A Contribution To The
ERBzine Library Project
The Beau Ideal Trilogy Of
Beau Geste~Beau Sabreur~Beau Ideal
Review Of Beau Geste
Part I: Introduction
Part II: Beau Geste
Part III: Beau Sabreur
Part IV: Beau Ideal
At the present time our actions are largely influenced by our theories. We have abandoned the simple and instinctive mode of life of the earlier civilizations for one regulated by the assumptions of our knowledge and supplemented by all the devices of intelligence.
-Charles Howard Hinton, Scientific Romances
Nothing presents a greater contrast between the ‘simple and instinctive life of the earlier civilizations; than that of the scientific European civilization. The contrast in the Beau Ideal trilogy will be between the science of Europe and the simple instinctive beliefs of Islam.
P.C. Wren, the author of this marvelous trilogy was a contemporary of Edgar Rice Burroughs born in the same year of 1875 although dying in 1941. He too was one of that favored generation that saw the end of the horse and buggy era and the development of the machine age. One marvels that Burroughs witnessed the disappearance of the white spots on the maps of the world while experiencing jet propelled fighter planes shattering his windows with sonic booms at the end of his life.
Wren was born in England becoming a school teacher in the Raj of India. He left India in 1917 when it was claimed that he did a five year stint in the Legion which means he would have been discharged in 1922. There seems to be some doubt of any service in the Legion, heightened I should think by the fact that he published two books during that period. He had published some 14 titles between 1910 and 1924 when he hit the jackpot with Beau Geste.
It seems much more likely that he acquired his FFL ideas from a 1910 volume, In The Foreign Legion, by a German writer named Erwin Rosen. The Rosen book can be downloaded from the internet which copy is the one I read. One can easily pick out the passages that form the whole of the FFL content of the Beau Ideal trilogy. Wren may have spent some time touring the bulge of Africa but even then there is no scenery described that couldn’t have been written by Edgar Rice Burroughs who never left his own sunny shores.
As Wren is supposed to have spent the rest of his life in England one wonders where he picked up his amazing knowledge of American and Hobo slang. His two American characters, Hank and Buddy, seemed true to life to me. Their home in Texas was probably also borrowed from Erwin Rosen’s early days as recounted in In The Legion.
Wren, somewhere along the line read some Burroughs while it seems clear that Burroughs read the Beau Ideal trilogy being influenced by it. This is fairly clear, for instance, in Tarzan Triumphant. In that book Tarzan battles some desert nomads while one compares this passage from Beau Geste with the lost ribes inside Burroughs’ volcano. Beau Geste, Lippincott, First Edition, 39th Impression:
After riding for some three or four hours towards some low rocky mountains, we reached and approached a narrow and lofty pass. This we threaded in single file, and coming to the top, saw an endless plain out of which rose a gara, an abrupt and isoalted plateau, looking like a giant cheese, cliff sided, with a flat top; the whole, I suppose, about a square mile in area.
Apparently it was quite inaccesible and untrodden by the foot of man, or even of mountain sheep or goats. Only an eagle, I imagined, had ever looked upon the top of that isolated square mile of rock.
I was wrong, however, the place proving to be a gigantic fort- a fort of the most perfect kind, but which owed nothing to the hand of man.
Circling the cliff-like precipitous base of the mountain, we came to a crack in the thousand foot wall, a crack that was invisible at a hundred yards.
Into this narrow fissure the sheikh led us in single file, and squeezing our way between gigantic cactus, we rode along the upward-sloping bottom of a winding chasm that was not six feet wide.
Suddenly our path was cut by a deep ravine, some three yards wide, a great crack across the crack in which we were entombed…
So, adapted for Burroughs’ purposes one has a major portion of Tarzan Triumphant. As we will see Wren borrowed prfusely from other writers including Rosen.
