Robert Louis Stevenson's The Merry Men: A Two-Minute Summary and a Literary Analysis
Stevenson was ever obsessed with the duplicity of man, as so many of his horror stories aptly illustrate. He was fixated on the concept of hypocrisy – the man who espouses a nobler worldview but fails to live up to his own lofty standards. Much of this could be said to emanate from his family’s religious background, and in few stories is this religious tension better dealt with than “The Merry Men.” The story will please fans of Treasure Island and Kidnapped, for while it is not set on shipboard, it takes place on the rugged Scottish coast where shipwrecks are witnessed and sunken treasure reclaimed on becalmed nights. Southern Scotland – particularly its rural expanses – was a hotbed of Calvinist furvor which sometimes bordered on fantaticism. Gravemarkers were eschewed as being idolatrous, as were prayers for the souls of the dead. Catholics – who flourished in the Highlands – were viewed as little more than demons, and the tragic Romanticism of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s ill-starred return from exile was a source of godly horror rather than one of wistful reveries (he was after all a Papist). When this story is set, the Killing Time – when religious rebels called Covenanters hid in the moorland to avoid the King’s soldiers – is still a matter of local memory, the invasion of Charlie’s army still fills Presbyterian hearts with terror, and the satisfying thought of Anglicans, Papists, and Jacobites burning in Damnation cooled the stormy imagination of many a devoted Covenanter. The character of Uncle Gordon in “The Merry Men” is one such fundamentalist. He is quick to pronounce judgement, eager to proscribe hellfire, and sadistic in his delight of watching sailors drown off the coast. And yet he harbors a secret lust for beautiful possessions that hardly befit a severe Calvinist, not to mention the crime of murder.
Fans of Treasure Island will relish The Merry Men. Although it takes place on the Scottish coast, there is plenty of seafaring action: treasure hunters, sunken galleons, shipwrecks in wild weather, and even a diving expedition that uncovers human bones. A young man returns from college to find his superstitious, devout Uncle Gordon living in hypocritical luxury stolen from the wreckage of a ship that sank off the coast. At first he is revolted by the man’s doublespeak – a good Calvinist should shun worldly finery, or “braws” as he calls them, again in Scots – and his merciless lack of compassion for the drowned men. But when he discovers a hastily dug grave too far ashore to be that of drowning victim, he can only hope that his fundamentalist uncle has gone mad and not resorted to willful murder for the sake of his pick of fine things. When a storm traps a schooner full of treasure hunters against the jagged rocks (sarcastically-termed the Merry Men for the musical chaos made by the waves crashing on them), the answer seems both clear and uncertain. Driven mad by his hatred of humanity and his lust for wreckage, his uncle prays to the storm as the ship breaks apart and the men are drowned. It appears that Gordon will have yet another chance to pilfer the dead, when a survivor is discovered crawling along the beach: a black man speaking an incomprehensible language, who terrifies the old man. In Calvinist folklore the devil frequently appears in the form of a tall man with jet black skin, and while the sailor may have been speaking Arabic, Swahili, or Spanish, Gordon fears that he is gibbering the language of Hell, and develops a mortal terror of the survivor who hounds him. As Gordon's madness transitions into paranoid terror, he runs for the surf, hoping to escape the sight of the black sailor, but is chased down by the strange man, and both -- in spite of the narrator's sincere attempts to save them -- are destroyed amidst the rocks and sea and foam.
