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Literature / Doctor Syn ("The Scarecrow")

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The Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn is the protagonist of a series of historical novels by British writer and actor Russell Thorndike, published between 1915 and 1944 but set in the 18th century (from 1754 to c. 1794). Some of the Doctor Syn stories have been adapted to other media.

In the central part of the series, Doctor Syn is the respectable-seeming vicar of the village of Dymchurch, on Romney Marsh in the county of Kent, England. However, Syn leads a double life as "The Scarecrow", the leader of a local gang of smugglers. Some of the novels take the story to other parts of the world, especially when showing Syn's past life as a pirate in the Caribbean, the notorious "Captain Clegg." A little confusingly, the first book published actually comes last in the story's chronological sequence, as it bring's Syn's story to a climax with his death. The other books are all prequels to that, running in publication order. The novels are:

  • Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh (1915). Set in either 1794 or 1802. The novel is chronologically the last in the series, and features the death of Syn. The finale supposedly features the start of The Napoleonic Wars, but based on the description given, the tale is more likely set at the point Great Britain joined the First Coalition, c. 1794.
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  • Doctor Syn on the High Seas (1935). Documents the adventures of Syn as Captain Clegg, 1754 to 1775.
  • Doctor Syn Returns (1935). The first exploits of the Scarecrow.
  • Further Adventures of Doctor Syn (1936). Set in 1776 to 1777.
  • Courageous Exploits of Doctor Syn (1938). Set in 1781.
  • Amazing Quest of Doctor Syn (1939). Supposedly set in 1780, though internal details point to c. 1790 instead.
  • Shadow of Doctor Syn (1944). Set in 1793.

In addition, an expanded version of Doctor Syn Returns was published in the US market as The Scarecrow Rides. Also, in 1960, American author William Buchanan published Christopher Syn, which is essentially a reworking of Further Adventures of Doctor Syn with some changes. That in turn became the basis for the 1963 Disney movie (see below) — and a novelization of the Disney theatrical version, titled Doctor Syn, Alias the Scarecrow was written by Vic Crume.


There have been three Doctor Syn movies:

  • Doctor Syn (1937), starring George Arliss (in his final film role), alongside Margaret Lockwood and John Loder.
  • Captain Clegg (1962), a British production known as Night Creatures in the USA and starring Peter Cushing. In this, the character was renamed "Parson Blyss" to aviod problems with the upcoming Disney version (below).
  • The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1963), starring Patrick McGoohan. This was made by the Walt Disney Company, and was originally a three-part television series (a miniseries before the term existed) under the Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color umbrella, but was subsequently edited to movie length for various theatrical and video/DVD releases, sometimes under variant titles.

In addition, a Doctor Syn stage play was produced in 2001, audio adaptations have been broadcast on BBC radio (read by Rufus Sewell), the Disney movie version was adapted in truncated form in Disney's comics, and elements of the Doctor Syn story show up in Led Zeppelin's concert film The Song Remains the Same. Syn is also referenced in 18th century "flashbacks" in Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Doctor Syn is a swashbuckling figure with a wide range of skills. Originally a distinguished theological scholar at Oxford University, the author of brilliant if obscure academic texts, he disappears in pursuit when his wife Imogene elopes with another man, chasing them to the Americas and harrying them from port to port. Through a series of incidents, he twice ends up in charge of pirate ships, adopting the "Captain Clegg" identity on the second occasion. He proves to be a peerless swordsman, horseman, and navigator, with the charisma and leadership ability to rule a pirate crew and later a smuggler gang. His sidekick, the loyal carpenter Mr Mipps, is even more ruthless, twice blowing up ships full of pirates to stop them from pursuing Syn and himself when they seek to quit piracy.

On the second such occasion, in 1775, after the life of piracy grows too risky even for "Clegg", Syn returns to England and visits an old friend, the squire of Dymchurch, where the local vicar has fortuitously just died. Taking over the job, Syn tries to settle down — but on discovering that his parishioners need rescuing from trouble with the law caused by their smuggling activities, he creates the "Scarecrow" identity and rides out to various nighttime adventures. This continues through several novels, until his past catches up with him once too often, and Syn is murdered by an old enemy at the end of his last adventure.

The stories have no connection to the Buster Keaton movie or any Marvel or DC villains called "The Scarecrow", and is definitely not to be confused with a character from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s just a cool image.

This series provides examples of:

