Robinson Crusoe: an enigma by Ian Matzen

During my first visit to the John Johnson Collection, I had a peek at some Magic Lantern Slides for the first time in my life. I had never seen any before so they held some mystique for me. I knew that lanterns and slides were artefacts from a bygone era that would eventually lead to the development of the cinema. When I opened the first folder of the cinema collection, I was immediately drawn to a set of slides of the first Robinson Crusoe story. There he was building a canoe, exploring in his outfit of goat hides, finding footprints in the sand, etc. On arriving home that night I set out to find a copy of the book which I have been working my way through.

Sheet of transparencies for magic lantern show of Robinson Crusoe

Cinemas 1 (58)

I recently catalogued this set of images. There are twelve illustrated scenes that were transfer printed on paper by Theobald & Company, London. Lanternists would cut the transfers into squares and position each between two pieces of glass to form a magic lantern slide. These slides would then fitted into a slide holder which would eventually be placed into a magic lantern during a show.

Try as I might, my efforts to find the associated printed lecture have been unsuccessful. Therefore I used my knowledge of the story (reading Daniel Defoe’s novel was key) to help ascribe classification terms to the images.

Detail of Robinson Crusoe sheet showing slides 10 and 11

Cinemas 1 (58) detail

However, I had difficulty with one slide in particular. Slide number eleven was mysterious. What is happening there? Is Crusoe subjugating a human? The fact that the person is shirtless and is prostrate in front of the armed Crusoe leads me to think that it is Friday thanking Crusoe for saving him from cannibals. However, this idea does not fit with the chronology of the preceeding slide: number ten shows Friday helping Crusoe free his father and a Spanish Castaway from a group of armed men. By this time the two had already met and become friendly. Who could it be, then? Maybe it was Friday’s father, whom they saved in slide ten, but I could not corroborate this. Because of it’s vagueness, I have decided to avoid affixing a narrow classification term to the slide. Instead, I will use “lifesaving” and “rescue” to describe slides ten and eleven as a set. How would you have described this enigmatic slide?

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