WHO IS LORD MUTANHED?
Presentation to the Philadelphia Pickwick Club by Bruce Schwartz, September 13, 2019
There’s not much to say about Lord Mutanhed. He makes a single brief appearance in Chapter 35, in which the Pickwick Club visits the famous spa at Bath. He speaks but a few lines of utter piffle.1
Described as “splendidly-dressed,” with “long hair” and a “particularly small forehead,” he’s introduced to Mr. Pickwick as “the richest young man in Ba-ath at the moment.” The young fop declaims upon his latest plaything: he’s had a horse-cart fitted up to resemble the Royal Mail. Quote:
“Gwacious heavens! …. I thought evewebody had seen the new mail-cart; it's the neatest, pwettiest, gwacefullest thing that ever wan upon wheels. Painted wed, with a cweam piebald.”
That accent, together with his name, tells pretty much everything about Lord Mutanhed. The name, of course, is a variant spelling of “muttonhead,” a word meaning – well, what you’d expect. A brain as thick as a leg of lamb.2
Dickens is well-known for the inventive names he gave his characters.3 He often crafted them for the psychological effect of their sound, or their resemblance to common words, so as to suggest some aspect of a character’s appearance or personality. Thus, “Ebenezer Scrooge” – you can almost see the pinched visage of the miser when you hear it. And “Bob Cratchit,” scratching out his ledger entries, and barely a living, on Scrooge’s meager wage.4,5,6
Dickens was no fan of the English upper classes, and particularly contemptuous of idle inheritors. There’s nothing subtle about his presentation of Lord Mutanhed, who’s barely a character at all. He’s a stock figure, a stereotype, there for no purpose but to be poked fun at.
And yet – I stand before you today, prouder than ever to bear his name. For I have discovered that Lord Mutanhed has had an influence that may echo for thousands of years to come.
Here’s the rest of Lord Mutanhed’s gush about his mail-cart:
“I dwove it over to Bwistol the other morning, in a cwimson coat, … and confound me if the people didn't wush out of their cottages, and awest my pwogwess, to know if I wasn't the post. Glorwious--glorwious!”
Something clicked when I re-read that speech while preparing this talk: “I’ve heard that voice before.” And because I’ve been a science fiction fan since around age 8, it came to me where: in Isaac Asimov’s novel Foundation, published in 1951.7 From a character named Lord Dorwin.
Lord Mutanhed. Watercolor Illus. by Joseph Clayton Clark (“Kyd”), c. 1887.
For those of you who aren’t sci-fi fans: Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was one of the giants of the genre’s Golden Age, the mid-to-late 20th Century. Professor of biochemistry, polymath, and prolific: he published or edited over 500 books, non-fiction as well as fiction, and on subjects as diverse as the Bible and nuclear physics; evolution and the art of the pun.8
The Foundation series of novels are set in a future some 30 to 50 thousand years from now. Humankind has expanded to colonize millions of planets, forming a vast Galactic Empire. But that empire is in the process of falling apart. (Asimov’s inspiration, by the way, was Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.)9,10
The Foundation has been established on Terminus, a small planet at the edge of our galaxy. Its ostensible purpose: the preparation of an Encyclopedia of all human knowledge, which (it’s hoped) will shorten the Dark Age that must follow the Empire’s fall.
When we meet Lord Dorwin,11,12 Terminus is being threatened with annexation by one of four breakaway provinces, now called Kingdoms. The Empire is still a strong military power, though, and Terminus hopes to secure its independence through a treaty of protection.
Lord Dorwin is on Terminus representing the Empire. The negotiations don’t go well for the Foundation. The trustees of the Foundation, who are academics, don’t realize that — until a politician, the Mayor of Terminus City, pops their bubble.
The reveal has a humor Dickens would have appreciated. It seems that the Mayor’s had everything Dorwin said secretly recorded, and subjected to linguistic analysis. Quote:
“When [the analyst]… succeeded in eliminating meaningless statements, vague gibberish, useless qualifications – in short, all the goo and dribble – he found he had nothing left. Everything canceled out. Lord Dorwin, gentlemen, in five days of discussion didn't say one damned thing, and said it so you never noticed. There are the assurances you had from your precious Empire.”13
And now, here is Lord Dorwin, at a reception before the negotiating sessions:
“Ah, yes, Anacweon. … I have just come from theah. Most bahbawous planet. It is thowoughly inconceivable that human beings could live heah in the Pewiphewy. The lack of the most elementawy wequiahments of a cultuahed gentleman; the absence of the most fundamental necessities foah comfoht and convenience, the uttah desuetude… “14
Lord Dorwin, I contend, is clearly the literary descendant of Lord Mutanhed. Here’s the evidence. First, they’re both Lords, with long hair, and a foppish appearance. Second, the accent.15 Third, Asimov was a fan of Charles Dickens. He claimed to have read The Pickwick Papers 26 times “by actual count.”16,17
Fourth, there’s the way Asimov uses Lord Dorwin to personify the intellectual decline of Empire culture. “Dorwin” is a variant of “Darwin,” and Lord Dorwin has a hobby: he’s a student of the “Origin Question” – the identity of the planet on which the human race first evolved. (Earth, you see, has been abandoned and its location forgotten.) But Lord Dorwin is about as much a scientist as Dickens’ Scientific Gentleman. He’s read all the classic scholars, but when the Mayor of Terminus suggests he conduct original research, his reaction is near-horrified:
“How insuffewably cwude it would be to go to Ahctuwus, oah to Sol, foah instance, and blundah about, when the old mastahs have covahed the gwound so much moah effectually than we could possibly hope to do.”18
That… is mutton-headed.
