Untangling the Herman Toothrot Backstory
Scour any Monkey Island forum, and you're bound to come across at least one thread in which a fan helpfully lists and details the problems with Escape from Monkey Island. Of all the usual suspects (3D, keyboard controls, Guybrush's height), the least boring one is the accusation of the game's lack of reverence when it comes to the series' canon. A change of purpose for the Giant Monkey Head (come on, it's a gag) and geographical inconsistencies between the Mêlée Island of this game and the first one (who cares?) are a couple of popular examples, but by far the most criticized instance of meddling with the purity of the nostalgic past comes in the form a revelation with regard the Herman Toothrot character in the game's third act.
Primarily through an expositional cutscene, we're informed that the hermit of Monkey Island who'd been appearing since the original game is none other than Elaine's grandfather, H.T. Marley, who'd merely been suffering from twenty years of amnesia rather than being deceased, as previously believed. The explanation offered by the cutscene to make this jive with facts established in the previous games is clumsy at best, and I'm the first to agree that the existence of this twist at all is unnecessary and maybe even out place. (Do complex, Lost-like revelations that retcon existing history with deep, permeating ramifications really have a place in this franchise to begin with?) But that does not make it, as many have decried, a plothole or a continuity error, and tackling the issue of EMI's culpability as far as the charges of revisionism are concerned is what I'm here to do. Let's start with Exhibits A through Z, the infamous cutscene, courtesy of Youtube:
Alright, heads off your desks. The main issue with the claims of this cutscene as often observed is the fact that H.T. Marley and Herman Toothrot being the same person would seem to contradict an entire bit of background established in The Secret of Monkey Island. This background is in the form of a captain's log Guybrush can read through aboard the Sea Monkey, which places Herman Toothrot as first mate on that vessel prior to the events of the game. It is impossible, fans argue, for Herman to have sailed to Monkey Island if he was already washed up there after being pushed into the whirlpool in the boat race. How can those two things possibly be reconciled?
Easy – Herman/Grandpa Marley did not wash up on Monkey Island after being pushed into the whirlpool.
That he did is an assumption that just about everybody takes away from Escape from Monkey Island, and one that's been repeated so many times that it's been accepted as the truth. But you just saw the cutscene for yourself, and all H.T. says is that he washed up "all the way on the other side of the world," and then took the name Herman Toothrot from the letters on his accordion. Considering he was off the coast of Australia when he was sucked in and spit out by the whirlpool, "the other side of the world" could put him literally anywhere in the western hemisphere, most likely the Caribbean, but not Monkey Island explicitly. In other words, he could have quite easily ended up on Mêlée again, and from there everything could have happened exactly as documented in the captain's log perused in the first game. Once that key point is recognized, making sense of the rest of Marley's claim in EMI with the other games in the series, however mind-bending, is a highly surmountable task. And it's a task I've rather embarrassingly performed.
The following is my chronological rundown, corroborated by information found in the first four games, of all pertinent events as they relate to the Toothrot/Marley revelation:
- Twenty years prior to the events of The Secret of Monkey Island, Horatio Torqaumada Marley, an adventurous pirate captain, governor of the Tri-Island Area, and grandfather of Elaine Marley, is by means unknown privy to the Ultimate Insult, a powerful voodoo talisman capable of making mice out of men. The talisman is comprised of three parts – a bronze pirate hat, a silver monkey, and a golden man. However, a little known fourth piece, the Gubernatorial Seal of Mêlée Island, is also required to make the Ultimate Insult actually function. Two copies of this seal exist – one is in Marley's constant possession, while the other gets passed down to Elaine once she inherits the gubernatorial position. Horatio also passes the secrets to the Ultimate Insult to his granddaughter in the form of wedding gifts amongst the Marley family heirlooms in the Lucre Island bank, including a warning to Elaine to guard the secrets with her life.
- Captain Marley sets sail with a crew of three in order to find the legendary treasure of Big Whoop. The dangerous journey leads the four pirates to the almost completely unknown Dinky Island. There they find Big Whoop, which turns out to be a portal to the underworld, and decide to divide the map to Dinky Island into four pieces, with each member of the crew retaining one and vowing to take the knowledge of their discovery to the grave, lest anyone find Big Whoop again.
- LeChuck, also not wanting Big Whoop to be found but for different reasons, decides to track down and murder each member of the original Big Whoop crew to ensure its secrecy. This includes Rum Rogers (the first mate), Young Lindy (the cabin boy), and Rapp Scallion (the cook).
