The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables by Robert Louis Stevenson (1887)

The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables (1887) is a collection of memorably dark and haunting short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, comprising:

  • The Merry Men (1882)
  • Will O’ the Mill (1878)
  • Markheim (1885)
  • Thrawn Janet (1881)
  • Olalla (1885)
  • The Treasure of Franchard (1883)

It is significantly darker and deeper than his previous collection, the More New Arabian Nights, with its shallow and contrived plots. These stories have much more psychological depth and reach. The Arabian Nights are cluttered with a pell-mell of incident, each as silly as the last. In these stories there is little incident, but a tremendous sense of brooding fear, horror and strange psychological states.

The Merry Men of the title story are nothing to do with Robin Hood but is the nickname given to the clashing waves created by treacherous reefs off the small island of Aros in the western Highlands of Scotland. There’s a reference to Jacobites so it’s set in the first half of the 18th century. Here the narrator, Charles, a young man, his parents dead, returns to the wild island where his strict Calvinist uncle, Gordon Darnaway, offered him a home between his studies at university. The text is oddly packed with themes none of which quite predominate enough to comprise an actual story. Charles is in love with his uncle’s daughter, Mary Ellen, but she wishes to stay and look after her father. Charles has learned of a wreck from the Spanish Armada full of the gold which was going to pay for the invasion, and he sets off to find it, stripping and diving into the rough sea in the probably location of the wreck. Among the seaweed he finds first a shoe buckle and then, gruesomely,  a human bone, and flees the sea. Meanwhile Charles’s uncle  behaves more and more oddly until one wild night he is found drinking heavily and greedily watching a schooner just off the island which is being pushed by the tide onto the rocks. The narrator realises he has gone mad and neither he nor the family servant, Rorie, can catch him as he bounds cackling over the island away from them, until one final attempt ends in tragedy.

This is a mash-up of typical RLS themes, but none of them fully developed to a conclusion. The story very well conveys a sense of wild foreboding, but its ultimate failure is, I think, revealed by its overwrought style, closer to the willful melodrama of the New Arabian Nights than to the lean, thrilling, dynamic style of Treasure Island and Kidnapped.

“When at length I fell asleep, it was to be awakened shortly after by a dream of wrecks, black men, and submarine adventure; and I found myself so shaken and fevered that I arose, descended the stair, and stepped out before the house.  Within, Rorie and the black were asleep together in the kitchen; outside was a wonderful clear night of stars, with here and there a cloud still hanging, last stragglers of the tempest.  It was near the top of the flood, and the Merry Men were roaring in the windless quiet of the night.  Never, not even in the height of the tempest, had I heard their song with greater awe.  Now, when the winds were gathered home, when the deep was dandling itself back into its summer slumber, and when the stars rained their gentle light over land and sea, the voice of these tide-breakers was still raised for havoc.  They seemed, indeed, to be a part of the world’s evil and the tragic side of life.  Nor were their meaningless vociferations the only sounds that broke the silence of the night.  For I could hear, now shrill and thrilling and now almost drowned, the note of a human voice that accompanied the uproar of the Roost.  I knew it for my kinsman’s; and a great fear fell upon me of God’s judgments, and the evil in the world.  I went back again into the darkness of the house as into a place of shelter, and lay long upon my bed, pondering these mysteries.” (Part V – A Man Out Of The Sea)

This seems to me good – it is clear powerful description – up until the sentence starting “They seemed…” at which point the style becomes melodramatic indicating the willed nature of the plot and the forced horror which RLS, it seems to me, is imposing on the scene. It doesn’t arise naturally from events. The more RLS editorialises, the less powerful the impact.

Still, the climax when it comes is swift and genuinely terrifying.

Will O’ the Mill (1878) is a strange, dreamy, allegorical tale. It tells the story of young Will, brought up in a mill in a high valley somewhere in Germany, in some vague middle ages. Maybe it’s a spin-off from RLS’s medieval novel, Prince Otto. Its style is completely different from the Merry Men, being cast in an opulently romantic style which reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s fairy stories.

