Elephant Of The Bastille
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The Emperor cast his eye over the open plaza where once the mighty Bastille had stood. "We need something here," he murmured. "A monument. A monument to my victories!"

His councilor followed the sweep of his arm. "Another triumphal arch, perhaps…?" he hazarded.

"Non! Non! We're already building one of those."

"Then perhaps a column. Or a statue!"

"I want something different." The Emperor's face broke into a smile. "I want… an ELEPHANT !"

Basic Information

After the French Revolution, the Bastille, the medieval fortress which had been used as a prison and regarded as a symbol of Bourbon tyranny, was demolished. It's stones were used to build other public works in the City of Paris, and some (like the stones of the Berlin Wall nearly two centuries later) were sold as souvenirs of the Revolution. A fountain, known as the "Fountain of Regeneration", was constructed on the site in 1793, but other than that, the site remained vacant.

The Emperor Napoleon wanted something grander. In 1808, he envisioned a huge bronze elephant, 24 meters (about 78 ft) high with a large howdah on its back to act as an observation platform for tourists, accessible through a staircase in one of the elephant's legs, and a large canal running beneath it. The metal to build the beast was to come from cannons which Napoleon had captured in the Battle of Friedland.

Work on the Elephant did not begin until 1810 and it took a few years just to complete the groundworks and the underground pipes which fed the large pool which would surround the finished monument. The architect for the project, Jean-Antoine Alavoine, realized that he needed something to show people, so he began work on a full-scale plaster mock-up of the elephant which was completed in 1814. Unfortunately, a year later Napoleon was defeated at in the Battle of Waterloo, and the Emperor was sent into exile.

Alavoine, and some others tried to keep the project alive, but the restored Bourbon monarchy which succeeded Napoleon was little interested in completing the monument to the Corsican upstart.

The plaster mock-up began to deteriorate, and became infested with rats. The novelist Victor Hugo, in his novel Les Misérables, wrote a scathing passage describing what a public eyesore the statue had become. For many years people living nearby petitioned to have the elephant taken down, but it was not removed until 1846, by which time it was but a shadow of its former glory. It was said that when the Elephant was demolished, hordes of rats came fleeing out of it.

It was falling into ruins; every season the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it. "The aediles," as the expression ran in elegant dialect, had forgotten it ever since 1814. There it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade, soiled continually by drunken coachmen; cracks meandered athwart its belly, a lath projected from its tail, tall grass flourished between its legs; and, as the level of the place had been rising all around it for a space of thirty years, by that slow and continuous movement which insensibly elevates the soil of large towns, it stood in a hollow, and it looked as though the ground were giving way beneath it. It was unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker.

— Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862


Game and Story Use

  • In a historical or time-travel campaign, if you happen to be visiting Paris in the early 19th Century, be sure to mention the Elephant.
  • In the novel Les Misérables, the Elephant was used as a shelter for the street urchin Gavroche.
  • During its hey-day, there was a guard who lived in one of the elephant's legs.
  • In an Alternate Universe campaign, perhaps Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo and was finally able to complete the dang thing.
  • Of course, some wiseass might be inclined to paint the thing white one night…
  • A monument made from captured enemy weapons is a very thematic thing - the Ancient Greeks and Romans were very fond of them (which might have something to do with Napoleon's idea), as is George R. R. Martin (or at least he was).
  • The characters might be searching the decaying structure of the plaster elephant, looking for a McGuffin.
    • They might find a street urchin hiding inside
    • Or be confronted by the forgotten guard in the left hind leg.
    • Or fall through the decaying wooden understructure into the underground canal beneath it.
    • Look out for the hordes of rats!
  • There's certainly some interesting symbolism in what was meant to be a symbol of Napoleon's glory being left unfinished and infested with rats. Feel free to re-use it for a similar leader.
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