Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
One can work through a bucket list randomly or systematically. Systematically was the methodology used for this choice from the Nobel Literature bucket list. “The Massacre of the Innocents” by Maurice Maeterlinck was the next short story in the book Great Stories by Nobel Prize Winners. I had already read and written about the first three authors. Let’s just delve into what is next in the book. The title is a gut punch. Buckle up; it is a grisly read. (I may go back to random after this read.)
Maurice Maeterlinck was awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in Literature “in appreciation of his many-sided literary activities, and especially of his dramatic works, which are distinguished by a wealth of imagination and by a poetic fancy, which reveals, sometimes in the guise of a fairy tale, a deep inspiration, while in a mysterious way they appeal to the readers’ own feelings and stimulate their imaginations.”
Count Maurice Polydore Marie Bernard Maeterlinck was born in 1862 in Ghent, Belgium. At the age of 12 he was sent to study at the Jesuit College of Sainte-Barbe where he pursued his interest in writing short novels and poetry and acquired his distaste for Catholicism and organized religion. However, his father’s career choice for him was different and Maeterlinck finished law at the University of Ghent in 1885. One biographical sketch had him practicing law in his hometown for a brief minute; another makes no mention of this short career. However, all biographers agree that a stay in Paris rekindled his literary flame and Maeterlinck fell under the influence of a group of Symbolist writers.
A Google search of “Symbolism” gives this definition: “an artistic and poetic movement or style using symbolic images and indirect suggestion to express mystical ideas, emotions, and states of mind. It originated in late 19th century France and Belgium, with important figures including Mallarmé, Maeterlinck, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Redon.”
“The Massacre of the Innocents” does contain “a wealth of imagination,” albeit gruesome and maybe symbolic; however, its content seems to fit better under another description of his works — “The main themes in his work are death and the meaning of life.” At this point I became curious and searched to see if there was a critical literary analysis of this work. At litreact.com a 2011 entry suggested that Maeterlinck was retelling the biblical story written in the Gospel of St. Matthew that recounts the events after the birth of Christ when Herod ordered the slaying of all infants in the town of Bethlehem. The parallels are there and yet the graphic illustration of the massacre is appointed with colorful descriptions: “Blue Lion”; “red clouds”; “Golden Sun”; “Red Dwarf”; “ a foot-soldier dressed in yellow or red”; “blue farmhouse”; “pink, red, and white clothes of their motionless children”; “old hut with pink tiles”; “farmhouse painted the color of lilacs”; and “dyeing the village a blood red.” Symbols to stimulate our thinking? I’ll give you the beginning. Search it out and decide for yourself.
“On Friday the 26th of December about supper time, a little shepherd came into Nazareth crying terribly.
Some peasants who were drinking ale at the Blue Lion threw open the shutters to look into the village orchard, and saw the lad running across the snow. They recognized him as Korneliz’ son, and shouted at him from the window: “What’s the matter? Go to bed, you!”
But the boy answered in a voice of terror, telling them that the Spaniards had come, having already set fire to the farm, hanged his mother from a chestnut bough, and bound his nine little sisters to the trunk of a large tree. The peasants quickly came forth from the inn, surrounded the boy and plied him with questions. He went on to tell them that the soldiers were clad in steel armor and mounted on horseback, that they had seized the cattle of his uncle, Petrus Krayer, and would soon enter the wood with the sheep and cattle.
They all ran to the Golden Sun, where Korneliz and his brother-in-law were drinking ale, while the innkeeper hastened out into the village to spread the news of the approach of the Spaniards.
There was great excitement in Nazareth. Women threw open windows and peasants ran forth from their houses carrying lights which they extinguished as soon as they came to the orchard, where it was bright as midday, because of the snow and the full moon. They gathered round Korneliz and Krayer in the public square before the inn. Many had brought pitchforks and rakes. They took counsel, speaking in tones of terror, out under the trees.
As they were uncertain what to do, one of them ran to fetch the curé, who owned the farm that was worked by Korneliz. He came forth from his house with the keys of the church, in company with the sacristan, while all the others followed him to the churchyard, where he proclaimed from the top of the tower that he could see nothing, either across the fields or in the wood, but that there were red clouds in the direction of his farm. Over all the rest of the horizon the sky was blue and filled with stars.” The massacre continues.