The Phantom Pun-Master of the Opera

Do you know the story of Le Fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux? The book is better known to English speakers as The Phantom of the Opera, and while the musical has made the character far more famous than he might otherwise have been, there are some important differences.

Okay, so Leroux’s phantom is called Erik and sometimes refers to himself in the third person, especially when he gets angry. It makes him sound both crazier and creepier, in my opinion, which is probably the point. He would need more than half a mask to cover his strange appearance:

He is extraordinarily thin and his dress-coat hangs on a skeleton frame. His eyes are so deep that you can hardly see the fixed pupils. You just see two big black holes, as in a dead man’s skull. His skin, which is stretched across his bones like a drumhead, is not white, but a nasty yellow. His nose is so little worth talking about that you can’t see it side-face; and the absence of that nose is a horrible thing to look at. All the hair he has is three or four long dark locks on his forehead and behind his ears.

And he smells like death, and really isn’t a very nice person by the time we meet him.

However, he is quite good at puns even if that doesn’t make it into the English translations of the book let alone into the musical, which I think is a real shame. For example, Erik tells Christine (the heroine of the story) that when she decides whether or not to accept his marriage proposal, she must let him know in rather an odd way:

[H]ere is the little bronze key that opens the two ebony caskets on the mantelpiece […] In one of the caskets, you will find a scorpion, in the other, a grasshopper, both very cleverly imitated in Japanese bronze: they will say yes or no for you. If you turn the scorpion round, that will mean to me, when I return, that you have said yes. The grasshopper will mean no. […] Be careful of the grasshopper! A grasshopper does not only turn: it hops! It hops! And it hops jolly high!

We already know that he has filled one of the cellar rooms with gunpowder so his meaning is quite clear – he doesn’t deal well with rejection so he’ll blow up the opera house if Christine doesn’t choose him.

In the original French, Erik tells Christine that the grasshopper ça saute, meaning both to jump an to explode, so when Leroux wrote la sauterelle, ça saute joliment bien, a more literal translation would be the grasshopper, it jumps/explodes quite well. Unfortunately, it’s not really possible to use this in the English translation of the novel, as there isn’t a word that has both meanings.

But there’s another level to this too. Sauterelle doesn’t just mean grasshopper, it’s slang for both a prostitute and a picky woman who examines items in a shop without buying anything (is there an English word for that second one? I can’t think of anything that really compares). So the grasshopper is an insult as well as a threat – unless you agree to marry me, you are a picky whore and I will cause a large explosion that will kill everyone.

Yes, the phantom is a clever chap who’s lived a hard life because of his appearance. But he really, really isn’t very nice.

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6 thoughts on “The Phantom Pun-Master of the Opera

    1. Yes, and it’s a great film (but the Chaney was always great at monsters). ALW’s Phantom is much easier to relate to and seems much more human (which I guess was the point) but it is a very different story as a result.

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  1. I’m thinking that it would repay the effort of reading this in French, which I tend to be lazy about doing. Oh, and then there’s the small matter of sourcing the book in the first place …

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is really fascinating, I had no idea about the puns. It just shows how you can’t beat reading a book in the original language. Unfortunately I don’t know any other languages well enough to read a book other than in English.

    Liked by 1 person

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