fifteenth part


Victorian Archetypal Heroes and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

by Jess Nevins

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Jess Nevins is a reference librarian. His annotations of the "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen", found at http://www.geocities.com/ratmmjess/league1.html, were praised in the pages of "Spin Magazine" by Alan Moore himself.

Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a very entertaining satire of Victorian-era adventure fiction. Moore also knowingly uses Victorian archetypes; three of the members of the League and their arch-enemy represent archetypes of Victorian-era adventure fiction.





And the Rest


The first archetype is embodied in Allan Quatermain, who first appeared in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines in 1885 and went on to star in several sequels and prequels. The book has never been out of print, and was immediately popular, selling over 50,000 copies--a quite respectable number, for the time–in America and England in two years. King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel, Allan Quatermain, were enormously influential, spawning hundreds of imitations. But the influence of Haggard and of the Quatermain figure went beyond simple attempts to duplicate the Lost Race milieu, what David Pringle calls "lost, forgotten or deliberately hidden civilizations occupying undersea or underground realms or hidden valleys, or some other forbidden enclave on or beneath our Earth." (Pringle, Encyclopedia of Fantasy, page 594). Haggard’s creation continues to be influential in popular literature and film today.

As David Pringle has pointed out, Haggard’s influence on modern literature and writers is two-fold. The first type of influence comes through the Lost Race/Lost World genre. Much of Haggard’s work with Quatermain involves Quatermain adventuring in African Lost Worlds. What must be remembered about Haggard is that the Lost Race/Lost World genre did not exist as a genre before King Solomon’s Mines. There were certainly many earlier works with unknown lands and races, but the genre as a whole did not develop until after the real world was fully explored and mapped. In this respect the Lost World/Lost Race genre only truly begins in the late 19th century, with King Solomon’s Mines being the first of its kind. (Pringle, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, page 594)

King Solomon’s Mines’ popularity and the subsequent demands for sequels and similar books not only helped Haggard prosper as a writer but also gave rise to a flourishing industry of Lost World writers. These imitators were numerous in the late 1880s and 1890s, including such overt "homages" as John De Morgan’s King Solomon’s Treasures, Andrew Lang’s He, and King Solomon’s Wives by Henry Biron. However, the reading public’s taste for Lost Race/Lost World stories did not significantly diminish in the decades to come. Writers as diverse as Edgar Rice Burroughs with his Tarzan novels and Arthur Conan Doyle with Professor Challenger and The Lost World (1912) produced Lost World stories. Even today Lost World/Lost Race stories are still being written, as with Michael Crichton’s Congo, written in 1980 and filmed in 1995. Likewise, subgenres as various as, in Pringle’s words, "tales of forbidden enclaves, Ruritanias, planetary romance, prehistoric neverworlds, fantasy-lands accessed by `portals,’ etc" all derive in large part from the Lost World/Lost Race form which Haggard created. (Pringle, e-mail)

The second and larger influence of Haggard and Quatermain lies in fantasy and adventure literature. Several of the most influential twentieth-century authors of fantasy fiction, including Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, read Haggard and were greatly influenced by him. Haggard’s influence on Burroughs, A. Merritt, and Howard is marked, and those three were models for writers of American pulp-style fantasy, as well as sword-and-sorcery, which Haggard, via Eric Brighteyes (1891) with its retelling of the Norse sagas, also prefigured. Haggard, both through his Lost World/Lost Race and through his historical novels and colonial romances, influenced many of the adventure writers who penned stories for American and British pulps, authors as various as Harold Lamb, Talbot Munday, and Arthur O. Friel.

Haggard was also read by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien where his influence is also visible in these authors’ plot and descriptive passages. Through them Haggard’s Quatermain has influenced what Pringle calls the "British `scholarly’ stream of fantasy," (Pringle, e-mail) which remains dominant in the fantasy genre.