- Lulled out of retirement, Captain Marley goes to Australia to enter into the World Cup, a prestigious boat race off the continent's coast. The night before, getting drunk on several pitchers of grog, he notices amongst the bar's revelers a despondent local land developer named Ozzie Mandrill, who can't find anyone who will do business with him anymore. (A possible implication is that pirates are in some way responsible for Mandrill's business misfortunes, forging a deep-rooted and lifelong hatred for them.) To cheer up Mandrill, Marley regales memories of his many adventures on the high seas. Unfortunately, his inebriation also causes him to cheerfully share with Ozzie details of the deepest and most terrible voodoo secrets of the Caribbean, among them Big Whoop, and far more destructively, the Ultimate Insult. Despite this diarrhea of the mouth, however, Marley does leave out an important detail - the necessity of the Gubernatorial Seal to make the talisman work.
- The next day, while in the lead during the race, Marley is confronted by LeChuck, who intends to kill him as he had the rest of the Big Whoop crew. LeChuck offers to spare Marley's life in exchange for his granddaughter's hand in marriage. Marley resoundingly and profanely refuses, and LeChuck creates a giant, freakish whirlpool, leaving Marley to his doom.
- Marley is surprised to find his boat being pushed into the whirlpool by a double-crossing Ozzie Mandrill, who suddenly appears and has apparently decided to eliminate Marley so that he alone will possess the powerful secrets of the Caribbean that he's learned, which he can one day use to destroy all of the pirates and fulfill his dreams of being an uber-successful entrepreneur.
- When Marley doesn't reappear at the end of the race, he is presumed dead. In reality, however, he winds up washing ashore on the other side of the world – back to Caribbean - in a state of amnesia. With no memory of his past, he takes the name "Herman Toothrot" from the initials of a personalized accordion in his possession: "H.T." Extremely disheveled and now with something of a loony personality, Toothrot is not recognized by the citizens of the Tri-Island area, who believe their beloved governor was lost forever off the coast of Australia, as documented in the Big Whoop text Guybrush is given in Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge.
- An indeterminate time later, Herman Toothrot and a companion set sail from Mêlée Island on a ship called The Sea Monkey. This companion acts as the ship's captain, with Toothrot himself serving as first mate. They two endeavor, like many before them, to become the first to discover the legendary secret of Monkey Island, thereby securing eternal fame. Their journey and comically conflicting personalities are documented by the captain through regular entries in his captain's log aboard the ship.
- One night Toothrot makes a revolting soup for dinner, inadvertently creating a voodoo spell which successfully takes the ship to Monkey Island.
- After rowing ashore, the two begin to settle on and explore the island. Soon after, Herman's shipmate accidentally hangs himself while setting up a swing on a tree, and the Sea Monkey ends up being sailed back to Mêlée Island by a crew of chimps, who sell it to Stan, a used ship salesman. Herman is thus stranded on Monkey Island, alone with the exception of the local cannibals as well as LeChuck and his skeletal crew who occasionally drop anchor in a hellish hideout beneath the island. Herman has a humorously uneasy relationship with both parties.
- During the events of The Secret of Monkey Island, Guybrush sails to Monkey Island on the Sea Monkey and finds Herman during his mission to rescue Governor Elaine Marley from LeChuck. Although Guybrush accidentally sinks the Sea Monkey with a boulder, he and Herman are able to sail back to Mêlée Island in a readily available escape ship which Herman, in a deus ex machine gag, conveniently had all along. This leaves Guybrush's abandoned crew to have to find a way to escape from Monkey Island on their own, for which they never forgive him. After Guybrush makes it back to Mêlée, Toothrot disappears, and sometime following the events of the game, voluntarily returns to Monkey Island on his ship.
- In Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, Guybrush meets Herman a second time on Dinky Island, where he is practicing philosophy. This bizarre phase in Toothrot's life eventually concludes after the events of the game, and he returns to Monkey Island via a mysterious underground tunnel that the two islands are connected by.
- Herman doesn't make an appearance in The Curse of Monkey Island, except as an animatronic on the rollercoaster ride at the Big Whoop amusement park. When Guybrush is kidnapped by LeChuck and taken to the carnival, LeChuck claims responsibility for Marley's "death" in the boat race off the coast of Australia all those years ago along with the murders of the rest of the original Big Whoop crew.
