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the castle of otranto

21 april 2022

At the beginning of Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764), the heir to the title estate, Claudio, is crushed to death by an enormous sentient helmet. The other characters take this development surprisingly in stride. The lad's fiancée Isabella didn't want to marry him. His mother Hippolita preferred his sister Matilda anyway. His father Manfred, Prince of Otranto, sees an opening to divorce Hippolita and marry Isabella himself. Honestly, at such a juncture I would completely freak out, because a gigantic murderous item of clothing was on a rampage. But I guess you have to adjust for context. Otranto is a place where the pictures talk to you, and ghosts of your ancestors flit through the secret passageways beneath trap doors. One more enchanted object does not upset people much.

The hero of The Castle of Otranto is none of the above. He is a lad whose identity is gradually revealed. We don't even know his name for a while (it turns out to be Theodore), and he goes through numerous different backstories before settling on a definitive version that happens to establish him as the rightful heir to Otranto. When we first meet Theodore, he is supposedly a peasant who is just wandering around in the general confusion after the attack of the helmet. He is gradually revealed as the son of a friar (long story there) and eventually as the scion of the line of Alfonso, whose helmet (and sword and boot and mailed fist) sporadically smash around the castle in the meantime.

All the characters seem to lack impulse control. At one point, a knight who seems to have taken a vow of silence turns up, and it isn't long before he and Theodore are bashing each other over the head. This set-to could have been avoided if they'd explained who they were first (the new arrival is Isabella's father, eventually to become Theodore's father-in law). But no, in this world you swinge first and ask questions later.

My snark is somewhat beside the point, because of course The Castle of Otranto is a founding classic of the Gothic. Its improbabilities and cross-purposes, even given its fantastic premises, are all just part of the genre. I sometimes think that literary history is a continual cycle of reviving modes that have been ironized out of favor and treating them seriously again. The Castle of Otranto is built out of the chivalric combats and violent immediate fallings-in-love that populate the medieval romance. Such derring-do was played for camp as early as the Middle Ages, and then totally by the time of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso in the 16th century, and then ironized out of existence by Cervantes in Don Quixote at the start of the 17th.

Horace Walpole simply took the stuff of the chivalric tale seriously again. Well, not solemnly or with a realistic psychological interest. The Castle of Otranto is full of headlong energy and does not stop to take its premises as a philosophy of life or anything. But while it is wild and weird, The Castle of Otranto is not campy. It is written in a straightforward adventure-story tone that foreshadows the serious side of Romanticism (certainly Byron borrowed the name "Manfred" for his archetypal tortured hero). Walpole is far from the cynical, biting edge of novelists like Henry Fielding or Tobias Smollett, who could not have embarked on writing something like Otranto without corroding the project out of existence from the start.

And silly as it is, The Castle of Otranto has its moments of wisdom. At one point Manfred peremptorily sentences Theodore to death. Don't worry; Theodore is the hero. But Theodore doesn't know he's the hero, and there seems to be no appeal from the sentence. Theodore tells his father "This is a bad world; nor have I had cause to leave it with regret" (Chapter 2). It is a Christian commonplace, but when you are surrounded by unreasonable, implacable bullies, it is also common sense. Theodore's sensible attitude is central to his heroism.

The Castle of Otranto is one of the Guardian's thousand novels I have to read before I die. I have probably read more than half of them; quite a few more, on reading about them, I think I can leave the world without regret and them still unread. But the list has helped me identify some gaps in my knowledge, and most of the suggestions I've taken up have been well worth it. If I never read another early Gothic classic, I can at least say I've looked over one of the earliest and most classic of all.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. 1764. Kindle Edition.