Quatermain himself, the Great White Hunter, the single character most people remember from Haggard, is representative of all that Haggard established and influenced. As Haggard’s lead character, he stands in for Haggard in League, and represents all that Haggard did. [up]


Likewise, Mina Murray is, in her own way, something of an archetype. Her original appearance was as Mina Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). The character of Mina Harker in Dracula is somewhat at odds with the character of Mina Murray in League. In part this is because of the way in which Mina has changed, in the world of League, since the events of Dracula. But, coincidentally or deliberately, Alan Moore’s Mina Harker is in many ways similar to a large number of female characters in late-Victorian-era genre fiction and is in large part an archetypal Victorian genre heroine.

Despite the popular stereotypes of the Victorian era, women in England were presented with a variety of role models to emulate. Clerical, medical, sociological, and political spokesmen, all the mouthpieces of high culture, stressed the sanctity of marriage, family, duty, chastity, modesty, and other attributes that we today think of as stereotypically Victorian. But as Michael Harrison, in Fanfare of Strumpets (1971), and Peter Gay, in his five-volume "The Bourgeois Experience, Victoria to Freud" series, point out, there were a varied number and kind of female figures on which women could and did model themselves. There were, of course, the morally upright, prudish figures, of whom Queen Victoria (in the popular imagination) might be seen as the exemplar.

But there were others who were not so confined to the morality of the upper classes and who not only acted independently but flaunted their unconventional lifestyle. Gay details how men and women of all classes were much less bound by romantic and sexual restrictions than is popularly thought. Harrison demonstrates how after 1860, kept women, courtesans, demi-mondaines, the Grand Horizontales, the Great Strumpets--whichever term one chooses to describe the women of the Victorian age who accepted money from their lovers in exchange for company and physical affection--were not only not socially ostracized by Victorian high society, but they were accepted into the most exclusive parties and occasions, idolized by many young women and watched with admiration by both mothers and daughters. A large number of women went so far as to copy their fashions and dress their children in modified versions of the most characteristic styles of the demi-mondaines. (Harrison, page 101)

Society, high and low, was under no illusion as to what these women did but did not condemn them for their actions. Rather, they were seen as daringly unconventional as well as the living embodiments of a female fantasy: wealthy, able to speak their minds without fear of social punishment, and free to indulge in various pleasures whenever they chose while not being tied down with children, poverty, or a restrictive, soul-deadening marriage. These women were, likewise, able to travel when they wanted, were socially influential, and routinely engaged in activities such as riding and training horses which had previously been seen as the province of men alone.

This was reflected in a surprisingly large amount of adventure and detective/mystery fiction where the heroines, or female love interests or adversaries of the central hero were significantly more independent and less subservient than modern readers would imagine of a Victorian-era fictional heroine. Leaving aside the penny dreadful heroines, of whom there were many, there were a number of heroines who did not fit the conventional stereotype. The first professional female detective--that is, one employed as a professional investigator and crime solver--was "L_____" (her name is never given), who appeared in William Burton’s "The Secret Cell," in 1837, predating even Poe’s Dupin, who first appeared in 1841. The first British novel to feature a female detective was William S. Hayward’s Revelations of a Lady Detective from 1861, 26 years before Doyle debuted Sherlock Holmes. By comparison, the first really notable male detectives in English fiction were Inspector Bucket in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, (1853), Hawkshaw in Tom Taylor’s The Ticket-of-Leave Man (1863), and Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone (1868). While few of these women were as assertive and abrasive as Moore’s Mina Murray, they were all independent and self-sufficient, and some, like Fergusson Wright Hume’s excellent Hagar Stanley and Grant Allen’s Lois Cayley, were as cool, self-possessed, and tough as Mina.

Adventure fiction, too, had enough female characters who were much closer to the willful and independent Grand Strumpets of British reality than to the weaker milquetoasts of didactic literature. Most notable is Irene Adler, The Woman to Sherlock Holmes, who appeared in 1891's "A Scandal in Bohemia." Adler is, of course, a match for Holmes. Adler is clever, an "adventuress" (and any Victorian would have known what that meant), and quick on her feet. Adler, in fact, cannot be classified as anything except a demi-mondaine, as witness her unmarried relationship with the King of Bohemia. Yet Adler is not presented as an outright villain in the Doyle story but rather as someone to be respected and almost admired, as Holmes does at the story’s end.

