible reason to have a bestseller. In the wake of last week’s devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris – perhaps better known to English speakers as The Hunchback of Notre Dame – has climbed to the top of the charts.

One unforgettable passage in particular has grown more even more poignant. As the cathedral doors are stormed by would-be-pillagers far below, the hunchback Quasimodo lights a bonfire high atop the tower, heating molten lead. What follows is one of the novel’s most terrific moments:

“All at once… a howl …rose among them. Those who did not cry out, those who were still alive, looked. Two streams of melted lead were falling from the summit of the edifice into the thickest of the rabble. That sea of men had just sunk down beneath the boiling metal, which had made, at the two points where it fell, two black and smoking holes in the crowd, such as hot water would make in snow. Dying men, half consumed and groaning with anguish, could be seen writhing there. Around these two principal streams there were drops of that horrible rain, which scattered over the assailants and entered their skulls like gimlets of fire.  The outcry was heartrending. They fled pell-mell, hurling the beam upon the bodies, the boldest as well as the most timid…

All eyes were raised to the top of the church. They beheld there an extraordinary sight. On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered, and furious flame, a tongue of which was borne into the smoke by the wind, from time to time. Below that fire, below the gloomy balustrade with its trefoils showing darkly against its glare, two spouts with monster throats were vomiting forth unceasingly that burning rain, whose silvery stream stood out against the shadows of the lower façade. As they approached the earth, these two jets of liquid lead spread out in sheaves, like water springing from the thousand holes of a watering-pot. Above the flame, the enormous towers, two sides of each of which were visible in sharp outline, the one wholly black, the other wholly red, seemed still more vast with all the immensity of the shadow which they cast even to the sky.

First page of Hugo’s manuscript, which resides in the Bibliotheque Nationale.

Their innumerable sculptures of demons and dragons assumed a lugubrious aspect. The restless light of the flame made them move to the eye. There were griffins which had the air of laughing, gargoyles which one fancied one heard yelping, salamanders which puffed at the fire… And among the monsters thus roused from their sleep of stone by this flame, by this noise, there was one who walked about, and who was seen, from time to time, to pass across the glowing face of the pile, like a bat in front of a candle.

Without doubt, this strange beacon light would awaken far away, the woodcutter of the hills of Bicêtre, terrified to behold the gigantic shadow of the towers of Notre-Dame quivering over his heaths.”

Victor Hugo, savior of Notre Dame.

For Hugo, this desperate defense of the ancient edifice was of more than historic interest. His novel sought to promote the value and preservation of the great cathedral, at a time when the ideals and excesses of the French Revolution had stripped bare much of the building’s gothic majesty, and many favored razing Notre Dame, an unwelcome relic of a bygone age. Hugo’s efforts led to a massive restoration project, which included that magnificent wooden spire that toppled in flames before the stunned eyes of millions last week. The novel is itself a powerful testament to the power of architecture, not to be missed by any fan of vivid historical fiction.

       ~ posted by David W.

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