Now I Understand

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So, three years ago, thanks to Jay Cornell, I saw this illustration by J.C. Leyendecker which appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post of June 3, 1905. But I had no idea what was going on. From the magazine’s cover, it appeared to be illustrating a short story entitled “A State of Mind” by Robert W. Chambers, but I couldn’t find that story in any collection of Chambers’  work. (And a copy of the magazine I found on eBay was $25, which was too steep just to satisfy my curiosity.)

But yesterday, another eminent scholar, Bruce Townley, mentioned Chambers and I was inspired to search again, and by gosh there it was, “A State of Mind,” Chapter 14 in a book by Chambers called The Adventures of a Modest Man (1911). However, the answer wasn’t in Chapter 14. It was in Chapter 15, “Flotsam and Jetsam.”

Two men, Ellis and Jones, have made camp on a ridge after a day of fishing. Earlier in the day, they had been fishing upstream on property belonging to Vassar College, where young women were staging a tableaux from Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, in full costume with a boat drawn by swans, on a lake dammed especially for such outdoor theatricals.

Back at the campsite, the men observe that a distant storm is swelling the streams on either side and their ridge becomes an island surrounded by torrents. Up at Vassar’s summer camp, the dam bursts, and…

“…Ellis caught sight of something in midstream bearing down on them in a smother of foam – an enormous lizard-like creature floundering throat-deep in the flood… the scaled claws churned the shallows; a spasm shook the head; the jaws gaped. ‘Help!’ said a very sweet and frightened voice.”

The creature is Fafnir the Dragon in papiermâché, and inside is Miss Molly Sandys of Vassar. A moment later, the swan boat also appears in the torrent, carrying one Rhine-maiden (Professor Rawson), one of the two swans, and Lohengrin, actually a young woman named Helen clad in armor; they are brought to safety on dry land as well.

Ellis, who is actually James Lowell Ellis, a famous young artist, falls instantly in love with Molly in the dragon costume, reassures her that all will be well, and there you have the moment captured by the illustration.

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2 thoughts on “Now I Understand

  1. Thank you so much for pursuing the story behind this beautiful illustration! It was fulfilling to wonder about it and then read what was behind the imagery 🙂

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