Sunday, January 14, 2007

A pimpernel by any name is no shrinking violet

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

-Source: Juliet Capulet in Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare, 1594)


This morning, I viewed MSNBC's Headliners and Legends: Nelson Mandela. The informative biopic, hosted by Lester Holt, was worth watching.

If you've read, watched or heard any biographies of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, then you're familiar with the struggles and sacrifices, contributions and accomplishments for which the South African freedom fighter-political prisoner-statesman-Nobel Prize winner is famous. You also know he was once called the "Black Pimpernel." However, do you know why or what a pimpernel is?

If you don't, you're not alone. Today, the word pimpernel is commonly heard yet relatively obscure. Here is what it means and its several contexts.

In nature: A pimpernel is a flower. Like members of the rose family, pimpernel buds can bloom in any one of a number of colors, some of which have been embedded with special meanings. Especially well-known is the scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis‎, pictured right, courtesy of Wikipedia).

In literature, on stage and on screen: A European writer cultivated the popularity of the plant with her stageplay, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and by publishing an associated book series. Wikipedia - Scarlett Pimpernel (which furnished the book cover image to the left) explains:

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a classic play and adventure novel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, set during the French Revolution. It was first produced as record-breaking play, in an adaptation by Julia Neilson and Fred Terry, which greatly helped the publication of the novel in 1905. The story is seen as a precursor to the spy fiction and the superhero genres. It gave rise to numerous sequels, and has been adapted several times for television and film.

The action takes place during the French Revolution, when a secret society of English aristocrats, called the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, is engaged in rescuing their French counterparts from the guillotine. Their leader, the Scarlet Pimpernel, takes his nickname from the small red flower with which he signs his messages. No one except his small band of 19 followers, and possibly the Prince of Wales, knows his true identity.

In history and politics: What does all this have to do with Nelson Mandela? The answer, in Mandela's own words, lies in this excerpt from Long Walk to Freedom, Chapter 40:

During those early months, when there was a warrant for my arrest and I was being pursued by the police, my outlaw existence caught the imagination of the press. Articles claiming that I had been here and there were on the front pages. Roadblocks were instituted all over the country, but the police repeatedly came up empty-handed. I was dubbed the Black Pimpernel, a somewhat derogatory adaptation of Baroness Orczy's fictional character the Scarlet Pimpernel, who daringly evaded capture during the French Revolution.

The root of the matter. The Scarlet Pimpernel and the Black Pimpernel were no shrinking violets. Although they operated - at least sometimes - sub rosa and were named after flowers, both political activists left larger-than-life marks. Of course, it should go without saying, the legacy of real-life hero Nelson Mandela is far more profound and notable than that of the fictional character.