[Will] was like some one lying in twilit, formless preexistence, and stretching out his hands lovingly towards many-coloured, many-sounding life.  It was no wonder he was unhappy, he would go and tell the fish: they were made for their life, wished for no more than worms and running water, and a hole below a falling bank; but he was differently designed, full of desires and aspirations, itching at the fingers, lusting with the eyes, whom the whole variegated world could not satisfy with aspects.  The true life, the true bright sunshine, lay far out upon the plain.  And O! to see this sunlight once before he died! to move with a jocund spirit in a golden land! to hear the trained singers and sweet church bells, and see the holiday gardens!  ‘And O fish!’ he would cry, ‘if you would only turn your noses down stream, you could swim so easily into the fabled waters and see the vast ships passing over your head like clouds, and hear the great water-hills making music over you all day long!’  But the fish kept looking patiently in their own direction, until Will hardly knew whether to laugh or cry.

There is a surprisingly science fiction moment where a romantic traveller chats to young Will about his desire to leave the mill and go down to the big city:

‘Did you ever look at the stars?’ he asked, pointing upwards.
‘Often and often,’ answered Will.
‘And do you know what they are?’
‘I have fancied many things.’
‘They are worlds like ours,’ said the young man. ‘Some of them less; many of them a million times greater; and some of the least sparkles that you see are not only worlds, but whole clusters of worlds turning about each other in the midst of space. We do not know what there may be in any of them; perhaps the answer to all our difficulties or the cure of all our sufferings: and yet we can never reach them; not all the skill of the craftiest of men can fit out a ship for the nearest of these our neighbours, nor would the life of the most aged suffice for such a journey. When a great battle has been lost or a dear friend is dead, when we are hipped or in high spirits, there they are unweariedly shining overhead. We may stand down here, a whole army of us together, and shout until we break our hearts, and not a whisper reaches them. We may climb the highest mountain, and we are no nearer them. All we can do is to stand down here in the garden and take off our hats; the starshine lights upon our heads, and where mine is a little bald, I dare say you can see it glisten in the darkness. The mountain and the mouse. That is like to be all we shall ever have to do with Arcturus or Aldebaran.’

Will hung his head a little, and then raised it once more to heaven. The stars seemed to expand and emit a sharper brilliancy; and as he kept turning his eyes higher and higher, they seemed to increase in multitude under his gaze.

Will decides to stay at the mill and lives to a ripe old age, an odd, self-contained man, respected by tourists to the riverside inn he sets up, for his wisdom and solidity. The ending of the tale, when it comes, is beautiful and moving.

Markheim (1885) is often paired with Jekyll and Hyde as a tale of a divided soul. On Christmas day a 35 year old man, Markheim, visits a pawnbroker, for an episode which reads like late Dickens, intimate and fraught with undercurrents. He abruptly stabs the pawnbroker to death and sets off to ransack his office but full of a fear so intense it gives hallucinatory power to his senses.

Time had some score of small voices in that shop, some stately and slow as was becoming to their great age; others garrulous and hurried.  All these told out the seconds in an intricate, chorus of tickings.  Then the passage of a lad’s feet, heavily running on the pavement, broke in upon these smaller voices and startled Markheim into the consciousness of his surroundings.  He looked about him awfully.  The candle stood on the counter, its flame solemnly wagging in a draught; and by that inconsiderable movement, the whole room was filled with noiseless bustle and kept heaving like a sea: the tall shadows nodding, the gross blots of darkness swelling and dwindling as with respiration, the faces of the portraits and the china gods changing and wavering like images in water.  The inner door stood ajar, and peered into that leaguer of shadows with a long slit of daylight like a pointing finger.

And then, exceeding the murderer’s fears, he does hear a real actual step on the stairs and a voice in the hallway and someone enters the room to find him. Is it real or a hallucination? Is it the devil? Or an avenging angel? What follows is a rather high-minded theological exchange, in a completely different register from the heavy Gothic tone which has preceded and which leads the murderer, hitherto depicted chillingly as if he had multiple personalities, to reveal a taste for high minded Calvinist sermons.