If I have spent a significant space on Mina Murray and her Victorian counterparts, it is because the stereotype of how the Victorians saw women, as the prim, demure, soft-spoken, chaste, delicate shrinking violet, is the most common and therefore requires the most space to overcome. In Dracula Mina Harker is not as openly independent as Irene Adler or Lois Cayley or any of the others mentioned. But she is no weak sister and is present at the story’s end for Count Dracula’s defeat. In her incarnation as Mina Murray in League, she is most like these independent female adventurers and detectives. Mina Murray is not so much archetypal in the sense of having set the character type; she is archetypal in representing so many of the characteristics of the character type. [up]


Captain Nemo comes from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), and has always been memorable enough for his name to evoke very specific memories, even if they are of James Mason rather than the Indian Verne always intended Nemo to be. But on a deeper level Verne, in the character of Nemo, created an archetype that later writers followed, to greater and lesser degrees, but which, through its longevity and the originality of its concept, has always been influential. Nemo was the archetypal Man With The Machine (TMWTM), the inventor/engineer character who created scientifically advanced machines and used them on their adventures. In his French Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Pulp Fiction Jean-Marc Lofficier describes Nemo in terms which apply to a certain extent to The Man With The Machine archetype:

He is a Byronesque figure: a brilliant scientist, an adventurer, a loner who exists beyond the reaches of man’s society, a law unto himself, like Dumas’ Count of Monte-Cristo, a man so wronged that he committed unspeakable deeds in the name of revenge. Nemo was an avenger who stood for freedom and justice. He was almost an anarchist, a modern anti-hero. (Lofficier, page 338)

Objections immediately rise to this claim. Weren’t there already science fictional characters who fit this description? Yes, but not like Nemo, neither in terms of their fame or literary and cultural influence. As Lofficier points out, isn’t the Nemo character merely an extension of the Byron/Count of Monte-Cristo? To a certain extent, yes, but the Nemo character, unlike the Byronic or Monte-Cristo archetypes, operates in science fictional settings as well as engages the world far more directly than the Byronic character, whose weltschmertz is more important than the idea of changing the world, or the Monte-Cristo character, for whom personal vengeance supercedes other ideals. (Nemo’s vengeance is against the entire world, unlike Monte-Cristo’s, which is quite personal and directed at a handful of individuals.) The Nemo character, the Man With The Machine, is a development of the Byron/Count of Monte-Cristo archetype, not an extension of it.

There are two primary strains of science fiction which involve TMWTM characters. The first is what has been called Techno-fantasy or Science Fantasy, in which the Machine replaces the Magic Item (sword, ring, amulet, etc.) of fantasy stories. The Machine is the object which allows the hero to do whatever he wills--and the protagonist is almost always a male--and the explanation for The Machine’s operation and existence is "It’s Scientific!" in much the same way that a magic sword is understood to be sharper and harder than ordinary swords because "It’s Magical!" Much of mass-media science fiction, including Star Wars and Star Trek, and virtually all modern superhero comics fall into this category, regardless of the lengths to which their creators go to justify the Techno-fantasies by means of pseudo-scientific jargon.

The second type of science fiction in which TMWTM appears is what has become known as "hard science fiction," that is, science fiction which is based on either established or reasonably extrapolated science and scientific principles. In hard science fiction faster than light travel is not possible, or takes place only through verifiable scientific phenomenon such as wormholes. In hard science fiction, travel between planets takes place at speeds slower than light. A significant proportion of modern science fiction is hard, but in the mass media it is rare and in comic books nearly non-existent.

During the Victorian era this dichotomy was most prominently seen in H.G. Wells, whose work usually qualified as Techno-fantasy, and Jules Verne, who was far more scrupulous in his use of science. (The pair were aware of their differing styles, with Verne speaking scornfully of what he saw as Wells’ lack of scientific credibility).