Finally, there’s this: just before he introduces Lord Mutanhed, the Master of Ceremonies points out a woman to Mr. Pickwick:
“Hush, my dear sir – nobody’s fat or old in Ba-ath. That’s the Dowager Lady Snuphanuph.”19
And here’s the sentence in Foundation that introduces Lord Dorwin. Quote:
“Lord Dorwin took snuff.”20
Asimov also wrote mystery stories. Here, he’s left abundant clues as to his inspiration for Lord Dorwin. But they would only be detected by someone who’s read the Pickwick Papers, and lingered on Chapter 35 long enough to remember this insignificant minor character, Lord Mutanhed. It’s an inside joke; if you will, an Easter egg, planted for the enjoyment of serious fans of Dickens. But if anyone’s picked up on it before me, they haven’t written about it anywhere you can find with a Google search. Permit me the modest glory of asserting pride of discovery.
So, Lord Mutanhed lives on in the figure of Lord Dorwin. And since the Foundation novels are set thousands of years in the future, I contend that the influence of Lord Mutanhed shall ring down through millennia to come!
In closing, l want to add that this talk is dedicated to the memory of our late friend, Mike Kowalski, who held this noble title before me. Thank you.
1. Dickens, C. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Modern Library Paperback Edition, pp. 469-470. (New York, Random House, 2003.)
2. muttonhead [muht-n-hed], noun (informal). A slow-witted, foolish, or stupid person; dolt. Related words: fool, jerk, twit, nitwit, stupid, moron, kook, bonehead, dumbbell, dunce, blockhead, imbecile, ninny, tomfool, pinhead, ignoramus, simpleton, nincompoop, cretin, dimwit. Origin: First recorded in 1795–1805; mutton + head Related forms: mut·ton·head·ed , adjective. Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/muttonhead
3. Gordon, E. "The Naming of Characters in the Works of Charles Dickens.” (1917). University of Nebraska Studies in Language, Literature, and Criticism, No. 1, pp. 3-35. (Lincoln, Neb. 1917). http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/englishunsllc/5
4. Luu, C. “Charles Dickens and the Linguistic Art of the Minor Character,” Lingua Obscura, May 4, 2016. https://daily.jstor.org/charles-dickens-minor-characters/
5. De Laski, E. “The Psychological Attitude of Charles Dickens toward Surnames.” The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 337-346. (University of Illinois Press, July 1918) https://www.jstor.org/stable/1414126
6. English, G. “On the Psychological Response to Unknown Proper Names.” The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 430-434. (University of Illinois Press, July 1916) https://www.jstor.org/stable/1413108
7. Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. New York, Gnome Press, 1951.
8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Asimov (accessed Sept. 5, 2019).
9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foundation_(Asimov_novel) (accessed Sept. 5, 2019).
10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foundation_series#The_Foundation_series_timeline (accessed Sept. 5, 2019).
12. Foundation, Part II – The Encyclopedists, Chapters 4 and 5. As reprinted in The Foundation Trilogy, pp. 56-65. (New York, Doubleday & Co. Book Club edition, 1961.)
13. Id., p. 65.
14. Id., pp. 57-58.
15. An accent where the speaker does not pronounce the sound denoted by the letter “r” is called non-rhotic. It is characteristic of the British upper classes (becoming less so in recent times) but typically was limited to “r’s” at the end of a word or sometimes in the middle. An extreme case where all the “r’s” go unpronounced, and even shift to “w,” sounds snobbish or affected. Which I assume is why Dickens assigned the accent to Lord Mutanhed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhoticity_in_English (accessed Sept. 6, 2019).
16. McDowell, E. “Asimov is Celebrating 300th Book's Publication,” New York Times, Dec. 17, 1984, Section C, p. 13. https://www.nytimes.com/1984/12/17/arts/asimov-is-celebrating-300th-book-s-publication.html.
17. Zinos-Amaro, A. “Asimov Reads Again.” https://www.tor.com/2017/01/02/asimov-reads-again/ (accessed Sept. 7, 2019).
18. The Foundation Trilogy, p. 60.
19. Pickwick Papers, supra note 1, p. 469.
20. The Foundation Trilogy, p. 56.