Saturday, September 4, 2010

Poe's Dwarf: Hop-Frog Murders His Abusive Boss

Illustrations by Arthur Rackham

"Hop-Frog" (originally "Hop-Frog; Or, the Eight Chained Ourangoutangs") is a short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1849. The title character, a dwarf taken from his homeland, becomes the jester of a king particularly fond of practical jokes. Taking revenge on the king and his cabinet for striking his friend and fellow dwarf Trippetta, he dresses them as orangutans for a masquerade. In front of the king's guests, Hop-Frog murders them all by setting their costumes on fire before escaping with Trippetta.

Critical analysis has suggested that Poe wrote the story as a form of literary revenge against a woman named Elizabeth F. Ellet and her circle.

Plot summary


The court jester Hop-Frog, "being also a dwarf and a cripple," is the much-abused "fool" of the unnamed king. This king has an insatiable sense of humor; "he seemed to live only for joking." Both Hop-Frog and his best friend, the dancer Trippetta (also small, but beautiful and well proportioned), have been stolen from their homeland and are essentially slaves. Because of his physical deformity, which prevents him from walking upright, the King nicknames him "Hop-Frog."

Hop-Frog reacts severely to alcohol, and though the king knows this, he forces Hop-Frog to consume several goblets full. Trippetta begs the king to stop and, in front of seven members of his cabinet council, he strikes her and throws another goblet of wine into her face. The powerful men laugh at the expense of their two servants and ask Hop-Frog (who has very suddenly sobered up and become cheerful) for advice on an upcoming masquerade. He suggests some very realistic costumes for the men: costumes of orangutans chained together. The men love the idea of scaring their guests and agree to wear tight-fitting shirts and pants, which are saturated with tar and covered with flax. In full costume, the men are then chained together and led into the "grand saloon" of masqueraders just after midnight.

As predicted, the guests are shocked and many believe the men to be real "beasts of some kind in reality, if not precisely ourang-outangs." Many rush for the doors to escape but Hop-Frog has insisted the doors be locked and the keys given to him. Amidst the chaos, Hop-Frog attaches a chain from the ceiling to the chain linked around the men in costume. The chain then pulls them up via pulley (presumably by Trippetta, who had arranged the room so) far above the crowd. Hop-Frog puts on a spectacle so that the guests presume "the whole matter as a well-contrived pleasantry." He claims he can identify the culprits by looking at them up close. He climbs up to their level, and holds a torch close to the men's faces. They quickly catch fire: "In less than half a minute the whole eight ourang-outangs were blazing fiercely, amid the shrieks of the multitude who gazed at them from below, horror-stricken, and without the power to render them the slightest assistance." Finally, before escaping through a sky-light with Trippetta to their home country, Hop-Frog identifies the men in costume:

I now see distinctly... what manner of people these maskers are. They are a great king and his seven privy-councillors - a king who does not scruple to strike a defenceless girl, and his seven councillors who abet him in the outrage. As for myself, I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester - and this is my last jest.


The story can be categorized as one of Poe's revenge tales, along with "The Cask of Amontillado." Just as in that story, the murderer seems to get away without punishment for his deeds. While the victim in "The Cask of Amontillado" wears motley, in "Hop-Frog," the murderer is wearing it.

The story uses the grating of Hop-Frog's teeth as a symbolic element, just before he comes up with his plan for revenge and again just after executing it. Poe often used teeth as a sign of mortality, as in lips writhing about the teeth of the mesmerized man in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" and in the obsession over teeth in "Berenice."[1]

Just as "The Cask of Amontillado" represents Poe's attempt at literary revenge on a personal enemy,[2] "Hop-Frog" may have had similar motivations. As Poe had been pursuing relationships with Sarah Helen Whitman and Annie Richmond (either romantic or platonic is uncertain), members of the New York City literary circle spread gossip and incited scandal about alleged improprieties. At the center of it was a woman named Elizabeth F. Ellet, whose affections Poe had previously scorned. Ellet may be represented by the king himself, his seven councilors representing Margaret Fuller, Hiram Fuller (no relation), Thomas Dunn English, Anne Lynch Botta, Anna Blackwell, Ermina Jane Locke and her husband.[3]

