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The Lady or the Tiger?

28/05/2010

© One of the great and enduring heroes of my bookworm childhood was the young former Roman army officer, Marcus Flavius Aquila, from Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ (1954). Why did he appeal so much? Well, I suspect most children – and adults for that matter – warm to someone who displays kindness and generosity, without either making a fuss about it or losing an iota of what is evidently a natural authority. Early in the tale Marcus is prompted by compassion to buy Briton Esca, a recently-ruined gladiator, as a personal slave, only to grant the lad full Deed of Manumission in very short order thereby unwittingly establishing a vitally important friendship. Thus it is the newly-freed man’s own decision to join Marcus in his hazardous journey into the unknown, and it is understood that Esca’s contributions will be both needed and appreciated.
Marcus is clearly pragmatic and resourceful. He is intelligent and quick-thinking enough to circumvent common obstacles: dreams cut short by injury, invalided out of the army? Find an army-related quest! Need for disguise? Adopt an identity liable to be foreign to all! Then secure the relevant training.  And his administrative skills are nicely balanced by a sense of adventure. He is, as one of the other main characters shrewdly observes, ‘a noble Roman’.  He is, in fact, that thoroughly old-fashioned curiosity strangely absent in contemporary fiction, a thoroughly decent man.
So when a friend mentioned to me that prolix old conundrum posed by Frank R Stockton,  ‘The Lady or the Tiger?’, I idly speculated that the unfortunate lover faced with making the choice might well have been such a one as Marcus Aquila. We agreed that he would certainly make the Princess’s decision much harder: who would wish to lose such a man? And who, having loved him, could possibly wish to harm him? Marcus Aquila was duly cast in the rôle and our conversation moved on and away from him, having stayed just long enough for us to fervently hope the forthcoming film wouldn’t prove the ruination of his much-loved story.
But Stockton’s dilemma continued to nag at me. The Princess, I mused, was the real focus of this ethical puzzle: we know she’s indicated that her loved one down in the arena faced with a fatal choice should opt for the door on the right. Behind which there is either a tiger or a charming young girl, ready and happy to marry him should he release her into the open air of the arena.
Terrifying stuff!

But hang on a minute: tigers … tigers growl, don’t they? They pace about on those big, thumpy feet: thud, thud on the beaten earth floor. They lash the air with their long, strong tales: swish, swish – and thwack, if they turn and hit the walls. And feral beasts – unlike pretty nubile maidens (or academic/political wives) – are not generally known for being fragrant. Surely the big cat would give at least one sensory clue to his whereabouts? And surely the lovely girl, waiting with clenched fists and bated breath behind her own door, would follow suit, emitting a strategic gasp, soft yet loud enough to be audible on the other side of the solid wood and wafting aromas from the precious unguents with which she would have been lavishly annointed prior to taking her position? After all, if the young man made the correct decision, the hidden young lady would shortly be attending her own wedding so she’d be waiting nervously and in full perfumed fig. And, if he were wrong, she’d be forced to hear horrors which would doubtless haunt her ’till her dying day.

In these circumstances it would really be quite easy for the notional young man to face his fateful choice, confident of making the right, life-saving decision based on his clandestine love, the Princess, indicating the correct direction. A princess couldn’t expect personal happiness, as hers would necessarily be a dynastic marriage. Why ruin her happy memories of love by overlaying them with their object’s hideously gory end?  Cool-headed and courageous enough to attend her lover’s ordeal, the Princess seems to have the intelligence to both recognise that the game was up for the pair of them and make a realistic assessment of her own situation. I’d say therefore that she’d somehow point her love to the lady’s door rather than to the one concealing the tiger. But he’d already know which door to open, wouldn’t he? What he’d also know, opening the door to a new wedded life, was that he did so with his lover’s blessing.
Or did he?

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