15 August 2012

My Date with Napoleon

"Even when I am gone, I shall remain in people's minds the star of their rights, 
my name will be the war cry of their efforts, the motto of their hopes."
--Napoleon Bonaparte

Altered Portrait of General Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon by David, Alterations by ~runningwave~ 

The Paris of my dreams swirled into view like a ferris wheel of bright and airy hues. The Effiel Tower seen over broad boulevards with bustling passersby appeared just as it might look in a painting by The Impressionsts.

On that day in 1987, the autumn of my eighteenth year, I felt the dark clouds internally, deeply, as I wandered through the grey, damp air of the real life Paris.

Here was I in The City of Light, and only just, that weekend because our plane was delayed on the tarmac at the London airport due to fog. But it was My Grand Tour, my freshman year of college which I gleefully spent being an ex-pat. So much to do, to see!

The morning now faded into afternoon as I passed beneath the iron limbs of Eiffel's masterpiece on a stroll through Parc Champ-du-Mars. My mission, to meet L'Empereur, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Corsican General who rose to the height of power in Europe, raised up by his own bootstraps and willing to take on the World. Sometimes -- very often in fact -- Napoleon succeeded.

At last my goal in sight and my green Michelin guidebook tucked under my arm, I walked with purpose towards Les Invalides, the great complex of buildings which houses several museums and Napoleon's Tomb.

Something happened then that I did not expect or plan.

On my way to visit Napoleon, I was spellbound by the glory of the French Army at the Musée de l'Armée. For three hours or more I admired swords, rapiers, sabers, shields, halberdsgrieves, maces, daggers, battle axes, and suits of armor, not to mention pennants, flags, and heraldry. I wandered through the Medieval and Renaissance halls, never making it to the nineteenth century.

How is it that a quiet, young woman from the American Midwest goes to Paris for the first time and spends so long starring at weapons of destruction? 

You might well ask.

As a young girl, the tales of knights in shining armor captivated me. Ever since I could read fairy tales and adventures for myself, these were my favorite stories. I did not always dream of being that damsel awaiting rescue by knights. No, I think I had ambition to be a knight almost as much as I wanted to have one to come and rescue me from my rather mundane existence. 

This was long before the movie Brave or George R. R. Martin had described the character of Arya Stark, but indeed there always have been women who dreamt of being skilled at arms. In my youth I idolized Eowyn of Rohan in the Lord of the Rings for her fearless swordplay. If the plot had action, chases, battle and mayhem, I loved it. I read Greco-Roman and Norse mythology until I knew the gods and heroes moves by heart. 

There were few social networks for geeks, especially female geeks, before the internet and Facebook.  Not surprising then, that in high school I fell in with the crowd who played Dungeons & Dragons on the weekends. I developed characters skilled at warfare and cunning; my weapons of choice varied between magical spells, short swords, and crossbows.  

That afternoon in Paris was a pilgrimage for me of sorts. Alone in my sojourn, I was at last seeing what I had spent years reading about in my quiet corner of the United States: case by case lined with pole arms, blades, and armor. Indeed, one of the finest displays of arms on the European Continent, the vast collection of Les Invalides.

It was somehow fitting that I came to pay my respects to the Emperor of France after acknowledging this impressive array of battle glory (and plunder).  I had not forgotten my purpose, so dutifully I went to the crypt.  The giant, baroque sarcophagus is lifted towards the colorful dome. Just as an emperor might sit high on a dais in life, so Napoleon is raised to the heights in death.

Here was laid to rest a man who dared to be more than his birth dictated. Someone with the courage and self-confidence to dream big and bold dreams, who fought for what he believed was right. He endured the hatred of many aristocrats as he learned to master his skills and even after he became ruler of France. He promoted his officers from the ranks and ensured they were competent soldiers. 

Many scholars still demonize Napoleon for being a war-monger, but my thoughts on him are more complex. I see Napoleon as a man of letters, of strategy and skill, a great mind, who used the arts of diplomacy when he could, but was unafraid to take up arms when necessary. 

I am not a violent person, and I will always attempt to negotiate in my own conflicts, leaving battle only for the last resort. And yet, I agree with Napoleon that there comes a time to fight. And if you must fight, than it should be for the deepest convictions you hold or for the protection of someone or something you love.

If I could really meet Napoleon, I'd want to ask how he kept up his confidence in the face of goals that many might have seen insurmountable.  Although it is my natural inclination and ancestral loyalty to be on the side of England in the Napoleonic Wars, I still can admire this man for who he was and for what one person can accomplish if only he or she is willing to grasp for destiny.  

What might we all accomplish, if we believe we cannot fail?

Vive L'Empereur! Napoleon, I salute your audacity!

Posted this day, 15 August 2012, for L'anniversaire de Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte's Maxims on Character
"He who hazards nothing, gains nothing."

"My motto has always been: A career open to all talents, without distinctions of birth." 

"Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fool."


  1. Fantastic post, Maria. I love your digital collage, it turned out great! And I think this is an appropriate homage to how you view Napoleon. I don't know much about him outside of "common knowledge," but I can understand your fascination.

    I also identify with your love of fairy tales and fantasy. They have always been great loves of mine, and I'm embracing fairy tales more and more as I get older. Sometimes I want to be the damsel, sometimes I want to be the knight, and sometimes I want to be the dragon!

  2. Napoleon is often remembered as a military genius, but his real contributions are in law, education, and administration. He was a progressive force that spread the ideals of the French revolution throughout Europe, and his reforms laid the foundations for modern Europe. He believed in his destiny, and made his dreams come true. My favorite Napoleonic maxim: "Imagination rules the world."

  3. Beautifully-written post, not only for your insight into Napoleon, but also for your life-long love of adventure. Your observation that "I had ambition to be a knight almost as much as I wanted to have one to come and rescue me from my rather mundane existence" would be appreciated by adventurous girls everywhere - those, like me, who were much more drawn to Karana in "The Island of the Blue Dolphins" than Elsie Dinsmore.

  4. What an interesting post and I love your collage - so beautifully and cleverly done. He is a man I know very little about, but while researching my husbands family history (UK - south coast) we found an ancestor who had been baptised in 1853 with the name Napoleon Lambeth, and his middle names were 'the Great'! As the family has no apparent connections with France we were surprised that a child had been named after him - I need to get the history books out!

  5. Thank you, Pocket, Alix, Gipsie, and Diana, for your comments.

    The digital collage is a new medium for me -- although I do have experience with paper and mixed media collage, I am still learning how to do this sucessfully with electronic images. I have to say the Napoleon portrait is one of my best efforts so far. So, thanks to those who sent appreciative words.

    My written text on this topic came first and easily because I remember that day so clearly. I did not know as much about Napoleon in 1987, I just knew he was an Emperor and someone who came to power through his own efforts rather than by birth. The history of his career is even more interesting than I might have guessed at 18 years old. Napoleon truly believed in his own destiny as Alix so beautifully remarked. Most people who become a success through hard work can relate to his ability to not let a closed door stop his personal goals.

    We creative types should all pay attention to this fine example that Napoleon set.

    Thanks for listening and commenting.