Louis XI, king of France, is to marry his oldest son to Margaret of Flanders, and in early January, 1482, the king is expecting Flemish ambassadors to his court. The great day arrives, coinciding both with Epiphany and with the secular celebration of the Festival of Fools. All day long, raucous Parisians assemble at the great Palace of Justice to see a morality play and to choose a Prince of Fools. The throng is supposed to await the arrival of the Flemish guests, but when the emissaries are late, Gringoire, a penniless and oafish poet, orders the play to begin. In the middle of the prologue, however, the play comes to a standstill as the royal procession passes into the huge palace. After the procession passes, the play is forgotten, and the crowd shouts for the Prince of Fools to be chosen.
The Prince of Fools has to be a man of remarkable physical ugliness. One by one the candidates, eager for this one glory of their disreputable lives, show their faces in front of a glass window, but the crowd shouts and jeers until a face of such extraordinary hideousness appears that the people acclaims this candidate at once as the Prince of Fools. It is Quasimodo, the hunchback bell ringer of Notre Dame. Nowhere on earth is there a more grotesque creature. One of his eyes is buried under an enormous wen. His teeth hang over his protruding lower lip like tusks. His eyebrows are red bristles, and his gigantic nose curves over his upper lip like a snout. His long arms protrude from his shoulders, dangling like those of an ape. Though he is deaf from long years of ringing Notre Dame’s thunderous bells, his eyesight is acute.
Quasimodo senses that he has been chosen by popular acclaim, and he is at once proud and suspicious of his honor as he allows the crowd to dress him in ridiculous robes and hoist him above their heads. From this vantage point, he maintains a dignified silence while the parade goes through the streets of Paris, stopping only to watch the enchanting dance of a gypsy girl, Esmeralda, whose grace and charm hold her audience spellbound. She has a little trained goat that dances to her tambourine. The pair are celebrated throughout Paris, though there are some who think the girl a witch, so great is her power in captivating her audience.
Late that night the poet Gringoire walks the streets of Paris. He has no shelter, owes money, and is in desperate straits. As the cold night comes on, he sees Esmeralda hurrying ahead of him. Then a black-hooded man comes out of the shadows and seizes the gypsy. At the same time, Gringoire catches sight of the hooded man’s partner, Quasimodo, who strikes Gringoire a terrible blow. The following moment a horseman rides in from the next street. Catching sight of Esmeralda in the arms of the black-hooded man, the rider demands that he free the girl or pay with his life. The attackers flee. Esmeralda asks the name of her rescuer. It is Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers. From that moment Esmeralda is hopelessly in love with Phoebus.
Gringoire does not bother to discover the plot behind the frustrated kidnapping, but had he known the truth he might have been more frightened. Quasimodo’s hooded companion was Claude Frollo, archdeacon of Notre Dame, a man who was once a pillar of righteousness, but who now, because of loneliness and an insatiable thirst for knowledge and experience, has succumbed to the temptations of necromancy and alchemy.
Frollo befriended Quasimodo when the hunchback was left at the gates of Notre Dame as an unwanted baby; Quasimodo is slavishly loyal to him. He acts without question when Frollo asks his aid in kidnapping the beautiful gypsy. Frollo, who admired Esmeralda from a distance, plans to carry her off to his small cell in the cathedral, where he can enjoy her charms at his leisure.
As Quasimodo and Frollo hurry back to the cathedral, Gringoire continues on his way and finds himself in a disreputable quarter of Paris. Captured by thugs, he is threatened with death if none of the women in the thieves’ den will marry him. When no one wants the pale, thin poet, a noose is lowered about his neck. Suddenly Esmeralda appears and volunteers to take him, but Gringoire enjoys no wedding night. Esmeralda’s heart belongs to Phoebus; she rescued the poet only out of pity.
In those days the courts of Paris often picked innocent people from the streets, tried them, and convicted them with little regard for justice. Quasimodo was seen in his role as the Prince of Fools and was watched as he stood before the gypsy girl while she danced. There is a rumor that Esmeralda is a witch, and most of Paris...