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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1413

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First published: Le Roi des montagnes, 1856 (English translation, 1861)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure romance

Time of work: Mid-nineteenth century

Locale: Greece

Principal Characters:

Hermann Schultz, a botanist

John Harris, a fellow lodger and friend

Photini, a Greek girl

Dmitri, a Greek boy who loves Photini

Hadgi-Stavros, a Greek bandit

Mrs. Simons, an Englishwoman

Mary Ann, her daughter

The Story:

While the German botanist, Hermann Schultz, was lodging with a Greek family in Athens, he learned of a notorious Greek bandit so powerful that the government could not destroy his band and so cruel that he had decapitated two young girls he had been holding for ransom. Hadgi-Stavros, the King of the Mountains, was greatly feared, but he was also greatly admired by many of his countrymen. John Harris, an American who was Hermann’s fellow lodger, snorted in disgust as the landlord recited with admiration all the exploits of the bandit. Harris was so indignant he was unaware that when he spoke Photini, a young Greek girl who came to the house in order to learn foreign languages from the lodgers, looked at him with love in her eyes.

The newspapers announced the defeat of Hadgi-Stavros and his brigands, and Hermann believed it safe to leave Athens in order to continue his botanical research. Unfamiliar with the territory, however, he lost his way. Finally he met the landlord’s son, Dmitri, who was acting as guide for two Englishwomen, Mrs. Simons and her daughter Mary Ann. Hermann joined their party. When Mrs. Simons, arrogant and querulous, demanded that they stop to eat, Dmitri told her they could find food at the next village. When they arrived there, however, the village was deserted; everyone had fled. Dmitri said they could stop at a monastery, only a ten-minute walk away. At the monastery, a monk told them that bandits were in the district, and he advised them to flee for their lives.

A few minutes later, the brigands appeared and surrounded them, despite Mrs. Simons’ indignant assertions that she was English. They were led to the hideout of the chief, where Hadgi-Stavros was sitting dictating letters to business firms, to clients, to his daughter who was away at school. When he was finished, he ordered food for the captives, and Mrs. Simons felt much better.

By clever questioning, Hadgi-Stavros learned that Mrs. Simons was extremely wealthy, and he ordered that she should be held for ransom. When Hermann protested that he was without money or influential friends, Hadgi-Stavros said that he could take Mrs. Simons’ note back to Athens, but when the bandit learned that Hermann was a scientist, a learned man, he decided to hold him for ransom as well.

Mrs. Simons insisted that she would pay nothing, that the soldiers would follow and rescue them. Hermann was discouraged, for he knew that the soldiers would do nothing of the kind. One day a troop of soldiers appeared, and the leader, Captain Pericles, was received with affection. While the bandits went off on a raid, Pericles kept guard over the prisoners. Pretending that he had rescued them, he collected as evidence against the bandit the valuables of the two women. When Hermann protested, he was put under guard. Only after the brigands had returned and were seen in friendly activity with the soldiers was Mrs. Simons convinced that Captain Pericles was in league with Hadgi-Stavros.

Hermann planned to escape by going down a ravine and across a stream, but the plan was abandoned because he could help only one of the women down the steep slope to safety. Later he had another idea. He had heard Hadgi-Stavros dictate to his English bankers, the company owned by Mrs. Simons and her brother. He had Hadgi-Stavros sign two receipts, one for the ransom of Mrs. Simons and Mary Ann, another for his own. The idea was that the banker would deduct the sum from Hadgi-Stavros’ account and by the time the bandit discovered that he had been swindled they would be far away. The plan worked, except that Mrs. Simons’ brother did not honor the receipt for the botanist. Hermann was condemned to stay; but Mrs. Simons, who had hinted at matrimony for her daughter and Hermann, told him that surely he could escape. She insisted that the first thing he must do when he returned to Athens was to call on her.

Hermann’s opportunity to escape came a few days later, when the bandit allowed him, in company with two guards, to go out looking for plants. Hermann ran away from the guards and would have outdistanced his pursuers if his suspenders had not broken. He was recaptured and put under guard. Then he succeeded in getting his guard drunk and escaping across the ravine. Coming face-to-face with one of the dogs guarding the camp, he fed it some of the arsenic he carried in his specimen box. In his escape, he had accidentally drowned his drunken guard, and when the man’s body was discovered, the bandits set out in pursuit. Hermann was captured once more. Hadgi-Stavros ordered Hermann struck twenty times across the toes and twenty times across the fingers. In anger and pain, Hermann told Hadgi-Stavros that he had been duped in the payment of the ransom money. The bandit was furious. Hermann had robbed him, ruined him, he declared.

He offered a reward to any of his men who would devise horrible tortures for Hermann. Meanwhile the prisoner had his hair plucked from his head; later he was put near an open fire to roast. While there, he succeeded in putting arsenic into the food. Then Dmitri arrived in the camp with a letter from John Harris. Hadgi-Stavros read it and turned pale. Harris was holding his daughter as a hostage aboard a ship until Hermann was released, and the daughter was the homely Photini who had loved Harris since she met him at the boardinghouse. In anxiety for his daughter, Hadgi-Stavros ordered Hermann to be treated for his wounds and then set free. Before Hermann left the camp, however, Hadgi-Stavros and those who had eaten fell ill, poisoned by the arsenic.

Fighting broke out among the bandits. Some wished to kill the unconscious king and Hermann as well. Those loyal to Hadgi-Stavros defended their leader while Hermann attempted to cure the sick bandit. The fighting ended when Harris and some friends arrived to rescue Hermann and the king.

Hadgi-Stavros went back to Athens and Photini. At a ball Harris and Hermann saw Mrs. Simons and Mary Ann, but Mrs. Simons treated Hermann with icy politeness. The next day, Harris and Hermann went to call on them, but the women had left suddenly for Paris. Hermann gave up all hopes of marriage with the beautiful Mary Ann.

Critical Evaluation:

Edmond François About visited Greece in 1851, approaching his first experience with that country armed with superficial, almost schoolboy, ideas. His preconceived notions were disappointed, and he spent the next two years reevaluating his impressions.

After his return to Paris in 1853, he wrote a number of books dealing with his Grecian experiences. His first work was the sparkling and satiric volume LA GRECE CONTEMPORAINE (1854), whose portrait of Greek society gave great offense in Athens but was widely read in other parts of Europe. THE KING OF THE MOUNTAINS, which followed, is even more satirical, drawing on the juxtaposition of the ancient and modern in Greece for its wit. A satirist like About could not have a finer theme, and the book gained a wide popularity in its time. The author made cosmopolitan fun of his subjects. The German botanist, so brave, simple, and honest, deeply in love without knowing it, is the literary ideal of the Germans before the war of 1870. The British banker’s wife, with her appetite and her ungracious gratitude is a fair caricature of that terrible being—the rich, middle-aged, middle-class British female. The grave irony of the king himself is worthy of Jonathan Swift. His item of expenditure, “Repairs of the road to Thebes, which has become impracticable, and where unfortunately, we found no travelers to rob,” is inimitable.

THE KING OF THE MOUNTAINS is, in short, a caricature of the same devastating sort as Charles Dickens’ AMERICAN NOTES (1842), showing that while human nature does not really differ much anywhere, people become much more sensitive to their own faults and limitations when they are exhibited in the context of other worlds and cultures.