In terms of The Man With The Machine, the Techno-fantasy TMWTM predates even Verne. In 1868 Edward S. Ellis, in the dime novel Beadle’s American Novel #45, created the character of Johnny Brainerd, in "The Huge Hunter, or the Steam Man of the Prairies." Brainerd was a young hunch-backed dwarf who created a man-shaped steam engine and used it to adventure in the American frontier. Attempts to describe the steam engine in realistic terms were made, but the net effect of "The Huge Hunter" was of a Techno-fantasy machine.

Brainerd was the first Edisonade. An Edisonade was a boy inventor who used a machine, usually some kind of ship, to transport himself to the Western frontier and make his fortune by "civilizing" it, usually by slaughtering great numbers of natives. The Edisonade was one of the most popular of the dime novel forms, and Edisonade characters such as Frank Reade, Jr., Tom Edison, Jr., and Electric Bob appeared in the dime novels through the 1890s. After the heyday of the Edisonades ended, the figure of the brilliant if eccentric inventor whose creations were powerful weapons and vehicles remained, sometimes as comic characters, as in Clement Fezandie’s "Doctor Hackensaw" stories, but more often as heroic Thomas Edison types. The coming of the "space opera," what Brian Stapleford describes as "colourful action-adventure stories of interplanetary or interstellar conflict," brought the figure of the Edisonade into a new context, that of outer space. In each case The Man With The Machine, the Edisonade, made use of machines whose workings were only lightly justified, if at all, by actual science.

The hard science fiction Man With The Machine began with Captain Nemo, whose ship, the Nautilus, was described in great detail and at great length, with Verne ascribing its marvels to electricity in very realistic and plausible terms. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea was published in France in 1870; the first British translation was published in 1872, with an American translation following in 1873. Its influence was marked; Luis Senarens, the creator of Frank Reade, Jr. and one of the most influential dime novel authors, read Verne’s work and praised him for it, in turn receiving a letter of praise from Verne himself. (This led to both authors using concepts that first appeared in the other’s work.) Many of the protagonists of Verne’s later works, including Robur the Conqueror from The Clipper of the Clouds (1887), are Men With The Machine variations on Nemo. Thinly veiled copies of Nemo proliferated following the British publication of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, with two of the most blatant being Bracebridge Hemyng’s "Captain Nemo," in "Dick Lightheart; or, the Scapegrace at Sea," published in Young Men of Great Britain in 1873, and Edward Stratemeyer’s "Captain Vindex," in "The Wizard of the Deep; or, the Search for the Million Dollar Pearl," in 1895. Captain Mors, a character who appeared in 165 issues of a German dime novel, Der Luftpirat und sein Lenkbares Luftschiff (1908-1911) and who is mentioned in League, was another Man With The Machine whose adventures took him into space, anticipating the space opera genre.

Captain Nemo is the archetypal Man With The Machine. [up]


The Insidious Doctor Fu Manchu was the creation of "Sax Rohmer" a.k.a. Arthur Sarsfield Ward, and first appeared in The Mystery of Fu Manchu (1913: American title, The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu), with numerous appearances following over the next few decades. Fu Manchu is in many respects the Yellow Peril archetype. Fu Manchu admittedly was not the first Yellow Peril stereotype, nor was he even a Victorian character. But, as we shall see, Fu Manchu was the high point for the Yellow Peril stereotype, and the versions which followed were mostly modeled, consciously or unconsciously, on him.

The Sinister Oriental, or Yellow Peril, stereotype begins in the 19th century. Through much of the early and middle part of the century Asians, when they appeared in British and American fiction, were stereotyped either as lust-crazed, savage, opium-addicts or as simple, sentimental peasants. It was only in the 1890s that the idea of an evil Asian mastermind, one capable of threatening not just one man but an entire nation or the world itself, began to appear in Western fiction.

The first true Yellow Peril figure was Kiang Ho, who appeared in "Tom Edison Jr.’s Electric Sea Spider, or, The Wizard of the Submarine World," in the dime novel Nugget Library in 1892. "Tom Edison Jr.’s Electric Sea Spider" was credited to "Philip Reade," but "Reade" was a house name for Street and Smith, and so Kiang Ho’s true creator may never be known. Kiang Ho, either Mongolian or Chinese--the text refers to him as both--is a warlord and pirate who controls a port in China and prowls the seas, leading a fleet of ships (and a super-submarine) and sinking everything in sight. Kiang Ho is also Harvard-educated and more literate and articulate than one would expect. He is eventually defeated and killed by Tom Edison, Jr., but for most of the story poses a significant threat.

