Study Guide

Arnold Baffin in The Black Prince

By Iris Murdoch

Arnold Baffin

Arnold Baffin. The Baffmeister. Baffy Duck. Baffy the Bestselling Slayer.

Okay, okay, we're making these up.

Still, in the world of The Black Prince, Arnold Baffin might well be the most important character apart from Bradley Pearson himself. But, then again, he might not. It all depends on whose version of the story you believe.

Books, Looks, and Publishing Career

Let's get some of the basics out of the way before we dive into the deeper caverns of Baffin Island's character.

According to Bradley Pearson, he and Arnold Baffin met when Arnold was still a wannabe-writer working as a schoolteacher. Here's how Bradley puts it:

He was a schoolmaster, having lately graduated in English literature at the university of Reading. We met at a meeting. He coyly confessed his novel. I expressed polite interest. He sent me the almost completed typescript. […] I thought the piece had some merits and I helped him to find a publisher for it. I also reviewed it quite favourably when it came out. Thus began one of the most, commercially speaking, successful of recent literary careers. Arnold at once, contrary as it happens to my advice, gave up his job as a teacher and devoted himself to 'writing'. He wrote easily, producing every year a book which pleased the public taste. Wealth, fame followed. (1.2.1)

Okay, so Arnold Baffin was once a simple young schoolteacher who dreamed of being a writer, and he owes his eventual success, at least in part, to the early help that he got from Bradley Pearson. That seems pretty cut and dried, right?

But here's Rachel Baffin's take on Bradley Pearson's story: "His claim to have 'discovered' my husband is ridiculous [sic]. My husband was already quite famous when BP after much begging, persuaded an editor to let him review one of my husband's books, and after that he made himself known to us and became, as I think my daughter once put it, 'the family pussy cat'" (Postscript by Rachel: par. 7).

Okay, so Arnold Baffin was already a famous writer when Bradley Pearson wormed his way into his life, and all of Bradley's claims about Arnold's reliance on him are just a bunch of BS?

Maybe this is one of those cases when the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

At the very least, we should be able to trust Bradley Pearson's descriptions of Hey Arnold's physical characteristics, right? Football-shaped head, spiky blond hair that looks like the Red Sea parting to make way for Moses and the Israelites, signature teal sweater over an orange plaid shirt…oh, wait—wrong Arnold. Here's what Bradley has to say about Arnold Baffin's looks:

As to his person, he continued to look like a schoolmaster, dressed shapelessly, and retained a raw shy boyish appearance. It never occurred to him to play 'the famous writer'. Or perhaps intelligence, of which he had plenty, suggested this way of playing it. He wore steel rimmed specs, behind which his eyes were a very pale bluish-green, rather striking. His nose was pointed, his face always rather greasy, but healthy looking. There was a general lack of colour. Something of an albino? He was accounted, and perhaps was, good-looking. (1.2.4)

To sum up: Arnold Baffin was basically a pale, British, blond, and bespectacled Richard Castle, who may or may not have been "discovered" by Bradley Pearson, who may or may not have murdered him.

Them's the basics. What else do we know?

Writerly Ways

Arnold Baffin's writing style is something that obsesses Bradley Pearson throughout The Black Prince, so it's worth examining it closely.

Here's one of Bradley Pearson's passages on his good friend's style: "Arnold Baffin's work was a congeries of amusing anecdotes loosely garbled into 'racy stories' with the help of half-baked unmeditated symbolism. The dark powers of imagination were conspicuous by their absence. Arnold Baffin wrote too much, too fast. Arnold Baffin was really just a talented journalist" (1.3.238).

Ouch. Want more mean-spirited criticism? Take a gander at this excerpt from Bradley's review of Arnold's most recent book:

Mr Baffin is a fluent writer. He is a prolific writer. It may indeed be this facility which is his worst enemy. It is a quality which can be mistaken for imagination. And if the artist himself so mistakes it he is doomed. The writer who is facile needs, to become a writer of any merit, one quality above all; and that is courage; the courage to destroy, the courage to wait. Mr Baffin, judging by his output, is incapable of either destroying or waiting. Only genius can afford 'never to blot a line', and Mr Baffin is no genius. (2.17.10)

Bradley Pearson's major beef with Arnold Baffin's work is that Arnold's books are entertaining, but they aren't artistic. They seem to probe meaningful themes like comparative religion and world mythologies, but in reality that seemingly meaningful content is just a surface-level veneer.

