The famous fallen

An extra from How to fall to your death and live to tell the tale

Exploring the real-life and literary figures who fell.

Astyanax is never flung from the walls of Troy in The Iliad. The cruel fate of the infant son of hero Hector would already be familiar to an ancient Greek audience, the subject of vase paintings and songs strummed by poets nearly 3,000 years ago. No need to actually show the shocking act.

Just as society tends to overlook falls, so literature almost invariably looks away.

Ovid does not describe young Icarus’s fall. One moment he is flying high – too high, against his father’s advice, too close to the hot sun, melting the perfumed wax holding the feathers on his wings. Then “he waved his naked arms instead of wings,” Ovid writes. The next line, crying out for his father, “his voice was smothered in the dark blue sea.”

If you read Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem, you might be surprised to see how scant is Sherlock Holmes’s famed plunge while grappling with his arch-nemesis Moriarty. No witnesses, no description. Only a telltale jumble of churned-up soil and crushed ferns examined by Dr Watson at the top of Reichenbach Falls. Which made it easier when, succumbing to public pressure, Conan Doyle decided to bring his detective back.

Even that most famous book of all about falls, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, conveys Lucifer’s nine-day plunge from Heaven’s bliss to the torment of Hell like this: “...from morn/to noon he fell, from noon to dewy eve,” although Milton notes these are summer’s days, and thus longer.

Though the book certainly returns again and again to falls, with lines that will speak truth to whoever has suffered because of one.

“O fall,” Milton writes. “From what high state of bliss into what woe?”

Scanning history for real-life examples serves up figures such as William III. He died from complications of a broken collarbone caused when his horse fell after stepping in a hole (a mole’s burrow, leading Jacobites to toast “the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat”).

It would be remiss not to mention the Defenestration of Prague, when a trio of Czech Catholic notables, two lords and a secretary, were hurled from the walls of the city in 1618, a 70-foot plunge they somehow survived. Fellow Catholics said they had been caught by angels, Protestant pamphleteers claimed they had landed in a dung heap. The secretary, Philip Fabricius, was later given the title Baron Von Hohenfall – literally, “Baron of the High Fall”.