- Following the events of The Curse of Monkey Island, the island's dormant volcano is reactivated by the avalanche that buried LeChuck under a mountain of ice, a fate from which he is rescued by Ozzie Mandrill. The activated volcano causes the entire amusement park to be wiped out, returning Monkey Island to the state of a primitive-looking island. At around the same time, the cannibals depart, and the island becomes mysteriously overrun by a large number of monkeys who are answering the call of the "Great Summoning." Herman continues to live there peacefully in solitude, and even goes as far as to intentionally sink his escape ship, deciding it is a silly thing for a self-respecting hermit to possess. Discovering gold deposits in a canyon on the island, he digs a mine, and coats his beloved banana picker in solid gold. His mining efforts are halted when he runs into a strange metal door of some kind.
- Herman suffers a series of head injuries from a milk bottle and then a coconut, acquiring additional layers of amnesia.
- In Escape from Monkey Island, Guybrush arrives on Monkey Island yet again and is reunited with Herman, who is in such a state of amnesia that he doesn't even recognize him.
- After Guybrush whacks Herman on the head with the coconut and then the milk bottle, Herman regains the state of memory that he'd been in when Guybrush first met him (in other words, his entire twenty years as Herman Toothrot), and is thus able to divulge information that is useful to Guybrush.
- Guybrush whacks the old man on the noggin one more time with the accordion labeled "H.T." causing him to regain his full memory for the first time in twenty years, before Guybrush ever knew him, which includes the recognition of his true identity of himself as H.T. Marley. He goes on to share his long and winding backstory before giving Guybrush his copy of the Gubernatorial Seal. Guybrush uses the seal to complete his own, giant Ultimate Insult and engineer an improbable escape from Monkey Island with the help of Herman, the amassed monkeys, and a giant, lava-powered robot that was hidden beneath the island.
- Elaine convinces Horatio to reclaim his gubernatorial responsibilities on Mêlée Island so that she and Guybrush will be free to star in Tales of Monkey Island without having to deal with the Tri-Island Area, a subplot involving politics, or any of that convoluted backstory that got everyone all bent out of shape.
So there you have it. It's not tidy, but it works. Sure, it's improbable that Stemmle and Clark actually considered, or were concerned with, all the ramifications that their plot point would have on the details of the previous games, and the above could be justifiably seen as a case of going out of one's way to rationalize sloppy writing. But that touches upon what this all really boils down to, and that's how much you like the game overall, and by extension how that influences your suspension of disbelief. If you're a fan of a game, you're going to take on the role of an apologist, and as such can contrive a rationale for anything if you're creative and persistent enough. If you simply don't like a game, then no amount of reasoning over the merits of a specific aspect is going to convince you to change your stance on the big picture. Again, this is coming from the guy who thought the whole Toothrot/Marley twist was messily executed if not a fundamentally misguided concept to begin with, but I suspect that one's general feelings toward EMI and the tolerance level for Herman's dirty little secret are correlated.
Now, there's definitely an interesting discussion to be had about exactly how much scrutiny the Monkey Island saga is meant to hold up under when it comes to putting together some sort of concrete timeline (probable answer: not much), and it's a discussion that's made all the more relevant by the release of Tales of Monkey Island, which not only shook up the series' canon to a degree that would make EMI jealous, but in fact proudly advertised itself based on that fact. The ripple effect that TMI's plot developments have on the prior games is substantial, and trying to make sense of Elaine's motives throughout Tales' storyline would necessitate just as much "outside help" as I've lent above for Horatio's benefit. Yet the uproar surrounding this aspect of TMI has been minimal at best, and rightly so, as the game successfully breathed some much needed fresh air into a franchise that was getting a little too formulaic for its own good, and whose mythos was never exactly solid as a rock to begin with.
In fact, at this point, whether we like it or not, we pretty much have to accept that graceless revisionism has become an outright trademark of this series. It started with CMI, whose "Spider Monkey" chapter scripted LeChuck to dizzyingly flesh out backstories that were never meant to be fleshed out to begin with. But in the case of that game, it wasn't really voluntary; the designers had to deal with the troublesome ending that LeChuck's Revenge left for them. With EMI and TMI, on the other hand, there's been an acute interest on the writers' part to actively apply stresses to the frail fabric of the Monkey Island universe. And you know what? There's probably a point where we need to just let go and relax instead of taking things too seriously, and for far too many folk, that point is a faint speck in the rearview mirror. As diehard fans of these games, we can't always help but be bothered by the gaps in logic and continuity inconsistencies that come with the territory of expanding a saga stitched together by a rotating team of storytellers, but we can always just leave those concerns for a lovable batch of obsessed and tireless forumites to explain away for us. They're up to the task.