Napoleon, Stories, and the Arts

Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons
Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons

If anyone ever tries to tell you that stories don’t matter or that the arts aren’t important, point them at Napoleon Bonaparte.

During his meteoric rise from republican army officer to ruler of France, Napoleon was always telling a story. It was the story of his triumphs.

He sent reports home from campaign before anyone else could, portraying his actions in the best possible light. He commissioned pamphlets and paintings. He made sure that everybody knew that he was the best. His campaign in Egypt was a disaster in which he ended up leaving his battered army behind, but he spun it as a triumph. This was a large part of how he gained power.

As First Consul and later Emperor, Napoleon continued this trend. He backed newspapers. He sponsored art competitions. He filled the salons of Paris with depictions of his greatness, tying France’s successes firmly to his own. Many of the most famous paintings of the period were commissioned by him, and they all make him look triumphant. Even as he over-stretched and a foreign coalition closed in, France believed in him.

You could say similar things about Donald Trump. Despite bankruptcies and court cases, he has told a story of himself as a success. Enough people believe it to make him president of the USA.

Stories matter. Art matters. They shape the way we view the world.

Just ask Napoleon.

Counting the Spoils – a #FlashFriday story

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David

“I don’t get it.” Fred dipped his pen in the inkwell, made a note of the jewel-encrusted sword. It glowed even in the shadows, one more magical trinket in Europe’s strangest treasure trove. “Why didn’t Napoleon take all this with him? Or hide it and send someone back later? I know he’s a prisoner, but he’s got a whole island to keep it in.”

“Simple, mon ami.” Jean-Luc set the sword back on its shelf and picked up the next item, a simple jar covered in Arabic writing. He blew dust from the top and then frowned as it settled on his tailcoat. “The Emperor expected to win. Who could have foreseen Waterloo, eh?”

Fred set aside his pen, shook out the cramp from his wrist. Logging all the treasures in this isolated hunting lodge was tedious work. He’d rather be outside taking in the fine weather and the French countryside.

Jean-Luc twisted the lid from the pot. There was a crack of breaking wax seals, previously hidden by the dust. The two clerks glanced at one another nervously. Even the lowliest item here was worth a fortune. That was why there were soldiers outside, and why an inventory was needed – so that the heads of Europe could share out the emperor’s magical hoard. If he and Jean-Luc broke something they’d be in a world of trouble.

“It’s alright,” Fred said. “No-one need ever-“

The lid shot off the pot and a stream of fire burst out, coalescing into a glowing figure half the height of a man.

Jean-Luc yelped in pain as the pot glowed red hot. He dropped it and it shattered on the floor.

The creature giggled and dashed off down the room, leaving a trail of smoking footprints on the floorboards.

“A djinn!” Jean-Luc exclaimed in pain and wonder.

“Quick, catch it!” Fred rushed after the creature. He grabbed it as it made for the door, then jerked back in pain as flaming flesh seared his hands. As he stumbled back he knocked a head-shaped mirror and it crashed to the floor, ghostly figures of noblemen emerging from the shattered remains.

“We need something to trap it,” Jean-Luc said as he emerged from between the shelves, catching the djinn between them in a corner.

Fred glanced around. To his right was a crate, its side branded in French and Russian.

“Here.” He grabbed it, relieved to find it much lighter than expected. It must already be empty. “I’ll just open-“

“No!” Jean-Luc’s eyes went wide as he saw the writing.

It was too late. Fred had cracked open the lid, which now burst off. An icy wind blasted forth, frost forming on everything it touched. It rushed up the chimney and blew open the window shutters as it kept coming, an endless stream of cold.

Fred dropped the box as ice started to cover his hands.

“Russian winter!” Jean-Luc shouted over the howling wind. “Napoleon’s sorcerers must have captured it, a souvenir of his greatest failure.”

Outside the windows the sky was darkening, snow fluttering out of what had been a beautiful spring day.

“We are in so much trouble,” Fred said, staring dumbfounded as winter fell both indoors and out.

“I can help,” a tiny voice said.

They turned to see the djinn looking at them from its corner.

“Let me go and I’ll burn this place down,” it said.

“How’s that helping?” Fred snapped in frustration.

“You think you’ll be in trouble for breaking a few treasures?” the djinn said. “Think how much worse it will be if they find out you broke summer for everyone.”  It kicked at the fallen box. “I can burn all the evidence faster than anyone can put the flames out. You say some coals fell from the fire, the place burnt down, everything was lost – mirrors, boxes, the lot. Not your fault.”

Fred looked at Jean-Luc, could see his colleague making the same calculation. Could they get away with this? Could it get any worse?

Probably not.

Two minutes later they ran out of the building, smoke trailing behind them.

“Fire!” Fred screamed at the red-coated sentries huddling against the sudden cold.

“Fire!” Jean-Luc echoed, as the roof creaked and fell inward in a shower of sparks.

Just for a moment, a tiny figured danced in the flames, then disappeared on the freezing wind.

The djinn was gone, along with the evidence of their failure. Fred could only hope people believed it was an accident.

The soldiers grabbed buckets of water in a futile attempt to quench the magically-powered flames. Fred turned to Jean-Luc.

“Was this a good idea?” he asked.

Jean-Luc shrugged.

“Did you have a better one?”

Fred shook his head and pulled his collar up around his ears, as around him the snow fell.

 

*

This story was suggested by Russell Phillips after I told him about the Year Without a Summer. I hope I’ve done it justice.

If you liked this then you might also want to check out my collection of fantasy short stories, By Sword, Stave or Stylus, and you can also read my other flash Friday stories here. Fell free to come back next week for more of the same, and to leave ideas for stories in the comments below.

 

Photo by Sarah Stierch via Flickr creative commons.