‘I will lay my heart open to you,’ answered Markheim.  ‘This crime on which you find me is my last.  On my way to it I have learned many lessons; itself is a lesson, a momentous lesson.  Hitherto I have been driven with revolt to what I would not; I was a bond-slave to poverty, driven and scourged.  There are robust virtues that can stand in these temptations; mine was not so: I had a thirst of pleasure.  But to-day, and out of this deed, I pluck both warning and riches—both the power and a fresh resolve to be myself.  I become in all things a free actor in the world; I begin to see myself all changed, these hands the agents of good, this heart at peace.  Something comes over me out of the past; something of what I have dreamed on Sabbath evenings to the sound of the church organ, of what I forecast when I shed tears over noble books, or talked, an innocent child, with my mother.  There lies my life; I have wandered a few years, but now I see once more my city of destination.’

As twitchily psychopathic as it began, as gruesomely hallucinatory as it proceeded, Markheim ends as a sweet tale or repentance almost as anodyne as another Christmas Carol, written 40 years earlier.

Thrawn Janet (1881) is a ghost story set in 1712. It is told mostly in Scots dialect, imagined as a local peasant telling a passerby who’s bought him a few drinks, why the minister of the village of Balweary is so lonesome and eccentric. It is because of a strange and terrifying haunting of the corpse of poor thrawn Janet. This poor possessed woman hangs herself only for a devil to bring her back to life and make the body stalk towards the terrified minister.

“By this time the foot was comin’ through the passage for the door; he could hear a hand skirt alang the wa’, as if the fearsome thing was feelin’ for its way.  The saughs tossed an’ maned thegether, a lang sigh cam’ ower the hills, the flame o’ the can’le was blawn aboot; an’ there stood the corp of Thrawn Janet, wi’ her grogram goun an’ her black mutch, wi’ the heid aye upon the shouther, an’ the girn still upon the face o’t—leevin’, ye wad hae said—deid, as Mr. Soulis weel kenned—upon the threshold o’ the manse.”

Olalla (1885) concerns an English army officer in Spain and quartered for his health with a faded Spanish family. The family have degenerated from their former glory but this is no metaphor. They really have become degenerate cretins, the son a simpleton, and the mother a placid cow. But when the officer meets the daughter, Olalla, he falls immediately and preposterously in love with her.

In my own room, I opened the window and looked out, and could not think what change had come upon that austere field of mountains that it should thus sing and shine under the lofty heaven.  I had seen her—Olalla!  And the stone crags answered, Olalla! and the dumb, unfathomable azure answered, Olalla!

He cuts himself on his window and goes to the placid mother for help who amazes him by leaping at his wrist and biting it to the bone! He is rescued by the son and spirited off to a nearby village to recover, where he hears more and worse things of the family. Olalla joins him by a roadside crucifix and persuades him, for everyone’s good, to leave. And so he tearfully leaves her there, praying to Our Lord

Like a lot of the minor Stevenson this story contains themes or ideas which somehow emerge more fully in other later works. The mother’s completely unexpected bite is vampirism, linked to the idea of degenerate families. Bram Stoker was to win immortality with the idea 12 years later. Hereditary decline, or degeneracy, was a real fear at the end of the 19th century, brought on by populist misunderstandings of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Interesting themes apart, the story shows Stevenson’s power at describing natural scenery, his ability to create an atmosphere of suspense – but  then degenerates into the romantic melodrama of the Arabian Nights.

The Treasure of Franchard (1883) is the longest and best humoured of the stories. Set in rural France it concerns a pompous failure of a country doctor who loves the sound of his own voice who takes in an 11 year old orphan he encounters whose frank dullness fascinate him. Over a number of ‘chapters’ Dr Desprez tries to educate young Jean-Marie but to no avail. The boy is particularly struck by the doctor’s repeated protestations that he is happy vegetating in rurla idiocy and would never ever be dragged back to corrupt Paris – so that when the doctor accidentally discovers treasure – long-lost plate from a ruined abbey – Jean-Marie is driven to take desperate measures!

The story contains lovely descriptions of rural France.

Doctor Desprez always rose early.  Before the smoke arose, before the first cart rattled over the bridge to the day’s labour in the fields, he was to be found wandering in his garden.  Now he would pick a bunch of grapes; now he would eat a big pear under the trellice; now he would draw all sorts of fancies on the path with the end of his cane; now he would go down and watch the river running endlessly past the timber landing-place at which he moored his boat.  There was no time, he used to say, for making theories like the early morning.

The story – and the collection – conclude with a Happy Ending completely unlike the troubled psychological melodramas of the all the previous tales.

Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

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  1. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) « Books & Boots

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