LucasArts' Secret History #14: Escape from Monkey Island Untangling the Herman Toothrot Backstory

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:

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.

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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.

-- Jason

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