The tale, written toward the end of Poe's life, was somewhat autobiographical in other ways. The jester Hop-Frog, like Poe, was "kidnapped from home and presented to the king" (his wealthy foster father John Allan), "bearing a name not given in baptism but 'conferred upon him'... and susceptible to wine... when insulted and forced to drink becomes insane with rage."[4] Like Hop-Frog, Poe was bothered by those who urged him to drink, despite a single glass of wine making him drunk.[5]

Poe may also have based the story on an historical event, the Bal des Ardents, at the court of Charles VI of France in January 1393. At the suggestion of a Norman squire, the king and five others dress as satyrs in highly flammable costumes made with pitch and flax.[5] Four of the men died in the fire; Charles was saved.

Citing Barbara Tuchman as his source, Jack Morgan, of the University of Missouri-Rolla and author of The Biology of Horror, discusses the Bal des Aredents incident as a possible inspiration for "Hop-Frog". The incident occurred in the fourteenth century, Morgan observes, "at a masquerade ball," during which "the king and his frivilous party, costumed - in highly flammable materials - as simian creatures, were ignited by a flambeau and incincerated, the King narrowly escaping in the actual case."

"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" also concerns an orangutan, although in that story an actual one.

Publication history

The tale first appeared in the March 17, 1849 edition of The Flag of Our Union, a Boston-based newspaper. It originally carried the full title "Hop Frog; Or, The Eight Chained Ourangoutangs." In a letter to friend Nancy Richmond, Poe wrote: "The 5 prose pages I finished yesterday are called - what do you think? - I am sure you will never guess - Hop-Frog! Only think of your Eddy writing a story with such a name as 'Hop-Frog'!"[6] He explained that, though The Flag of Our Union was not a respectable journal "in a literary point of view," it paid very well.[6]


French director Henry Desfontaines made the earliest film adaptation of "Hop-Frog" in 1910.
James Ensor made an 1898 etching, Hop-Frog's Revenge, based on the story.
A 1926 symphony by Eugene Cools was inspired by and named after Hop-Frog.
A plot similar to "Hop-Frog" was used as a side plot in Roger Corman's The Masque of the Red Death (1964) starring Vincent Price as "Prince Prospero." Hop-Frog (called Hop-Toad in the film) is played by the actor Skip Martin who was a 'little person,' but his wife Trippetta is played by a child overdubbed with an older woman's voice.
In 1992, Julie Taymor directed a short film entitled Fool's Fire adapted from "Hop-Frog." Michael J. Anderson of Twin Peaks fame starred as "Hop-Frog" and Mireille Mosse as "Trippetta," with Tom Hewitt as "The King." The film aired on PBS's "American Playhouse" and depicts all characters being dressed in masks and costumes (designed by Taymor) while only the faces of Hop-Frog and Trippetta revealed. Poe's poems "The Bells" and "A Dream Within A Dream" are also used as part of the story.
A radio-drama production of "Hop-Frog" was broadcast in 1998 in the Radio Tales series on National Public Radio. The story was performed by Winifred Phillips and included music composed by her.
The story features as part of Lou Reed's 2003 double album The Raven. One of the tracks is a song called "Hop-Frog" sung by David Bowie.


1.^ Kennedy, J. Gerald. Poe, Death, and the Life of Writing. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987. ISBN 0300037732 p. 79
2.^ Rust, Richard D. "Punish with Impunity: Poe, Thomas Dunn English and 'The Cask of Amontillado'" in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Vol. II, Issue 2 - Fall, 2001, St. Joseph's University.
3.^ Benton, Richard P. "Friends and Enemies: Women in the Life of Edgar Allan Poe" as collected in Myths and Reality: The Mysterious Mr. Poe. Baltimore: Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1987. p. 16
4.^ Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. Harper Perennial, 1991. p. 407.
5.^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. p. 595. ISBN 0801857309
6.^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. p. 594. ISBN 0801857309

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