Dr. Yen How, a character from M.P. Shiel’s The Yellow Danger (1898), is the first Yellow Peril figure to appear in British fiction. Shiel, who is today best remembered for his languid, drug-taking Decadent detective Prince Zaleski, was from Montserrat and was not purely White but tried to hide his ethnic background and, perhaps as overcompensation, took on several of bigotries common to the era, especially against Jews and Asians. Dr. Yen How is one example of Shiel’s bigotry. He is a half-Japanese, half-Chinese warlord who connives his way to power in China, unites China and Japan, manipulates the European Great Powers into warring with each other, and then unleashes the armies of Japan and China on the West. Naturally, Dr. Yen How is eventually defeated but through the course of the novel he is presented as a very worthy opponent for the doughty White hero. In 1896 Robert Chambers published a series of stories in The Maker of Moons about a Chinese sorcerer and emperor named Yue-Laou, but entertaining and Yellow Peril-ish though Yue-Laou is, he belongs in the horror fiction tradition rather than mystery and adventure; through previous decades similar evil magician characters, usually depicted as Italian or Egyptian, had appeared. Too, Yue-Laou threatens the world through sorcery rather than through criminal or military means.

Between Yen How and Fu Manchu the only significant Yellow Peril character was Quong Lung, who appears in Dr. C.W. Doyle’s The Shadow of Quong Lung (1900). Quong Lung is a merciless crime lord and the evil ruler of San Francisco’s Chinatown. He is also a Yale graduate and a "barrister of London’s Inner Temple." Quong Lung, however, has no higher aims than to rule the underworld of San Francisco, and so is not in the same league as Yen How or Fu Manchu.

Neither Kiang Ho nor Yen How started the craze of Yellow Peril characters, however. It was Fu Manchu himself who did that, and Kiang Ho and Yen How must be seen as forerunners rather than influences. It is true that Fu Manchu did not spring from nowhere. Interest (mostly racially biased) in China and the Chinese developed in America and the United Kingdom following the Boxer Rebellion in China (1900), and during the Edwardian years there was an enthusiasm among British readers for tales set in London’s Limehouse district, as seen in Thomas Burke’s excellent "Quong Lee" stories. (Not coincidentally, Quong Lee also appears briefly in League.) But Fu Manchu was immediately popular and spawned numerous imitators, characters who did not exist before The Insidious Doctor came along.

A short list of Fu Manchu-styled and -modeled characters will indicate the breadth of influence of the character:

Gustave LeRouge’s Dr. Cornelius Kramm, from the 18 Le Mystérieux Docteur Cornélius, beginning in 1913; Li Ku Yu, M.P. Shiel’s reprise of Dr. Yen How, in "To Arms!" (1913), later published as The Dragon and The Yellow Peril; Wu Fang, from the Exploits of Elaine serial in 1914; Sax Rohmer’s Mr. King and the Golden Scorpion (the latter an agent of Fu Manchu himself), from the "Gaston Max" stories beginning in 1915; the enemy in the serial Neal of the Navy, in 1915; Jean de la Hire’s Leonid Zattan, from the French "Nyctalope" series of novels, beginning in 1915; Wu, from the 1916 comic strip "Captain Gardiner of the International Police;" the Silent Menace, from the 1916 serial Pearl of the Army; Ali Singh, from the 1916 serial The Yellow Menace; H. Irving Hancock’s Li Shoon, from Detective Story Magazine in 1916 and 1917; A.E. Apple’s Mr. Chang, from 33 stories and two collections, beginning in Detective Story in 1919; Ssu Hsi Tze, the "Ruler of Vermin" from "The Spider" novels, in the mid-1930s; Wu Fang, from the serial Ransom, in 1928; Ming the Merciless, from Flash Gordon, beginning in 1929; Kong Gai and the Nameless One, from Sidney Herschell Small’s "Sgt. Jimmy Wentworth" stories in Detective Fiction Weekly beginning in 1931; Botak, from the 1932-1933 radio serial "The Orange Lantern;" Wu Fang, from Norman Marsh’s Dan Dunn comic strip; Carl Zaken, "The Black Doctor," and Chang Ch’ien, from T.T. Flynn’s "Valentine Easton" stories in Dime Detective in 1933 and 1934; Wo Fan, in Bedford Rohmer’s "Wo Fan" stories in New Mystery Adventures in 1935 and 1936; Wu Fang, in Robert Hogan’s The Mysterious Wu Fang from in 1935 and 1936; Doctor Yen Sin, in Donald Keyhoe’s Dr. Yen Sin in 1936; The Griffin, from J. Allen Dunn’s stories in Detective Fiction Weekly in the late 1930s; and Pao Tcheou, specifically identified as a cousin of Fu Manchu, from Edward Brooker’s French "Le Maitre de L’Invisible" novels beginning in 1939.