There's never any deeper point to Arnold's writing—from Bradley's point of view, anyway. When it comes right down to it, Arnold isn't really saying anything. There's no philosophy—no truly original perspective on the world, or on art, or on human life at the heart of his work.

We're willing to bet that Bradley Pearson wouldn't have nice things to say about Dan Brown.

So, is Bradley right about Arnold's work?

Who knows.

In Bradley's version of this story, Julian Baffin seems to share his own point of view, and even Arnold himself admits that his writing never fulfills his own expectations. In Bradley's narrative, Arnold says this: "I believe that the stuff has some merits or I wouldn't publish it. But I live, I live with an absolutely continuous sense of failure. I am always defeated, always. Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea" (1.20.97). Too bad we have no way of knowing if this is how Arnold really felt.

Drama King

Because The Black Prince shares so much in common with Shakespeare's Hamlet, and because certain parts of it also have telltale similarities to Romeo and Juliet, in order to understand Arnold Baffin properly, we've got to ask what roles he plays in Bradley Pearson's narrative.

The most obvious of these is the role of King Hamlet —the dead king who, in Shakespeare's play, only ever appears as a ghost. There are some obvious similarities that make this connection hard to miss:

  • Arnold and King Hamlet are both dead, and both of them have been murdered.
  • Arnold's worldly success as a novelist and his larger-than-life personality make him a "kingly," or at least unusually famous, influential, and important figure, compared to the novel's other characters.
  • King Hamlet was murdered by an ambitious sibling who wanted to claim his wife and his throne; Arnold may have been murdered by an ambitious writer who envied his success (and who also, or so he says, had a little thing going with his wife).

One possible reading of The Black Prince is to see Bradley Pearson as Claudius, Rachel Baffin as Gertrude, and Arnold Baffin as the much-abused King. This certainly comes close to the story that the British newspapers and tabloids tell after Bradley Pearson is accused of Arnold's murder, and it seems that most of the people in Bradley Pearson's world are convinced that Bradley murdered Arnold out of spite, ambition, and envy, just as Claudius murdered his brother and king.

However, once "The Black Prince" shifts into its second and third parts, Arnold Baffin takes on another role as well—that of Capulet, Juliet's overbearing father in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. This comes through most clearly when Julian Baffin tells Bradley that her father raged around her bedroom and smashed her things after she confessed her feelings for Bradley.

(If it's been a while since you've skimmed Romeo and Juliet, you may want to refresh your memory of Act 3: Scene 5, in which Capulet insists that Juliet must marry a man she doesn't love.)

The most important thing to recognize about Arnold Baffin's Shakespearean counterparts is that both of them are powerful patriarchal figures who are either destroyed or thwarted because they stand in the way of other characters' ambitions and desires for happiness.

Now, if you're thinking to yourself—okay, but King Hamlet was Claudius's brother, not his father—don't forget that as the king of Denmark, Papa Hamlet was the fatherliest father figure around. His role as regent made him a symbolic father figure to Claudius, so when Claudius committed fratricide and regicide, he also symbolically committed patricide, too.

This multifaceted relationship is replicated in The Black Prince, as various characters perceive Bradley Pearson's relationship to the Baffin family as being that of an uncle or a son.

Phew.

That's a lot to take in, but just remember that most of The Black Prince's major characters can be understood best when you think about their shifting relationships with one another—and when you remember that it's impossible to know whether anyone is telling the truth about anyone else, anyway.

So, as you work to get a handle on Arnold Baffin, don't just ask yourself who he is as an independent character—ask yourself how he stands in relation to other major characters in the book. Doing so will help to give you a much clearer sense of who he is.