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A domesticated villain – Lord Byron’s The Giaour

mars 4, 2012

Lord Byron, adventurer and father of English Romantics, one of the first to be projected into the limelight for good looks and dangerous sexuality. A striking figure, and self styled man of action. And why not ? He did give birth to Philhellenism, after his military campaign in Missolonghi where his short life ended in 1824 (most probably from blood poisoning1). His writings inspired all of Europe to rise to action for a free Greek republic, the very idea of which clashed with ambiant absolutist attitudes tied to the French Restoration and the Holy Alliance.

Byron’s love for Greece took root fifteen years prior during his Grand Tour. Fleeing England, « that tight little island », and creditors, he set off to prance about the Mediterranean coast for two years. He came home in 1811, and a year later he published Childe Harold’s Piligrimage, a narrative poem and travelogue, in which he describes « Fair Greece » under Ottoman rule as a « sad relic of departed worth ». Harold spends his time waxing nostalgic before old bits of stone, spouting references to the good old days. Lord Byron does assign some responsibility to the Greeks for this sorry state of affairs, mostly because the low-minded Ottoman Muslims could never have subjugated the virtuous Greeks without some sort of moral deficiency on their part. Byron returns to this theme often, as you can see in the first of his five « Turkish tales », The Giaour :

‘Twere long to tell, and sad to trace,

Each step from Splendour to Disgrace ;

Enough – no foreign foe could quell

thy soul, till from itself it fell ;

Yet ! Self-abasement paved the way

To villain-bonds and despot sway.

Yet Lord Byron, to a large extent, avoids Orientalist essentialism² in the first edition of this tale of forbidden love. The narrative is built around a doomed love triangle, composed of the Giaour, a nameless Christian, Hassan and one of his wives, Leila. Leila « breaks her bower, » goes out into the world of men and taking the Giaour as a lover, lashes out against the values that structure her society. Hassan attemps to reestablish the balance by confining her to a space even smaller than the harem : a canvas bag which is then summarily thrown over the side of a boat unbeknownst to its crew and the reader, to whom this episode is recounted through the eyes of a fisherman. The Giaour takes his revenge, ambushing Hassan in a mountain pass, then, crushed by his part in Leila’s death, spends the rest of his days spurning the solace offered him by a man of the cloth, representative of orthodoxy.

The three protagonists remain nearly voiceless in the first edition, the Giaour getting 10 lines and saying only that he wants no inscription on his headstone so as to be more quickly forgotten. The entire story is told by witnesses whose accounts are assembled, in disorder and by fragments, through the efforts of an anonymous editor. What’s more, the witnesses are never introduced, leaving the reader to  piece together their identities from clues left almost accidentally in the text. The result is mystery ; the reader is always left guessing, never knowing whom to believe in this twisted mess of contradictory tales. But there is another compelling effect : the credibility of the narrators is never hierarchized, a Muslim fisherman being as believable as a learned monk. The fisherman is perhaps even more sensitive to the Giaour’s exceptional character, capable of seeing phenomena afresh and not just assigning them their respective place in a pre-established world view. In the following excerpt he watches the Giaour riding his sable steed on a beach :

I know thee not, I loathe thy race,

But in thy lineaments I trace

What time shall strengthen, not efface :

Though young and pale, that sallow front

Is scathed by fiery Passion’s brunt.

The temptation to relegate the Giaour to what is already known, in this case racial stereotypes, is strong. But he keeps looking, and sees « fiery Passion » and the individuality of his spirit, all the while condemning him : 

Though bent on earth thine evil eye,

As meteor-like thou glidest by,

Right well I view and deem thee one

Whom Othman’s sons should slay or shun.

In any case, considerable powers of perception are given to a mere Turkish fisherman, whereas the monk’s speech to the Giaour is omitted because, as we learn from a footnote, « It seems to have had so little effect upon the patient, that it could have no hopes from the reader ». All we know is that it was of « customary length ». The real conflict then, is not between East and West, but between an exceptional individual and societies norms, be they Christian or Muslim. Hence, for the sake of a dialogic structure3, the entire story is presented by those who support society’s point of view, since the reader empathizes more easily with the Giaour4. But this is not enough to achieve dialogism. The norms of society must be convincingly presented, or their representative, Hassan, must be cast in a flattering light. And Byron does this, describing Hassan as valorous during the Giaour’s treacherous ambush :

Some fly beneath the nearest rock,

And there await the coming shock, […]

Stern Hassan only from his horse

disdains to light, and keeps his course, […]

« Though far and near the bullets hiss,

I’ve scaped a bloodier hour than this »

There is also a sympathetic description of Hassan, by a Muslim narrator who contemplates his tomb :

There sleeps as true an Onmanlie

As e’er at Mecca bent the knee ;

As ever scorned forbidden wine,

Or prayed with face towards the shrine.