And so on, through the 1970s, with the hilarious moment in James Blish’s The Day After Judgment (1971) when Satan is mistaken for Fu Manchu, and into the 1990s, where Hark, in Warren Ellis’ Planetary, is a member of a pantheon of pulp immortals.

While Fu Manchu is not the first of the Yellow Peril characters, he was historically the most important of them, so much so that the stereotype came to be named after him. [up]

And the Rest

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Griffin, the Invisible Man, do not individually represent archetypes of Victorian literature.

Dr. Henry Jekyll and his horrific alter ego "Mr. Henry Hyde" were familiar figures to readers in the late Victorian years and afterwards, and today the phrase "Jekyll and Hyde" has entered common parlance and become a cliche. In this sense Jekyll and Hyde are archetypal; when thinking of the phenomenon, one thinks of the original. However, the number of truly Jekyll-and-Hyde characters in literature are few, and in this sense Jekyll and Hyde have not been influential. The most prominent example is Marvel Comics’ The Hulk, Dr. Bruce Banner in his calm, human state, but when he is enraged becomes the Incredible Hulk, a green-skinned monstrosity of enormous size and strength. But there are few other examples to be found, and Jekyll and Hyde’s influence remains psychological and linguistic rather than literary.

As for the Invisible Man, he does not even achieve that level of influence. While the original story is memorable, and the notion of invisibility used for good or evil purposes a lingeringly interesting one, as seen in various superhero comics, television series, and movies, the figure of Griffin was not influential and did not spawn imitators. As a type Griffin is essentially a monster, a man who has gained superhuman powers and uses them for evil ends. In this Griffin is little different from various other figures from Victorian-era literature, such as J. Cobben’s Master of His Fate, which featured James Courtney, a man who had the ability to drain the life force from others and who used this ability to sustain his own youth.

Moore’s choice of these six characters may have been simply a decision to use six very different characters to produce an entertaining narrative. It might also have been a knowing choice to make use of these Victorian archetypes as a way to invoke and make use of their symbolic and cultural capital. Either way, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is the richer for his choice. [up]


Briney, Robert. "Sinister Orientals." The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection. 1976.

Clute, John, and John Grant. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. 1997.

Haggard, Lilias Rider. The Cloak I Left. 1951.

Harrison, Michael. Fanfare of Strumpets. 1971.

Lofficier, Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier. French Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Pulp Fiction. 2000.

Nevins, John. A Page of Fantastic, Mysterious, and Adventurous Victoriana. 1999. http://ratmmjess.tripod.com/vicintro.html

Nichols, Victoria, and Susan Thompson. Silk Stalkings: When Women Write of Murder. 1988.

Pringle, David. E-mail to Fictionmags mailing list. February 26 & 27, 2001.

Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. An Annotated Bibliography of H. Rider Haggard's Fantasies in 1st Editions, Alphabetically Arranged. 2000. http://www.violetbooks.com/haggard?bib.html

A Meditation on Lost Race Literature With Special Reference to the Works of H. Rider Haggard. 1998. http://www.violetbooks.com/lostrace.html


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[january 2002]

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