The Pope's Mule (La Mule de Pape) by Alphonse Daudet, 1869
THE POPE'S MULE
(La mule de Pape) by Alphonse Daudet, 1869
The stories contained in Alphonse Daudet's Letters from My Windmill (Lettres de mon moulin) are more various then is often realized, with an emotional range that is considerable. The note of tragedy is at least approached in "The Beaucaire Stagecoach" and "The Two Inns," for example. Nonetheless, the predominant note is a narrative charm, for which the volume is most famous, and this quality is perhaps nowhere more fully displayed than in the tale "The Pope's Mule" ("La mule de Pape"). "The Pope's Mule" was invented to supply a meaning for an otherwise enigmatic Provençal proverb. Daudet's interest in the folk idioms of the region was profoundly stimulated by his connections with Frédéric Mistral and the other members of the Félibrige, a society for the study of Provençal lore and literature. So far as "The Pope's Mule" is concerned, one particular member of the Félibrige was perhaps of special importance. This was Joseph Roumanille, who had both a scholarly and a nostalgic interest in the folklore of his native region, especially its traditional linguistic idioms, proverbs, and superstitions. It is with words that Roumanille might have written—and which Daudet had perhaps heard him speak—that "The Pope's Mule" begins:
Of all the striking sayings, proverbs and adages with which our peasants of Provence flavour their talk, I know none more picturesque than this one. For fifteen leagues around my mill, when they speak of a spiteful, vindictive person, they say; "Beware of that man! He's like the Pope's mule who saved up her kick for seven years."
The narrator tells us that diligent inquiry as to the source of the saying has been undertaken but to no avail. Even his friend Francet Mamai, a fife player learned in the folklore of Provence, can offer no explanation. His suggestion is that the answer to the mystery will only be found "in the cicadas' library."
It is a characteristic piece of whimsy that Daudet should describe himself as undertaking a week's research in the "cicadas' library" ("on my back," as he explains). Whimsical it may be, but the whimsicality does not entirely conceal a serious point. It is Daudet's declaration that the story is offered not as the purely subjective creation of a modern individual but as an articulation of truths contained in the countryside itself.
The resulting tale is a delightful fantasy. It has its full share of Daudet's brilliantly evocative writing. The early description of papal Avignon is masterly. In long, accumulative sentences Daudet creates an extraordinary picture of abundant activity. People walk in processions and dance, the wind blows flags and banners, the shuttles of lace makers dart back and forth, soldiers sing in Latin, lutes sound, bells ring, and drums are beaten.
There is delightful human warmth in the portrait of the fictional Pope Boniface, affable and friendly and devoted to vineyard and mule more than to higher matters. Though we are told that Boniface has a certain shrewdness of mind, the tale is concerned more with his gullibility, and it shows how easily he is repeatedly deceived by Tistet Védène. As Védène extravagantly praises the mule, in the shrewd knowledge that nothing could more delight Boniface, there is wit and liveliness of mind in his initial deception. The deception seems a harmless, even an engaging, one. Our attitude changes, however, as we find that Védène is not satisfied with the considerable dividends he reaps from the deception, for he mistreats the mule and encourages his toadies to do likewise. He leads the mule to the very top of the highest bell turret in the papal palace, exposing it there to public ridicule and to the humiliation of being lowered back down by pulleys and ropes. This has a splendid and perverse inventiveness about it, but it seems to go beyond the boundaries of tolerant amiability in the tale's world. Our sympathies now are entirely with the mule as it anticipates the chance of revenge.
Védène's departure to the court of Naples denies the unfortunate animal the opportunity of immediate revenge, but there is delightful irony in what follows. Seven years later the rogue returns to seek the newly vacant post of first mustard cup bearer, a title that has become a proverbial phrase describing someone with an excessively conceited idea of his own abilities and importance. Védène resorts to his tested tactic of lauding the mule, and in doing so he prompts the pope to promise that he shall be taken to see the creature. When this happens on the following day, Védène is at his most flamboyantly self-satisfied. Before long he stands in precisely the right place for the mule to let fly with its long-delayed revenge:
And the kick she let fly was so terrible, so terrible, that in faroff Pampérigouste they saw the smoke of it, vast clouds of yellow smoke in which there fluttered an ibis feather [from Védène's cap]; all that was left of the unfortunate Tistet Védène!
Much of the charm of "The Pope's Mule" comes from the apparent artlessness of Daudet's narrative method. It is, of course, an impression created by considerable art of an unorthodox nature. Daudet described his style as littérature debout (literature standing up), by which he meant to indicate that his writing sought to find a literary approximation to the methods of oral narrative. Daudet was himself an accomplished storyteller among his friends and acquaintances, and it is the essential achievement of "The Pope's Mule" that the reader, too, is made to feel that he or she is sitting in the charmed circle of the storyteller.