Book Notes Commentary Notes from Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

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Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary

"A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" is both Augustus Bedloe's tale, but also it is the tale of the confused narrator, as he can make no more sense of what happened to Bedloe than the reader. First published in Gordey's Magazine and Lady's Book during April of 1844 when Poe was still residing with Virginia in Philadelphia, this has a surreal or arabesque tone to it, because of the mysteriousness of events that occurs. Like "MS Found in a Bottle," the ending here is left open-ended, for the reader to draw his own conclusions. However, the focus of the mystery in this instance is Augustus Bedloe in this instance, rather than being the narrator himself, as in the earlier story. However, the similarity lies in that they both describe mysterious and supernatural events as they occur, both of which remain resolved at the story's end. In "MS Found in a Bottle," the narrator's destiny remains unknown after plunging into the whirlpool, and in "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains" there is no explanation as to how Bedloe could have relived events that Doctor Templeton had experienced fifty years before, or even that Augustus Bedloe could so resemble Templeton's dead friend Oldeb.

As a final point, Bedloe dies as a result of poison entering his head, just as Oldeb had died after being shot in his head by a poisoned arrow. The misspelled "Bedlo" reversed is "Oldeb," and these two figures resemble each other exactly. In understanding the unique nature of Bedloe's illness, which makes him appear to be "corpse-like," one can assume that somehow, Bedloe and Oldeb are one and the very same. Given that Oldeb had lived nearly fifty years earlier than when the story takes place, in 1827 (revealing that Templeton is about seventy years of age), Bedloe was in fact born after Oldeb had died because he always spoke about his youthfulness. Recalling the choice of India as the setting for Bedloe's strange journey into the past, one must also note that the major religion of India, Hinduism, holds a central belief in reincarnation, that one person's soul may be born later on into another person, or into any other living thing. This is no coincidence, for common sense reveals that it is impossible to travel from Virginia to India in a few hours, or in a few days for that matter. Thus Bedloe's journey is one that occurs within his mind, no doubt spurred on by the effects of morphine he had ingested that very morning in large doses.

This inner journey obviously triggered some memories of an earlier life to emerge, perhaps catalyzed by the one strand that connects him to that former life: Doctor Templeton, who had known both Oldeb and now Bedloe. Templeton had already had a profound influence over Bedloe's body during mesmerism and putting him to sleep; it would seem logical then, that this connection could extend even deeper than the body, and go so far as to dig into Bedloe's mind. That Bedloe dies due to accidental poisoning at Templeton's hands echoes the timeless theme again that one cannot change destiny; just as Templeton had once failed to save Oldeb from being hurt, so too does he now fail to save Bedloe from death and, in fact, inadvertently causes it to occur. Admittedly, his reasons for staying so close to Bedloe were to enjoy the company of a man whom he had once cared for greatly, and lost. The tale is a testament to the fact that the past cannot be reclaimed once lost.

A second, more sinister interpretation could no doubt suggest that, given Templeton's control over Bedloe and the likeness to Mr. Oldeb could have been a mere coincidence, and, incidently, the good Doctor used his mesmeric powers to control Bedloe in a vain attempt to regain the Doctor's lost friendship with Oldeb. He is driven by guilt at having failed to protect Oldeb fifty years earlier, and now he feels obligated to protect Bedloe. In this interpretation it could be Templeton who is the villain, having altered Bedloe's mind with his strong mesmeric powers. Like Doctor Frankenstein's creation in the popular tale by Shelley, Templeton's patient became a victim of his own poor judgment, in placing poisonous leeches upon the sick man.

There are a few other interesting details to make note of. First, Poe sets his story a year into the future from when it was actually published in April of 1844; the events with Templeton occurred around 1780, and the events of Augustus Bedloe occurred around 1827, but it is not until 1845 that the narrator writes this story down, just as Templeton had been writing down his own story when Bedloe relived the entire sequence of events. As in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," written only a year later in 1845, mesmerism plays a large and pivotal role in the story as well. Poe also chooses a geography he is familiar with, given that much of his teenage years were spent residing with John Allan in Richmond, Virginia, not far from Charlottesville in western Virginia where this story takes place. Charlottesville is also near the Shenandoah Valley in the Appalachian Mountains, where Poe attended the University of Virginia in 1826, and the Ragged Mountains referred to in this tale are no doubt the same tall mountains that still tower above this area of western Virginia today. Furthermore, the location of Bedloe and Templeton's first meeting was in Saratoga. Virginia, located just a bit further north from Richmond, Virginia, where Poe spent much of his childhood and adolescence with the Allans.

The name of "Doctor Templeton" suggests the high importance that Templeton takes in Bedloe's life, holding such control over him that he could put Bedloe to sleep at a moment's notice. Templeton is like a temple for Bedloe, a place of highest reverence where deities are worshipped. In many ways, Templeton is like a god for Bedloe, holding the power over sleep, over memories, and even over death, which he causes. Bedloe is wholly dependent upon Templeton for everything in life. The name also foreshadows that Oldeb was in fact shot by the poisoned arrow in his "temple" on the side of his head. Doctor Templeton is not mentioned at the end of the story again as well, although this man could no doubt provide some of the answers that the narrator is seeking, even as he implores the newspaper editor. Then again, it is evident that Templeton would have pronounced his belief that Bedloe was Oldeb reincarnated. All in all, there is no finite explanation for the reader in comprehending "A Tale of the Ragged Mountains," and the story's appeal lies not in its clearly stated lessons, but instead in the nagging questions that it poses. Poe provides room for the reader to draw his own conclusions, whether Doctor Templeton had exerted undue influence upon Bedloe, or if this was a true instance of reincarnation, or if everything was a mere coincidence and Bedloe merely suffered from some sort of morphine-induced drug trip. Poe's strength as a writer lies in his ability to manipulate his audience, and in this instance he does so by allowing the reader to finish the story.

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