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The swashbuckling glamour and literary genius of Cyrano de Bergerac

Posted in Historical articles, History, Literature, Theatre on Wednesday, 27 June 2012

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This edited article about Cyrano de Bergerac originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 741 published on 27 March 1976.

Death of Cyrano, picture, image, illustration

The death of Cyrano de Bergerac by Angus McBride

Europe was in turmoil, racked and tortured by the savagery of more than twenty years of relentless religious warfare.

Everywhere, from the borders of Spain to the north coast of Germany, armies swept through farmlands and cities, burning and plundering, in a bid to stay alive.

Paris had been threatened by the locust hordes of an invading army, and for a time its citizens were stricken with terror.

But this was the age of Richelieu, the inflexible, cunning and merciless cardinal, before whom even the French king, Louis XIII, was said to quail in fear.

Richelieu’s brilliant leadership turned Paris from panic to enthusiasm. He inspired all France with a strategy that was masterful and clear.

Thus began the drive that was to swing the balance of power in Europe from the all-mighty Hapsburgs of Austria to the French Bourbons.

Outside the city of Arras, now in northern France, but then under Hapsburg rule, a French army was waiting. Louis XIII was himself in command. The city was under siege. Soon now the final assault would begin.

Suddenly, and for the last time, the big siege guns bombarded the fortifications. Then Louis’ hand-picked guards, famous for their gallantry, began their assault.

Among them was a gay, swashbuckling young officer who, but for the enormity of his nose, might well have been every girl’s dream of a heroic and handsome soldier.

Certainly he was courageous and knew no fear. His prowess with the sword was the envy and admiration of his comrades. Already he was renowned and feared as a supreme master of the duel.

As the guards moved into Arras they were suddenly ambushed and routed. A gallant friend of the young officer lay dying.

Incensed by the impudence of the attack and angered by the death of his friend, Savinien, Cyrano de Bergerac commanded a counter-attack. In a burst of do-or-die chivalry he drew his sword and led his men back to Arras.

In the fierce and bloody hand-to-hand fighting he found himself isolated, surrounded, forced for survival to battle against a hundred of the enemy.

One by one his foes fell, and others took their place. But still Cyrano battled on, refusing to give up the unequal fight. Eventually the enemy fled in panic.

For Cyrano, seriously wounded, the fighting was over. Instead of the sword he took to wielding the pen.

Cyrano de Bergerac’s feats as a swordsman have become part of legend. It is as a writer that he commands our attention today – not so much for his own work but for the profound influence he had on others.

Moliere, possibly the greatest of French dramatists and certainly the most famous of Cyrano’s contemporaries, is said to have been deeply impressed.

Cyrano’s sparkling comedy ‘Le Pedant Joue’, in which he poked fun at one of his former schoolmasters, may well have proved a model for some of Moliere’s own plays.

But Cyrano de Bergerac’s most famous works are undoubtedly his ‘Comic Histories of the States and Empires of the Sun’, and ‘States and Empires of the Moon’, an ingenious mixture of science and romance, which are said to have influenced writers such as Swift and Edgar Allan Poe. Without Cyrano’s deft wit we might never have had ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.

In 1654, aged only thirty-six, he was struck on the head by a falling beam of timber, and died the next year.

Nearly 250 years later Cyrano de Bergerac’s tempestuous life so fired the imagination of a writer named Edmond Rostand that he made it the basis of a play which is now acknowledged as a masterpiece of French literature.

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