  • Anachronism Stew: The Amazing Quest of Doctor Syn, set in the 1780s, has scenes set in North Wales, around the settlements of Portmadoc, Tremadoc and Portmeirion. None of these existed at the time.
  • Anti-Hero: Doctor Syn may live by a code of honor, and spends much of his time helping his parishioners against brutal and oppressive law enforcement, but he's also vengeful to a sadistic degree, sometimes ruthless (especially when acting as a pirate captain in charge of a gang of unreliable cut-throats), and much given to using fear as a weapon.
  • Awesome Mc Coolname: "Doctor Syn" is his mild-mannered nice guy persona.
  • Badass Bookworm: Syn appears to have been very much a bookish scholar at Oxford. Then he went off and became a notorious pirate.
  • Badass Preacher: The Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn is very badass (but secretly).
  • Code Name: The "devil-riders" use these.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Syn returns to England and is shipwrecked off the village where his old friend is squire; the local vicar drowns trying to save people from the wreck, and Syn is looking for a job. Later, a lot of people from his past seem to just wander through Dymchurch, while inconvenient characters are frequently doomed to die within a few pages.
  • Cool Horse: Syn rides a great black stallion named "Gehenna". This almost seems like trying too hard to qualify for the trope.
  • Creepy Child: 12-year old Jerry Jerk, from the first book, is nicknamed "Hangman" Jerk for his future career aspirations. He also buys and erects his own, completely functional gallows during the course of the book. And strings up a fake corpse to freak people out.
  • Creepy-Crawly Torture: The first stage of the gruesome death that Syn visits on Captain Vicosa involves cockroaches.
  • Defiant to the End: Black Nick Tappitt, who goes to the gallows unrepentant and cursing.
  • The Dog Bites Back: The mulatto is the only survivor of Syn's first pirate crew in Dr. Syn on the High Seas, before he takes the alias of Clegg. When they leave the ship, Mipps blows it up to prevent Syn's alibi being discovered. He is rescued by the Royal Navy and assists them to smoke out The Scarecrow and is eventually the one to kill Clegg.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The first book published is the last book in internal chronological order. In various respects, it doesn't quite match the rest of the series; Syn is considerably more brutal and less mentally stable, some characters' ages don't match the ones given in later books, and it's the only book in which Syn's hidden identity is concealed from the reader.
  • Gentleman Adventurer: Played straight, which dates the series a little. Syn is an Oxford scholar who somehow turns out to be amazingly skilled at a lot of adventuring stuff.
  • The Highwayman: Syn is friendly with local highwayman Jimmie Bone — who is actually as good a horseman, and who sometimes impersonates the Scarecrow for purposes of trickery and helping keep Syn's secret.
  • How We Got Here: In one of most epic versions ever made, Thorndike spends six books to tell us how Doctor Syn got to be the man he was in the first book.
  • Impaled with Extreme Prejudice: Morgan while impersonating Dr. Syn, and Dr. Syn himself at the end of the first/last book.
  • Intercontinuity Crossover: The Disney version crossed paths with Captain Jack Sparrow in a Disney Adventures comic story.
  • Jack the Ripoff: Thorndyke reused the death-by-cockroach scene from Doctor Syn Returns for his detective story "The Strange Death of Major Scallion" — in which Syn is a historical figure on whose crime the first-person narrator models his own.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: All the books apart from "Doctor Syn" make Syn’s triple identity quite clear; so, unless you read in publication order, The Reveal in the first/last book doesn't come as much of a surprise.
  • Loveable Rogue: Most of the smugglers are just fairly likeable rustics aiming to make decent livings for their families, in the face of unreasonably tough law enforcement. Syn himself has charm, but is a bit too dark a figure to really fit the trope, except perhaps in the eyes of one or two other characters.
  • The Movie: See above on the adaptations.
  • Pirate: The series is balanced between the two major views of the trope, in that Syn (as Captain Clegg) and Mipps are anti-heroes at worst, but a lot of the others, including their crews, are a pretty vicious mob.
  • Profane Last Words: We're not told exactly what words Black Nick Tappitt used on the scaffold, but they were certainly profane.
  • Proto-Superhero: Not heroic by The Cape's standard, but an inspiration for some of the spookier supers to come.
  • Psycho Sidekick: He may not go too far too often, but Mipps twice blows up whole ships full of people who know too much about himself and Syn. Later, he becomes involved in smuggling despite his clear promise to Syn, which in turn draws Syn back into a life of crime.
  • Released to Elsewhere: Imogene's son with Doctor Syn (also called Christopher) disappeared mysteriously. The only person who knows what happened is Black Nick Tappitt, who had every reason to hate the boy. His claim is that the boy "ran off with some friendly Indians", but Imogene's suspicion is that this trope is in play.
  • Renaissance Man: Syn just seems to be the best at everything he does, from theology to fencing and gang leadership.
  • Sailor's Ponytail: Even after Mipps has retired from the sea, he still wears his hair in a tarred ponytail.
  • Scarecrow Solution: Syn's scarecrow disguise not only preserves his Secret Identity, it's clearly also a bit scary.
  • Scary Scarecrows: Syn's Secret Identity is also usefully intimidating.
  • Secret Identity: These stories didn't create the trope, but Syn/The Scarecrow is a classic example from the days when it was first becoming established in popular fiction.
  • Secret-Keeper: Various characters get to know Syn's secret. Some fortuitously die soon afterwards, but others act as secret keepers. In particular, Mipps is Syn's devoted sidekick throughout the series.
  • Sidekick: Syn acquires various sidekicks, but Mipps is the primary, devoted example.
  • Stern Chase: For most of "Doctor Syn on the High Seas", Syn is pursuing his wife and the man who ran off with her. He only catches up with them at the end of "Doctor Syn Returns".
  • Stripping the Scarecrow: This is how Doctor Syn comes by his disguise/secret identity. While racing to rescue a group of smugglers who had been ambushed by dragoons, he takes a set of clothes from a scarecrow as an improvised disguise.
  • Swashbuckler: The stories have a historical setting and a hero who gets into a lot of sword fights (and always wins). The morality is a little more gray than in some swashbuckling stories, but mostly that's just because Syn is Chaotic Good (admittedly shading towards Anti-Hero status by modern standards).
  • Tontine: A key element in "The Amazing Quest of Doctor Syn".
  • Truth in Television: Romney Marsh was notorious for smuggling at the time the books are set, and for some decades afterwards — and real-life clergymen were known to be involved with smuggling gangs.
  • Unbuilt Trope: One of the earliest examples of the Scary Scarecrows trope — but unlike many later examples, the scarecrow is a good guy (albeit a ruthless and vengeful one).
  • Venturous Smuggler: Syn, Mipps and their gang of smugglers are well thought of by the locals for the wealth they bring to the Marsh.

Alternative Title(s): Doctor Syn, Dr Syn The Scarecrow


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