Yet died he by a stranger’s hand,

And stranger in his native land ;

Yet died he as in arms he stood,

And unavenged, at least in blood.

The version published in 1813 achieves thus a delicate equilibrium, and can be considered a work of supreme relativism, critical of Occident and Orient, individualism and collectivism. However, Lord Byron takes advantage of The Giaour‘s quilt-like structure to patch together a rag completely distinct from the original work. Being extremely popular, the poem was edited seven times in two years and triples in length over the same period, going from 400 to 1300 lines. Most of these add-ons give no additional information, add nothing to the plot and destroy any pretence to dialogism.

Byron does, in the original version, make some reference to Greece’s sorry state. The sum total is 13 lines. In the last edition, he reels off 170 lines of banalities on Oriental tyranny. The gradual disintregration of the sympathy the reader once felt for the Muslim point of view commences when he describes the Greeks as slaves to slaves, referencing the Ottoman political system in which civil servants are property of the Sultan : 

The hearts within thy valleys bred,

The fiery souls that might have led

Thy sons to deeds sublime,

Now crawl from cradle to the Grave,

Slaves – nay, the bondsmen of a Slave,

And callous, save to crime.

Then there’s Hassan’s curse, which provides Byron the oppurtunity to offer the reader some vivid trivia on Muslim hell. It also depicts Hassan as superstitious and childish, further eating away at his credibility as he damns the Giaour to vampirism :

But first, on earth as Vampire sent,

Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent :

Then ghastly haunt thy native place,

And suck the blood of all thy race ;

There from thy daughter, sister, wife,

At midnight drain the stream of life.  

Hassan’s description of the Giaour killing his family goes on for a while, especially his blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter who recognizes her undead progenitor and begs him to stop. However, the bulk of the additions are given to the Giaour and his 400 line speech. As was mentioned before, the dialogism of the first edition was based in part on the silence of the protagonists. Monologue can of course be dialogic as is the case with Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground5. For this reason, the Giaour’s statements concerning Hassan’s murder of Leila are intriguing :

Yet did he but what I had done

Had she been false to more than one.

Faithless to him – he gave the blow ;

But true to me – I laid him low :

Howe’er deserved her doom might be,

Her treachery was truth to me.

Unfortunately, these are just a few lines and most of the speech is self-aggrandizing drivel. He presents himself as a superior being. His suffering is beyond human suffering, his love beyond human love :

The cold in clime are cold in blood,

Their love can scarce deserve the name ;

But mine was like the lava flood

That boils inÆtna’s breast of flame.

Disdainful of a society incapable of understanding him, he cares not for acceptance. Even the fires of hell would not inconvenience him if Leila could live again. He is wracked by guilt because he indirectly caused Leila’s death, yet he seems to regret nothing, saying he would do it all again :

No – reft of all, yet undismayed

But for the thought of Leila slain,

Give me the pleasure with the pain,

So I would live and love again.

And the reader forgives him as well, because he is obviously not responsible for her murder. The Giaour’s sins are false sins, and all that is left is his emotional superiority to Hassan :

I gazed upon him where he lay,

And watched his spirit ebb away :

Though pierced like pard by hunter’s steel,

He felt not half that now I feel.

In short, the final edition depicts Hassan as a childish philistine. Whereas the Giaour forgives himself his perceived sins and presents himself as insignificant yet emminently superiour. He has all the marks of the Byronic hero, the first of his kind, described by Gabriele Poole as « a domesticated version of the Gothic villain, […] maintaining his sinful and perverse allure, but doing away with both sins and perversions ». Regrettably, the dialogism that structured the first edition, and along with it any semblance of relativism, is lost to his sententious ravings.  

Evan Fisher


http://www.keats-shelley-house.org/en/romanticism/timeline-1824

2 « Anyone who teaches, writes about or researches the Orient […] is an Orientalist, and what he or she does is Orientalism. […] Orientalism is a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between « the Orient » and […] « the Occident. » […]Orientalism can be discussed and analyzed as the corporate institution for dealing with the Orient […] In short, Orientalism as a western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient. » Said, Edward. Orientalism. London, England : Penguin, 1995. pages 2-3

3 Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dovstoevsky’s Poetics. University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

4 Poole, Gabriele. Byron’s Heroes and the Byronic Hero. Dissertation. University of Notre Dame, 1998. Ann Arbor:UMI 1998. 9835541.

Bibliography

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dovstoevsky’s Poetics. University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Heß, Gilbert. Missolonghi. Genèse, transformations multimédiales et fonctions d’un lieu identitaire du philhellénisme. Revue Germanique Internationale, Numéros 1 et 2, 2005. http://rgi.revues.org/92

Jager, Colin. Byron and Romantic Occidentalism. Romantic Circles.

Poole, Gabriele. Byron’s Heroes and the Byronic Hero. Dissertation. University of Notre Dame, 1998. Ann Arbor:UMI 1998. 9835541.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. London, England : Penguin, 1995.

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