Wren does an interesting thing. While the time frame is rather loose, the time frame seems to be from, say, 1888 to 1910. There is no mention of the recent Great War although the Bolshevik Revolution is hinted at. The first volume, Beau Geste, which means Good Deed, is written in the style of the mid-nineteenth century. The story is divided in two parts with a framing tale, the prehistory of the Geste Brothers in England and the events in the Legion Etrangere. Beau Geste could have been written by Trollope or Ouida. It does bear some resemblance to Ouida’s Under Two Flags. The second title, Beau Sabreur shades into the pulp style while the third, Beau Ideal is full blown pulp and then some. Thus while contrasting scientific and mythopoeic civilization Wren literally transits from mid-Victorian to pulp writing styles. The banter of the characters also changes from the English style of the young Gestes to the hobo slang of Hank and Buddy. Very nicely done. You have to read the trilogy in sequence though to get the full effect.
Wren has been influenced by Conan Doyle as he specifically says that Beau Geste is a mystery story a la Sherlock Holmes. He might as well have added, based on Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone.
But, in many ways, his story is overridden by his obsession of the Beau Ideal. His point in the opening chapters is to establish the high moral character of the Gestes. In this he is relentless almost to the point of being dogmatic.
While the novel is set, perhaps, in the late eighties or early nineties it was published in 1924 after the Bolshevik Revolution and the Red challange not only to high ideals but ideals of any kind. With the Communists it was the ends justify the mean, with Wren it was a code of honor, a sense of fair play, of Marquis of Queensbury rules, of chivalry, in two words, of a Beau Ideal- a beatiful ideal. A utopian hope equal to that of any H. G. Wells and the Communist myrmidons.
Wren, along with most English and Americans would have been brought up in that great compendium of Western values- the stories of King Arthur and high chivalry. Few people other than specialists would have read more than Mallory’s Morte D’ Arthur although a steady stream of contemporary interpretations was produced in the nineteenth century including Tennyson’s Idyls Of The King and Howard Pyles’s four volume rendering published from 1903 to 1910.
Pyle’s work was very likely read by Edgar Rice Burroughs but likely not until after he began writing or perhaps the 1903 first volume earlier. Traces show in some settings but more especially in his reversion to Pyle’s Arthuring phraseology, especially ERB’s clumsy and bothersome use of the word an for if. Much of his stilted dialogue can probably be traced back to Pyle.
Pyle’s Arthur is part of a neo-Romantic movement that contrasted highly with the scientific views of both ERB and Wren.
The Arthurian stories are quite frankly the longest fairy tale in the English language expecially in the Pyle verson. His books are all magic and enchantment in a land of Faerie. I’m sure Burroughs would have been drawn to the work because of Pyle’s work as an artist and very famous book illustrator. His version is very beautifully and charmingly illustrated by himself. One can compare Pyle’s Arthur with L. Frank Baum’s Oz series as an influence on Burroughs.
So, Wren, I believe, viewed the desert tribes in the light of the earlier Faerie world view that was embedded in the English and American mind, through the lens of science that made a sharp distinction between the West and the primitive desert tribes.
Wren introduces the main protagonists in their English Arthurian setting. The three Gestes, Isobel, Henri de Beaujolais and Otis Vanbrugh. Otis, the American, is visiting relatives when he meets the Gestes, Isobel and Claudia. He falls in love with Isobel worshipping the ground she walks on in high chivalric manner. Wren spends pages on banter before getting to the crux of the matter, the theft of the jewel, the Sapphire called the Blue Water.
Michael, or Beau Geste, is the personification of the Beau Ideal. Thus when the jewel is stolen by Claudia, which only he knows, he chivalrously assumes the guilt leaving for the Legion Etrangere. His brother Digby confesses to throw doubt on Beau’s guilt also heading for the sands of Africa. John Geste who has just discovered his love for Isobel and become engaged also leaves it all behind disappearing into the night. Otis goes back home.
