Literature Discussion: ____ of the Lock: Belinda's Game
In Alexander Pope’s ____ of the Lock, sandwiched between cantos two and four lays a heroic account of epic consequence. Rather, it would have such consequence, if it were not merely about a game of cards. After playing Ombre for myself, or “L’ombre”, as it was originally titled, I cannot conceive of another card game sufficiently complex to warrant such a fantastic commentary (Except, perhaps, Magic: The Gathering). This paper will detail the rules of the game as they pertain to ____ of the Lock, as well as the implications of the game itself within the literature. There is definitely a reason why a different game just would not do for Pope’s purposes.
Prior to treating the literature, because so much of this canto relies on heavy knowledge of the game of Ombre, it is befitting of this article to provide discourse on playing cards in general, and how they relate to the game of Ombre. In a British deck of playing cards, there are fifty-two cards in total. There are thirteen ranks, from two to ten, and Ace, King, Queen, and Knave (called Jack in modern times). Each rank has one card in each of four suits, which are Hearts, Spades, Diamonds, and Clubs. Hearts and Diamonds are red cards, and Spades and Clubs are black cards. The game of Ombre uses a Spanish deck, however, which is a British deck from which all of tens, nines, and eights have been removed, leaving only forty cards. Thus, it is important to note that Belinda and the Baron (and actual Londoners of the day) would have played with a British deck which had been modified in the fashion previously described.
Ombre is classified as a trick-taking game – one of the first of its kind, in fact. That is to say, each full round consists of nine “tricks”. Each trick is defined as each player having the opportunity to play one card. The players then look at the cards to see which card is ranked higher than the others, which is said to “trump” the other cards. The ranking system of the game of Ombre would require several paragraphs to explain in its entirety, but the following information is pertinent to the literature. There are three matadors which are called the Spadillio, the Manille, and the Basto, as follows: The Ace of Spades (Called the Spadillio) is the overall trump card which wins over every other card in the deck; depending on the Trump Suit, either the two of spades, two of clubs, seven of hearts, or seven of diamonds is a second trump card (Called the Manillio), wins over all cards which are not the Spadillio; the Ace of Clubs (Called the Basto) is trump over all non-matador cards. Other than the Matadors (and something called a Punto, which will not be covered in this article), the general order, as it relates to the literature, is in order of decreasing rank, King, Queen, and Knave (Jack). The game consists of three players, one of whom elects to be “L’ombre”, or “The Man.” The remaining two players are then the opponents of the Ombre in a one-versus-two style of play. The team of two is allowed to consult both hands to determine the best strategy to defeat the Ombre. With the information above, we can begin to delve into the third canto of The ____ of the Lock.
The Mock Epic
Beginning with the twenty-fifth line of the third canto, we read that “Belinda now, whom thirst of fame invites / Burns to encounter two adventurous knights.” This refers to Belinda making a choice to be the Ombre, forcing the other two to oppose her. One of the two opponents is, of course, the Baron. As the Ombre, Belinda will win if she wins five tricks. If she wins all nine tricks, though, her winnings will be five times greater. In lines twenty-nine and thirty, which read “Straight the three bands prepare in arms to join/ Each band the number of the sacred nine” refers to how the cards are dealt. Unlike typical card games, even those of the era, this game specifically denotes that cards be dealt in groups of three, until each player receives nine cards. Here, each band of cards, three bands of three cards each, which equal nine cards in total, for each player. At this point, there are thirteen cards left in the Talon (draw pile). Each of the three players has nine cards, leading to twenty-seven cards dealt in total. The description from lines thirty-one to forty-four describes each creature taking its place on a card which matches it. Ariel perches himself upon a matador, and the Sylphs take their place on the red cards, as the red suits, Hearts and Diamonds, were then considered to be female suits. Because Belinda chose to be the Ombre, she has the option to choose the Trump Suit (the suit which wins over all other suits). However, she will not get to discard cards from her hand in order to try to draw better cards; her opponents have that opportunity. “This is noted in lines forty-three and forty-four, where it reads “And parti-colored troops, a shining train/ Draw forth to combat on the velvet plain.” Belinda decides Spades to be the trump card in line forty-six, and the game begins.
Lines forty-nine and fifty which read “Spadillio first, unconquerable lord!/ Led off two captive trumps, and swept the board.” denote that Belinda leads with the Spadillio, the Ace of Spades, immediately forcing her two opponents to play spades, which cards then cannot be used against her. Because she won that trick, she gets to play the next card first. Lines fifty-one and fifty-two comprise the second trick, in which Belinda plays Manillio, the two of Spades, in this case, taking two more cards of a trump suit away from her opponent. Belinda plays the third matador, the Basto, or Ace of Clubs, in response to which, one of her two opponents dropped a spade, and the other dropped “A plebian card” which is any card of a number from two to seven. At this point in the game, more than half of the spades have been played, and the opposition is behind by three tricks.
