The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Religion


In our last post, about People of Color in Media, Mic talked about The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the many awesome topics it covers. Now, I could write a lot of metas about this movie, but ultimately, there’s one topic I really wanted to cover: how The Hunchback of Notre Dame deals with religion. This of course means I’ll be talking about the triad of religious ballads – God Help the Outcasts, Heaven’s Light, and Hellfire. I’m also going to take a look at how two of our central characters, Esmeralda and Frollo, view religion, and how their beliefs shine a light on different aspects of religion.

Okay, there’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started! (Quick note: for clarification, when I talk about religion, I’m talking about religion in terms of the movie, which is very Christian/Catholic.)

The Holy Triad of Ballads
We couldn’t talk about religion and Hunchback without talking about those three ballads: God Help the Outcasts, Heaven’s Light, and Hellfire. [Okay, so maybe Hellfire isn’t a ballad, exactly, but work with me here.]

Now, the interesting thing about these three songs is that in a way, they all qualify as “I Want” songs. Granted, Quasimodo’s “I Want” song actually occurs earlier in the movie (the wonderfully triumphant “Out There”), but in a way, “Heaven’s Light” also qualifies. And Heaven’s Light is our starting point for this discussion.

Heaven’s Light and Quasimodo

hunchback heaven-s-light-o
In Heaven’s Light, Quasi (cute nickname, right?) again deals with his angst and self-loathing, and how he feels about Esmeralda. Basically, he’s got a huge crush on her, and thus, has put her on a pedestal:

But suddenly an angel has smiled at me
And kissed my cheek without a trace of fright

I dare to dream that she
Might even care for me

Now, you’re probably like, okay Mel, that’s cute and all, but where does the religious aspect tie in? And I’m getting to that.

The religious aspect ties in because Quasimodo compares Esmeralda’s presence in his life to “heaven’s light,” and Esmeralda herself to an angel. He can’t comprehend that someone might like him for himself, and thus, Esmeralda is like an angel, a ray of light, because who else would love someone as hideous as he? (His words, not mine.)

Unlike Frollo (who we’ll get to in a bit), Quasimodo sees love and affection in a positive light. Look at how he refers to people in love:

So many times out here
I’ve watched a happy pair
Of lovers walking in the night
They had a kind of glow around them
It almost looked like heaven’s light

He uses positive words and phrases: “glow,” “heaven’s light,” “happy pair.” Him relating love to Heaven’s Light means that he views love as a great thing, something beautiful and glorious. It’s a positive take on religion, and it’s Quasimodo’s endearing positivity, even though he grew up in a life of darkness and cruelty and neglect, that endears us to him.

hunchback bells heaven's light

The visuals for Heaven’s Light match this: it’s nighttime, but the stars are shining brightly above Quasimodo. The color palette is made up of softer, cooler colors. There’s a lot of blue especially. Paired with the gentle music and the soft longing in Quasimodo’s voice, it’s very much the typical Disney love song. It’s sweet and charming, which is exactly the purpose. (It should also be noted that Quasimodo looks to the darkening sky, where Heaven would be located.)

Now let’s move to the other end of the spectrum and talk about Frollo.

Hellfire and Frollo

hunchback hellfire, dark fire
Hellfire is the complete opposite of Heaven’s Light. Instead of being cute and semi-heart-warming, it’s beyond creepy and pretty disturbing. Where Heaven’s Light focuses on a sweet crush, Hellfire focuses on bone-chilling lust. And unlike Heaven’s Light, which is filled with positivity and light, Hellfire is filled with darkness and negativity. They’re what I like to call foil songs.

A foil in literature (or any other media, I suppose, like TV/animated movies) is a character who contrasts with another character in order to highlight particular traits of that character. So in terms of Heaven’s Light and Hellfire, love for Esmeralda is being compared between two characters, and it highlights different aspects of the characters. For Quasimodo, it shows how he crushes on Esmeralda despite knowing that she would probably never go for him, and for Frollo, it shows him lusting after Esmeralda.

The key difference here is intent: Quasimodo isn’t some creep who would force himself on Esmeralda. He’s obviously upset when he finds out Esmeralda doesn’t like him (and don’t we all feel that way, when we had a crush on someone and it turns out they don’t feel the same way?), but he gets over it. He’s even happy for Esmeralda and Phoebus when they get together in the end.

Frollo, on the other hand, does not get over it. Quasi idolizes Esmeralda, which isn’t super healthy, but at least he respects her as a person. Frollo definitely does not. Frollo stalks Esmeralda, tries to force his affections on her, and basically tells her to choose him or he’ll burn her to death. Not exactly the traits of a healthy crush, which is why I file Frollo’s emotions under creepy crush.

hunchback me or the fire

Anyway, back to Hellfire. Like I said before, Hellfire is all about lust and denial. Frollo spends the entire song lusting after Esmeralda and denying both his lust for her and other negative aspects of his life (like his religious persecution, killing Quasimodo’s mother, the fact that he’s a horrible person in general…).