John assumes his brothers have joined the Legion so acting on that assumption alone he goes to Paris and does so also. From his joining in Paris to Fort Zinderneuf the account of the Legion closely follows Rosen’s account of his adventure in his book, In The Foreign Legion.
John Geste joins in exactly the same manner, has exactly the same adventures en route to Africa and aboard ship across the Mediterranean. If Wren had actually been in the Legion there would have been no reason for him to hue so close to other’s experiences so I think it’s clear that he himself was never in the FFL.
By luck John finds Beau and Digby in Oran where all three are assigned to the same company posted to the Legion city, Sidi Bel Abbes. This company is then marched to Fort Zinderneuf somewhere in the South either in the actual Sahara or in the Sahel but toward Nigeria.
The rumor of what is referred to as the diamond gains currency and the brothers are thought to be jewel theives. A number of people are conspiring to obtain the jewel. In fact Beau does have the Blue Water. I’m not going to get into the story of the stone, it has nothing to do with the Beau Ideal. If you’ve seen the movie, Beau Geste, you may remember, if not, if you wish to know you’ll have to see the movie or read the book yourself.
Once on station disaster strikes, the troops mutiny just as the Arabs attack and the entire contingent save John is killed. As the men die the Sergeant sets each one at his post to give the appearance that the fort is fully manned as the survivors race from port to port firing at the Arabs.
The mystery, of course, is that when the relief column arrives under the command of de Beaujolais, the Arabs have fled leaving a fort manned by dead men. Wren here introduces the Communist villain Rastignac. Hank and Buddy who were in the Geste’s company had been assigned to other duty which was with de Beaujolais. They arrive in his column. All three of these characters, four with de Beaujolais will figure largely in the two sequels.
For now Rastignac refuses an order to enter the fort whose eeriness is unsettling. Doing his duty de Beaujolais fires point blank with his pistol which misfires saving the traitor’s life. The bugler who is Digby Geste volunteers to enter the fort promptly doing so.
He discovers the dead Beau and the Sergeant who has Beau’s bayonet in his torso. Digby also disappears so the mystery of the fort intensifies as de Beaujolais enters to find the mysterious sight of Beau and the Sergeant with the walls lined with dead soldiers.
Skipping to the essentials, Rastignac rouses the men to mutiny while they are about to do when a fire breaks out in the fort saving de Beaujalais’ face.
So the main story ends.
Wren then has to set up the sequels. These involve de Beaujolais, John Geste, Hank and Buddy and Rastignac. Otis Van Brugh is temporarily not in the picture. Wren also wants to set up his notion of the Beau Ideal.
John Geste has already slipped over the back wall. Digby now follows him. Buddy and Hank are selected to slip through the imagined Arab lines to bring help. All four meet behind the fort. Wren had read Rosen, who he follows closely, so he knows it is certain and gruesome death at the hands of the Arab women to be on foot in the desert. Hank and Buddy already have camels so two more are procured. The band then sets out for the desert.
They disguise themselves as Arabs experiencing various adventures like errant knights of Arthur. Here Wren displays his seeming near total lack of experience on the burning sands. His mountaintop encampment appears to be a combination of Burroughs and Verne’s City In The Desert. Digby is killed in a battle with Arabs while John Geste comes down with fever being taken back to Nigeria by Hank and Buddy from whence he returns to England.
Buddy had been lost on the burning sands so as part of the loyalty of the Beau Ideal Hank goes back in search of him. And so Beau Geste ends.
The mystery of Fort Zinderneuf will be explained in the sequel. John feeling guilty for failing his friends in the tradition of the Beau Ideal will return to look for them. Otis Van Brugh shows up in Africa with his sister Mary. De Beaujolais becomes an agent of the secret police of France a la Tarzan but as an officer of the Spahis, a different force than the Foreign Legion.
Wren then cleverly and amusingly builds on Beau Geste in the two remaining novels but in a different story. Overall, nicely done.
The review of Beau Sabreur follows.