The fourth trick begins in line fifty five with Belinda’s “hoary Majesty (King) of Spades” (Line 56). The Baron plays “The rebel Knave”, a Jack of Spades (Line 59), and the third player plays a card called Pam, which, in a game that was also popular at the time called loo, is the name referring to the Jack of Clubs. All three cards yield themselves to Belinda, making this her fourth trick. To win the game, as noted above, Belinda need only win one more trick. However, as line sixty-six describes, fate is going to begin favoring the Baron. Here the text becomes slightly more difficult. In lines sixty-seven through sixty-nine, we read that “His [the Baron’s] warlike amazon her host invades, / The imperial consort of the Crown of Spades. / The Club’s black tyrant her first victim died.” That is to say, the Queen of Spades, the royal consort noted, slays the King of Clubs, because spades are trump. It is not listed what the third card is that is lost in the fifth trick. However, it is known that the Baron wins this trick. The Baron plays the King of Diamonds to start off the sixth trick, and the next player plays the Queen of diamonds, but it is not revealed what Belinda plays. However, she doesn’t win that trick. At this point, Belinda has won four tricks, and the baron has won two. There are three tricks remaining, and if Belinda wins any one of them, the victory is hers.
In the last third of the game, lines seventy-seven states that there are “Clubs, Diamonds, Hearts, in wild disorder seen.” As noted above, Pope described earlier that there were four Kings, four Queens and four Knaves (Jacks), which were present in the hands that were dealt.
In accordance with this, and in order to accommodate with the rest of the game as described in this canto, the Club played by the Baron must have been a Queen, the Diamond played by our anonymous player must have been a Queen also, and Belinda’s card could have been any numbered Heart. The Baron wins this trick because the other two players play neither trump cards (Matadors or Spades) nor Clubs. At the end of the seventh trick, the Baron has three tricks, and Belinda has four. The Knave (Jack) of Diamonds begins the eighth trick, and Belinda plays the Queen of Hearts, thus playing the fourth Queen noted in line thirty-nine. Unfortunately, because the Queen of Hearts is not in suit (the current suit is Diamonds), the Baron wins his fourth trick. Now both the Baron and Belinda are tied. Lines ninety-one and ninety-two read “She [presumably the Queen of Hearts, but perhaps also Belinda] sees, and trembles at the approaching ill, / Just in the Jaws of ruin, and Codille.” The word Codille refers to the act of losing at a game of Ombre. Thus, it comes down to the last trick, where the Baron, having won the previous trick, plays an Ace of Hearts, a card lower in rank than a Jack of the same suit, only to be trumped by King of Hearts, which is the fourth King noted in line thirty-seven. In order to fit in with the earlier portions of the poem noted above, the anonymous player’s card must have been a Knave (Jack) of Hearts, which would be the fourth Knave mentioned in line forty-one. Thus, Belinda wins the fifth trick, and thereby the game, against the Baron and his compatriot.
Having played thirty games of Ombre for research purposes with players skilled in trick-taking games, I have compiled the following statistics. The Ombre wins about 23% of the time overall (seven games out of thirty). Of those seven wins, only once did the Ombre elect to be Ombre without the added bonus of drawing cards. In my research, the Ombre elected to go without the bonus fifteen times. Thus, the percentage of wins when one is the Ombre, after not taking the bonus is about 6%. Also, I have reconstructed the hands played by the three players listed in The ____ of the Lock, and, if played optimally, from Belinda’s point of view, she had the possibility to win on the fifth trick, had she played the Queen of Hearts, but based on what she was capable of knowing during the game (only what’s in her hand, and what’s been played), this would not present itself as a viable strategy. More realistically, however, Pope probably just wanted it to last the full nine tricks so he could fully exemplify his literary prowess.
To conclude, then, it is no wonder that the Baron is angered by the sudden loss. At four tricks into the game, he was four tricks behind, but at eight tricks in the game, he nearly made the best possible comeback. Moreover, at the beginning of the ninth trick, every player knows which cards have been played, and which cards were not dealt. The only card the Baron would not know about is the one in Belinda’s hand. There are fourteen cards that it could possibly be, and the King of Hearts, played by Belinda, is the only card left which could possibly outrank the Ace of Hearts, played by the Baron. The Baron had absolutely no reason to expect that the card that Belinda played could have been the one leading to his demise. Thus, the forfex passes, and fate takes its toll.
Bates, Robin. "Playing Cards in ____ of the Lock." Better Living through Beowulf | How Great Literature Can Change Your Life. 1 Oct. 2009. Web. 18 Feb. 2011. <http://www.betterlivingthroughbeowulf.com/?p=1277>.
Pope, Alexander. "The ____ Canto 3." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York [u.a.: Norton, 2006. Print.
"Rules of Card Games: L'Hombre." Card Games. Web. 18 Feb. 2011. <http://www.pagat.com/lhombre/lhombre.html>.