Bastard of the Week: Captain Phoebus from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

If you are an ardent Disney fan, do not read this. There is nothing to see here. Seriously, no good can come of reading this if you’re not fully prepared to know just how awful book-Phoebus is.

Growing up, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a favourite film; strong female lead, focus on retaining a strong sense of self in the face of adversity, sassy animals, and of course the dashing Captain Phoebus. As with a lot of Disney adaptions, I learnt that the original Captain Phoebus was not all I had been lead to believe. I learnt the full and despicable truth of Captain Phoebus when my sister first read the novel.

Phoebus is a handsome nobleman, and I’m afraid that that is where the comparison ends; he is vain and completely self-obsessed. Disaster ensues when Phoebus arrests Quasimodo during his attempted abduction of Esmeralda; she is immediately besotted. A renowned beauty, Esmeralda is a source of obsession for almost every character; Claude Frollo, Captain Phoebus, and Pierre Gringoire all really want to sleep with her. They try their darnedest and when that doesn’t work out they’re not too bothered about whether she lives or dies.

Frollos’ super creepy obsession with Esmeralda is the back bone of the novel; everyone knows that Frollo is gross. What Disney didn’t tell us was that Phoebus is a real piece of work. Oh, and also there’s a narrator: Pierre Gringoire. But honestly, even theatre adaptions still leave him out.

Gringoire is the epitome of the starving artist (he can’t write anything funny to save his life). Despondent, he tramps through the streets of Paris. His spirits are immediately lifted when he sees Esmeralda performing in the streets with her trusty goat companion, Djali. Show over, she walks back home, and the kind of creepy guy that Gringoire is – he follows her through the city. Gringoire gets so lost in his own thoughts that he walks into the criminal quarter of town. Every outcast in the whole city gathers here at the infamous Court of Miracles. Being the only nicely dressed white guy, he’s soon discovered, and long story short the plan is to execute him. Unless, any woman among them will take him to be their husband.

Esmeralda, being the kind girl that she is, takes pity on Gringoire and in accordance with gypsy law she takes him as her husband for 4 years. Sparing his life. This act of supreme kindness is almost immediately lost on Gringoire that very night when we tries it on with Esmeralda and she explains that she’s in love with the Captain of the Guard, Phoebus, and Gringoire is her husband only in name. He is never to touch her.

After this abject refusal Gringoire only hangs out with Esmeralda to play with Djali. Just as he went from 0 to 100 when he first sees her, after she tells him in no uncertain terms that sex is off the table, he goes back to his starving artist aesthetic. With the added bonus of playing with a pet goat.

Gringoire very nearly edges it for Bastard of the Week. When Frollo finally loses it over Esmeraldas’ continued resolve not to sleep with him, he takes her away from the tower in which he’s been keeping her. On a boat bound for the gallows he hopes that imminent death will persuade her into bed with him.

Enter stage right: Pierre Gringoire! For once I was happy to see him. His moment had come. He could save Esmeralda. He could repay his debt to her, for saving his life.

Does he save Esmeralda from the evil grasp of Claude Frollo?

No.

He saves the goat.

No, really, he saves the goat.

I’ll give you a moment for that to sink in.

Esmeralda and Djali are in the boat. Gringoire pauses for thought and comes to the conclusion that the execution of Djali (widely regarded as some kind of demon goat for being able to perform a few tricks) would break his heart.

So. He a teary-eyed Gringoire takes the goat and leaves Esmeralda with Frollo; he leaves this 16 year old girl, his wife, to almost certain death. I threw the book across the room I was so mad at Gringoire…

No wonder everyone leaves you out of adaptions, Gringoire.

*

HOWEVER Phoebus, through his own awfulness, I feel must win Bastard of the Week. Let’s go back to the beginning of the novel and document Phoebus’s shortcomings.

Immediately after Phoebus saves Esmeralda from being kidnapped by Quasimodo, she tells him that she’s head-over-heels in love with him, and that he has her undying trust. He lies and tells her that he feels the same way for her. Because she’s gorgeous and he wants to have sex with her. Pretty standard practise, not too much of a shocker?

BUT

He does all of this whilst he’s given Frollo the go-ahead to hide in a cupboard and watch their clandestine meeting. Unfortunately this back-fires spectacularly. Frollo is consumed by a jealous rage, jumps out and stabs Phoebus in the back before he and Esmeralda can really get down to business. Frollo runs away, pretty disturbed with himself. Meanwhile Phoebus is bleeding out and Esmeralda’s fainted with all the excitement.

When the Kings Archers eventually turn up, they assume that Esmeralda seduced him (probably with witchcraft), and then killed him. Esmeralda is tried and convicted of murder, and sentenced to hang for her crimes. Even though Phoebus doesn’t actually die. Fully recovered, he doesn’t publicly set the record set the record straight, denounce the execution, or even have a quiet word with any of the judges. He fully intends for her to be executed.

Because he was going to sleep with a gypsy (cue public disapproval), and had planned to let the Archdeacon of the cathedral watch.

*

Esmeralda isn’t executed (that time), and is whisked away by the horny Claude Frollo. Kidnapped, imprisoned, then shoved on a boat to sail to her execution, shunned by Gringoire for her own pet goat – at last, she escapes. Through sub-plot and a lot of unlikely coincidences that makes up a lot of eighteenth century literature, Esmeralda is reunited with her long-lost mother. Ironically, they’ve lived within a stones throw of each other for many years – Esmeralda, a stolen child, and her mother, the local madwoman pining for her lost child in a hovel for the last 15 years.

Finally. Free. Free from Frollo, from Notre-Dame, from her useless husband Gringoire. Esmeralda has the opportunity to start a new life with her Mum; an added bonus being that her Mum is from a respectable family, meaning that Esmeralda may have run in criminal circles, but she’s not actually a born-gypsy (for which she’s suffered endless prejudice throughout the book).

At this moment, Phoebus rides by the hovel. Despite her Mum’s best efforts (she really gives it her all, none of this gentle pleading, she’s like a maternally enraged gorilla), Esmeralda goes to him. She comes out of hiding and goes to the man that she loves. Escaping Frollo, despite Gringoire being useless, finding her Mum, and being reunited with the man that she loves. It was shaping out to be a pretty great day for Esmeralda.

*

Phoebus arrests Esmeralda. To add insult to injury in the final scenes leading to Esmeralda’s execution he stands with his cousin and fiancee, Fleur-de-Lys, on the balcony of their town house.

He watches Esmeralda’s execution, as indifferent to her death as he was to her love.

 

Comparing canon-Phoebus with Disney-fandom-Phoebus, you can see why my sister complained to me about what a truly hideous character he was, and awarded him Bastard of the Week.

Although Gringoire should probably be recognised for the disaster of a person that he is and be awarded Useless Bastard of the Week.

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