Les Miserables – Jean Valjean: Parkour Enthusiast

I was reading Les Miserables today, and was inspired to write something. If you’ve never read the novel, let me warn you, Hugo’s writing is very dense, and sometimes hard to get through. However, I seem to have embraced it more than I did the last time I tried to read this ponderous tome, which was, I believe, in 2004.

Hugo is not just telling a story, he is also giving clues as to why he is telling the story. The narrator often breaks in, with the intent of giving extra information or to ask philosophical questions about a character, situation or incident. He also gives in depth history to even minor characters.

The novel is broken up into varying segments. The largest are “Volumes,” each of which is named after a major character. The volumes are than broken up into “Books,” and the books broken up into chapters.

In Volume 1 – Fantine; Book Second – The Fall; Chapter Seven, Hugo spends time outlining the physical strength of Jean Valjean, which is important to both the plot of the novel and musical. He talks about how Valjean was worth four men in the galleys where he was sentenced to hard labor. His comrades nick-named him Jean the Jack-screw, as he was able to replace the mechanical implement of the same name when necessary.

One passage struck me as fascinating from a modern day perspective, and it is thus:

Certain convicts who were forever dreaming of escape, ended by making a veritable science of force and skill combined. It is the science of muscles. An entire system of mysterious statics is daily practiced by prisoners, men who are forever envious of the flies and birds. To climb a vertical surface and to find points of support where hardly a projection was visible was play to Jean Valjean. An angle of the wall being given, with the tension of his back and legs, with his elbows and his heels fitted into the unevenness of the stone, he raised himself as if by magic to the third story. He sometimes mounted thus even to the roof of the galley prison.

The emphasis is mine, and is there to show that Hugo, in a novel published in 1862, basically just perfectly described Parkour. As a fan of the sport, and someone who would love to practice it one day, I find it endlessly fascinating that this discipline, which only recently came to prominence, was being promoted 150 years ago. If Jean Valjean were a real person, and alive today, he’d probably compete on Sasuke, or its American cousin, American Ninja Warrior.


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