ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
British author George MacDonald Fraser, author of the "Flashman" series of books has died. Fraser took the bully from the 19th-century classic "Tom Brown's Schooldays" and turned him into a soldier in the British army.
Jesse Sheidlower, an editor of the "Oxford English Dictionary" is one of the many people who love the "Flashman" books.
JESSE SHEIDLOWER: Tom Brown's "Schooldays," the dull but enormously influential 1857 novel by Tom Hughes, portrays among other things a young schoolboy tormented by a handsome sadistic bully.
It took George MacDonald Fraser, who died yesterday at the age of 82, to realize that the greatest character in the book is not Tom Brown himself. Tom is in every man to illustrate the themes of Christian morality and good comradeship that were the point of his novel.
Rather as with Satan in "Paradise Lost" is the bully Flashman who provides the most excitement. Flashman's role in the book is limited to serving as Tom's nemesis so that Tom and his friend Harry East could defeat him by working together and supporting each other.
Flashman, a minor character, is eventually expelled for drunkenness. But Fraser elevated Flashman to one of the great anti-heroes in literature in a series of 12 historical novels published from 1969 onwards.
In the first novel, written in a 90-hour caffeine and cigarette fueled jag, Flashman joins the British army and finds a socially fashionable regiment that was unlikely to seek combat. Through a series of misadventures involving seduction, bribery and cowardice, he finds himself in Afghanistan.
In the first Anglo-Afghan war, he does his best in every case to flee, shirk his duty, hide and otherwise avoid conflict and danger. In the end, he is blast survivor of an attack in which he attempts to surrender the British flag. Knocked unconscious, he's found wrapped in the flag by the rescuing troops and is feted as a hero.
This is the pattern throughout all the novels. Flashman attempts to run away and becomes the hero, all other witnesses having been killed. He participates in many of the major military events of the 19th century, including the Charge of the Light Brigade, the European Revolutions of 1848, the second Opium War in China, the invasion of Abyssinia in 1868, even the Battle of Little Big Horn on the U.S. visit.
He wins honors and medals. He sleeps with every woman he encounters, some 480 by his own estimate. He's a self-acknowledged cad and scoundrel. He had skilled with the sword when pressed and picks up a dozen languages with these.
Fraser, himself a veteran, wrote the novels as if they were selections from Flashman's own memoirs, with notes that led many early reviewers to take the novels as fact, much to Fraser's delight.
Fraser had worked as a journalist for 20 years before starting the "Flashman" series. His works include other historical novels and a script to the James Bond movie, "Octopussy." But it is the unrepentant rogue, coward and braggart, Brigadier General Sir Harry "Paget" Flashman, we will remember.
How he (unintelligible), a job, wife and kids, but I still want to be Harry Flashman. All my friends want to be Harry Flashman.
Thank you, George MacDonald Fraser for Harry Flashman.
SIEGEL: George MacDonald Fraser, the author of the "Flashman" books, died yesterday at the age of 82.
Jessie Sheidlower is an editor at the "Oxford English Dictionary."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.