The Lovable French Country Bumpkin from Provence
As we saw in the last post, the Provençal town of Tarascon is mostly associated with the Tarasque dragon and Saint Martha, who delivered the area from its clutches. However, Martha isn’t the only slayer of ferocious beasts whose name is associated with Tarascon. The town’s other unlikely hero, who also participates in the annual Tarasque festival every June, is Tartarin. Tartarin of Tarascon is a fictional lion hunter in a novel by Alfonse Daudet written in 1872: Aventures prodigieuses de Tartarin de Tarascon, or Tartarin of Tarascon, in English.
Daudet tells us that the men of Tarascon had been keen hunters since the time of the Tarasque, when they used to go out and throw stones and spears at the armor-clad beast to no avail. After Martha took care of the pesky dragon, the zealous local lads turned their attention to all the other critters living in the woods around the town. By the time the nineteenth century rolled around, word had spread throughout the animal kingdom to steer clear Tarascon, and there wasn’t a wild animal to be found for miles around. Even migrating birds wouldn’t fly over the town.
However, the lack of game didn’t stop the Tarasconian menfolk from their weekly hunt. Every Sunday, they packed up a big lunch and several bottles of wine and went out into the countryside. After their picnic, they would start shooting… at their hunting caps. Each “hunter” would throw his cap high into the air and shoot at it. The one who’s cap fell to earth with the most holes was declared the top sportsman. And every week, Tartarin’s cap looked like Swiss cheese. He was admired and respected as the greatest cap hunter in Tarascon.
Tartarin: Don Quixote vs Sancho Panza
He was a complicated character, this Tartarin. On the one hand, he was a starry-eyed Provençal Don Quixote craving exciting adventures, and on the other, he was a comfort-loving, pessimistic Sancho Panza. In Tartarin’s case, Sancho was a little bit more influential than Don Quixote.
Therefore, Tartarin read books about great adventures, and he talked of these exploits so often that everyone (including Tartarin himself) began to believe that they were his own. But in truth, he had never actually left his hometown of Tarascon, nor had he shot at anything more ferocious than his cap.
Meeting a lion
One day a circus came through town and Tartarin saw a lion for the first time. He began to dream of going to Africa to hunt the mighty beasts. He read books and his conversations were filled with talk of lions. Everyone was very excited to have one of their own going off to hunt the big cats. But after a while, they began to notice that Tartarin wasn’t making any preparations, and they began to talk.
Going to Algeria
When he realized his reputation as the greatest hunter in Tarascon was in peril, there was only one thing for Tartarin to do. He had to go to Africa and hunt lions. He booked passage on a ship to Algeria where he had many misadventures: He hooked-up with a conman, lost all his money, shot a donkey, thinking it was a lion (it was night) and finally ended up shooting a real lion. Unfortunately, the lion he shot was a tame, blind lion whose owners moved it from town to town where it sat up and begged holding a bowl in its teeth. In Tartarin’s defense, the lion was coming through a field and he didn’t see the owners with it.
In Algeria, Tartarin lost almost everything. He was left with only two possessions: the lion skin, which he sent back to Tarascon, and an old camel with a wonky hump that flopped over to one side. This camel had become very attached to Tartarin and followed him around like a puppy. The great hunter was embarrassed by this, and was always trying to ditch the defective camel.
Finally, Tartarin ran into an old friend, a ship captain, who offered him free passage back to France. When the ship set sail, he thought he had finally escaped the camel but it jumped in the sea and swam after the boat. The captain took pity on the poor animal and pulled it aboard. When they arrived in Marseille, a downcast Tartarin boarded the coach for Tarascon and, wouldn’t you know it, the camel trotted along behind.
Tarascon’s hero returns
The mighty hunter was humiliated and dreaded facing his neighbors. But to his surprise, the people of Tarascon gave him a hero’s welcome. They had seen the lion skin and assumed that it was just one of many taken down by the greatest hunter in Tarascon. They congratulated him on his fantastic success and Tartarin started to think that maybe he had been rather magnificent after all.
Then the camel trotted up and popped his head around the corner. The people of Tarascon gasped in fear. For a moment, they thought that old monster, the Tarasque had returned, but it was only another exotic animal brought back from their heroic hunter’s African escapade.
As Tartarin walked toward his home, surrounded by the admiring crowd, and followed by his faithful camel, he began telling the amazingly exaggerated tales of his glorious exploits in Africa…
Daudet’s Tarasconian character is portrayed as comic and naïve: he exaggerates his feats and convinces himself that the tall tales he recounts are actually true. According to Daudet, “The men of Provence don’t lie, they are mistaken… They don’t always tell the truth, but they believe they do… Their lies aren’t really lies, they are more like mirages.”
When the book first came out, the people of Provence, and especially the people of Tarascon, took offense and wanted Daudet’s skin. However, since the book put Tarascon on the map and brought it a degree of fame, the locals learned to laugh about the portrayal of Tartarin and even embrace the lovable bumpkin. The city now has a small museum dedicated to Tartarin and every June, he participates in the Tarasque parade, right along with the town’s mythical dragon.
Daudet didn’t want anyone to think we was just picking on Provence, though: he also wrote:
“In France, everyone is a little bit from Tarascon.”
- The Tarasque Festival takes place the last weekend in June.
- At least three French films were made about Tartarin de Tarascon: in 1908, 1934, 1962.
- The book by Alphonse Daudet, can be read online in English or in French.
- Images: All images are from old advertisements for a medicine called Neurotensyl.
*More About Provence – Learn more about Provence in my book, Curious Histories of Provence: Tales from the South of France.
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