So many of Stevenson’s horror stories float around the karmic debts accrued by a life of hypocrisy, and “The Merry Men” – perhaps even more so than “Jekyll” – demonstrates the sickening depths to which a man can bifurcate his own soul. Jekyll, afterall, was misguided. Vain, perhaps, egoisticial, perhaps, childish, pompous, and indulgent, even. But at the heart of his experiment lay an underdeveloped grain of nobility: the hope that a man might be able to extract and contain his weaknesses – to channel them away from his Ego and use the excess energy in the name of good. His thesis was obviously flawed (he underrated the power of the Id), but Gordon’s sins are tenfold those of Jekyll: his are accomplished with a far commoner libation than the scarlet fluid and white salts that extricate Hyde from Jekyll – whiskey. And Gordon’s “Jekyll” is no remorseful socialite: even when he is as sober as a judge he relishes fantasies of human suffering, gloats in notions of divine punishment, and practically tingles with repressed arousal at the idea of sinners being dragged to death and hell. Stevenson was disgusted by what he saw as the two-faced hypocrisy of his family’s Calvinist background – one which was fundamentally pessimistic, lorded punishment over the remorseful, and found delicious refreshment in the concept of hellfire, but allowed its adherents to privately nurture a smug, self-satisfaction and a deep sense of superiority to other men. Gordon hates Catholics, loathes Jacobites, and has no mercy for the dead. He ignores his complicity in the death of the sailor, has no pity for the floundering crews of shipwrecks, and sees human suffering as God’s justice – and yet he considers himself above punishment because he is one of the Elect (those chosen by God to be saved). And herein lies another problem that Stevenson harbored towards Calvinism: the concept of election. Calvinists believed that God chose whom to save and whom to damn. Salvation was less a matter of faith or grace and repentence, and more one of predestined superiority. The only way to know that you were elected was to consistently be a good person, but it wasn’t faith or good works that determined salvation, merely God’s selection. Indeed, a Calvinist could be a horrible sinner their whole life, but if God had chosen them, they were assured salvation over – say – a devout Catholic who tended to the poor tirelessly. The Catholic would burn in hell for lack of being selected and the Calvinist would ascend to heaven in spite of their evil. To avoid being judged or considered un-elected by the members of their church, Calvinists would work strenuously to cultivate a good public image (think Jekyll), to make their neighbors think that the good behavior signaled a natural member of the Elect. This was less in order to spread goodness (after all, good works meant nothing in and of themselves; they were but a SYMPTOM of election), and more to avoid gossip or suggestions that they were not among the Elect.
But behind closed doors, actions did not matter and whatever wickedness had been pent up during the daytime could be unleashed (think Hyde). Calvinists believed that there was no good in man, so wickedness was expected and as long as a person was a churchgoing member of the Elect, no amount of evil could be privately mourned: it was just the human condition and there was no use restraining it (except in public to avoid gossip). And herein lies the problem of Gordon: he does not regret his murder because he has been elected, and what else is expected of man? Stevenson would hold mankind to a higher standard of self-regulation: to strive to become good (Calvinists thought this impossible: only God could render goodness out of a person, but by themselves only evil was expected) and to avoid acts of evil (again impossible: humans only do evil, except when God manipulates their actions). Gordon is finally struck with fear when the Black Man (so famous a figure in Calvinist lore) comes for him, suggesting that he is not one of the Elect. Stevenson beautifully refuses to clarify whether the sailor is a mere foreigner or the genuine devil, and the supernatural nature of the tale is ambiguous. But regardless of his tartarian origins, the Black Man represents far more to Gordon than a paranormal visitor: he represents the ramifications of sin. No longer can Gordon say “it’s not my fault; the devil made me do it,” because the devil has manifested outside of him, and the fault falls squarely on his shoulders. Terrified at the prospect that the murder, the selfishness, the lust for finery, and the delight in suffering was internalized by his own soul (not externalized by Satan) – that sin could have been avoided, and that it was his conscious choice – Gordon consigns himself to the Merry Men (the symbolic realm of a wrathful God), hoping to receive mercy. Alas, the Black Man follows him into the water, and it becomes clear: to him that shows no mercy, no mercy shall be allotted, and both the terrified Calvinist and the strange Black Man are consumed in the mystical waters that crash into the Merry Men.
You can read the whole story HERE
And you can find our annotated and illustrated edition of Stevenson's best supernatural tales HERE