An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature

An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature -- Crime and Adventure, Fantasy and Science-Fiction, Horror and Weird

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"The Soul of a Regiment" -- Talbot Mundy (ADVENTURE, February 1912)

Well, readers, this will be my last post until Sunday night.  Tomorrow afternoon my girlfriend's flying into town and I'll be too busy celebrating our anniversary to do much blogging.  But we'll see; she's always been very supportive of my writing and in the past has been more than happy to relax and watch Parks and Rec or nature documentaries while I write.  As is, I'm sure I'll still be reading in the evenings; it remains to be seen whether I'll get ahead on The Big Book of Adventure Stories or pick up something else to read for the weekend, something longer, so I can cover all my reading for the weekend in a single blog post.  I did pick up Geoffrey Household's novel Rogue Male recently, as well as a reprint of The Maltese Falcon.  I've got some Burroughs and E.E. "Doc" Smith on my Kindle as well.  However, speaking of The Big Book of Adventure Stories, we should address today's story.  Talbot Mundy (real name William Lancaster Gribbon; 1879-1940) was an English con-man turned upright citizen after moving to America and being "nearly killed in a mugging"; he turned to writing in 1911, selling his first story, the non-fictional "Pig-Sticking in India" and soon becoming a major contributor to Adventure Magazine and Argosy, creating such iconic stories as King of the Khyber Rifles and the adventures of James "Jimgrim" Grim; today's story, "The Soul of a Regiment," originally appeared in the February 1912 issue of Adventure and can be read here.

Sergeant-Major Billy Grogram has his work cut out for him; he could have retired on a nice pension, but out of familial obligation, he opted to continue his career with the British Army in North Africa, and found himself tasked with training the First Egyptian Foot in the ways of being soldiers of the Crown.  His commanding officers are doubtful, even dismissive of whether such a feat can be performed, but expect Grogram to do it anyways.

And Grogram does his duty and does it well; he trains his men to salute and to march in step, to follow orders and present arms.  He buys fifes and drums and trains them in their use, the better to march to.  And he teaches them about the Colours -- the regimental flag under which they will march, representative of their regiment's honor -- and why they must be revered and treated as sacred by the men who fight under them.

The First Egyptian Foot disappear in the chaos that was the Seige of Khartoum, and are assumed to have died to a man in the fighting.  But rumors persist of a strange white man followed by a group of native musicians, slowly making his way north...

That might be the most spine-straighteningly British thing I've ever read.  I'd mentioned previously, in my post on "The Man Who Would Be King," that I'm fascinated and fond of the Victorian Era; I feel like with this story, Mundy made Kipling look like a slouching American.  Grogram's extreme devotion to duty seems almost parodic -- comparable to Frederic's dedication to duty in The Pirates of Penzance -- as, starving and beaten, he escapes slavery and struggles and begs his way north to lead his regiment (what's left of it) back to British territory, but you know what? It's goddamn bracing, especially the final burst of the story in which every deprivation stamped or carved into Grogram's body by his ordeals is carefully delineated and the reader allowed to wonder over what sufferings he must have endured that we aren't told about.

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