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"Les Miserables" & the Battle of Waterloo
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Author:  dmallory [ Thu May 02, 2019 11:56 am ]
Post subject:  "Les Miserables" & the Battle of Waterloo

Victor Hugo's classic novel "Les Miserables" was first published in 1862. I have heard that copies circulated in the Army of Northern Virginia, where it was jokingly referred to as "Lee's Miserables".

Although not a story about war, Hugo goes into great detail about the battle of Waterloo in the novel. He devotes an entire chapter - 19 sections and 46 pages, to the battle and its aftermath. One paragraph from section V, "The fog of war", is such a wonderful description of battle - not just of Waterloo, but of all battles - that I wanted to share that paragraph. (This is from the English translation by Norman Denny, published by Penguin Books in 1976.)

"There is an element of tempestuous convulsion in every battle ... and every historian, peering into the melee, can find what he looks for. Whatever the calculations of the generals, the clash of armed masses has unpredictable repercussions; each commander's plan shapes and distorts that of the other. One sector of the battlefield swallows up more combatants than another, just as water drains away more or less according to the nature of the soil. More men have to be sent to a particular point than was originally intended, the line writhes and wavers line a thread blowing in the wind. There is no logic in the flow of blood; the army fronts are like waves on the seashore, advancing and retreating regiments forming bays and headlands, impermanent as a shifting sand. Where there was infantry, artillery appears; artillery is replaced by cavalry; battalions are like puffs of smoke. At a given place there was an object: look for it again and it is gone. The light shifts, the dark patches advance and retreat, a graveyard wind blows, driving and scattering the tragic multitude of men. All is movement and oscillation. The immobility of a mathematical plan or diagram may present a moment but never a day. To depict a battle we need a painter with chaos in his brush. Rembrandt is better than Van der Meulen; he who was accurate at noon is a liar by three o'clock. Geometry is misleading; only the tempest is true. And there comes a stage in every battle when it degenerates into hand-to-hand combat, dissolves in fragments, innumerable separate episodes concerning which Napoleon himself said that they belong more to regimental records than to the history of an army. Thus the historian has a right to summarize. He can do no more than grasp the broad outline. No narrator, be he never so conscientious, can fix the exact shape of that ugly cloud that is called a battle."

I've watched the PBS special and the 2012 movie of the musical inspired by the book, and seen the musical performed at a local semi-professional theater. I am currently watching the PBS mini-series based on the book, and now I'm reading the book itself. The musical and the mini-series are both very true to the book, but as they always say, "The book is better".

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