Unlike Quasimodo, who drowns in self-loathing, Frollo completely rejects any negative part of himself. Hellfire is filled with so much denial, made ironic by the Latin chanting of the priests in the background. While Frollo goes on about his virtue and righteousness, the priests are speaking of sin. If you solely highlight the translation of the priests’ Latin during Hellfire, it tells a very interesting story:

Confiteor Deo Omnipotenti (I confess to God almighty)
Beatae Mariae semper Virgini (To blessed Mary ever Virgin)
Beato Michaeli archangelo (To the blessed archangel Michael)
Sanctis apostolis omnibus sanctis (To the holy apostles, to all the saints)
Et tibit Pater (And to you, Father)
Quia peccavi nimis (That I have sinned)
Cogitatione (In thought)
Verbo et opere (In word and deed)

The true irony of the priests’ confessional in the background of Frollo’s song is that the priests’ confession is everything Frollo refuses to say about himself. If we look at the movie, Frollo has sinned in many ways. He’s sinned in thought; just look at his lustful thoughts of Esmeralda, and his thoughts of killing Quasimodo as a baby. He’s sinned in word. He’s lied to Quasimodo and treated him as a monster, which seems petty sinful to me, and he threatened Esmeralda in a place of sanctuary. Most importantly, he’s sinned in deed. At this point of the movie, Frollo hasn’t even done his worst, but already, he’s killed Quasimodo’s mother, nearly drowned baby Quasimodo, let a crowd full of people torment Quasimodo…should I go on?

Despite everything he’s done, Frollo refuses to confess his sins, and even when he admits to his lust for Esmeralda, it still isn’t really his fault, it’s hers, because obviously she was just too tempting and how could he resist?

hunchback frollo witchcraft

(Frollo’s excuse for everything, basically.)

He talks about how her hair “is blazing in [him] out of all control,” and compares her to a siren casting her spell on him, painting himself as the innocent party. It can’t possibly be his fault; she’s so attractive, so she must have enchanted him. Even though Esmeralda herself is disgusted by Frollo and tells him so, more than once, Frollo still thinks it’s HER fault that he is hung up on her. Frollo’s viewpoint has always been chilling to me, because he has this “either you’re mine or you’re dead” mentality, which screams stalker/serial killer. His possessiveness of Esmeralda is super creepy, and rightfully shown in that light. Hellfire is his villain song, as well as his creepy “I Want” song: he wants Esmeralda, and he’ll burn down all of Paris if he has to so that he can have her. The visuals only serve to illustrate this further.

Hellfire has a lot of disturbing visuals. Unlike Heaven’s Light, Hellfire is lit with warm colors: reds and oranges from the fire and the red robes of the apparitions of Frollo’s guilt. There’s also the interesting analogy made with Frollo praying into the flames, since fire is often representative of hell. The fact that he actually uses the word “hellfire” cements this.

hunchback hellfirehunchback red robe dudes

Now onto Esmeralda, whose song is the best of the bunch (in my opinion, anyway).

God Help the Outcasts and Esmeralda

hunchback god help the outcasts

Out of all of three songs, Esmeralda’s gorgeous ballad, God Help the Outcasts, is the most focused on religion. (The word God is even in the title!) God Help the Outcasts isn’t about a crush, or a lustful obsession: it’s about prayer of the purest kind. Esmeralda’s prayer, to be precise.

What’s amazing about Esmeralda’s ballad is that it’s about want, but it’s not about herself at all. Heaven’s Light and Hellfire both have a selfish nature to them, because it’s about two different men who want Esmeralda. But all Esmeralda cares about is her people. She doesn’t want anything for herself. Like she says in the song:

hunchback i ask for nothing

Esmeralda can handle herself (as we can see from how awesome she is in the movie).

hunchback esmeralda

She just wants God to step in and help her people, because no one else will, not with Frollo persecuting them and no one willing to stand against him. Her prayer is for them, not for herself, and it’s really beautiful in a selfless way:

But I know so many
Less lucky than I
Please help my people
The poor and downtrod

Esmeralda is actually a really great example of selflessness, in a story that’s filled with so many selfish actions and people. She cares deeply about her people and the persecution that others deal with, and I’ll talk more about why that matters a little later. The point is, she’s incredibly selfless, in a really awesome way, and that’s why her ballad is the strongest in the entire movie.

The music is also really gorgeous. It’s soft, with a quiet pleading to it, and Esmeralda spends so much of the song walking through the church, at peace while she prays. There’s also a divergent color palette for this song. There’s the bright clothing of those in prayer. There are the beautiful stain glass windows. The church is a mix of blues and browns, soft in contrast to the people around it.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t talked a ton about this song, since I just went on a huge ramble about Hellfire. Well, that’s because part of my discussion ties into my finale: aka, how religion is showcased through two of our central characters, Esmeralda and Frollo.

The Righteous Man and The Outcast: Two Sides to Religion
Now, I could’ve called this section Frollo and Esmeralda, instead of using titles, but those two titles have a lot of importance, especially because they’re the titles that the characters give themselves.

Frollo proclaims himself “a righteous man” in Hellfire, when he speaks with Beata Maria. I’m not exactly sure I agree with him, since I think self-righteous would be a better term for him, but it’s Frollo’s mindset, so it’s what he believes himself to be.

Now, righteous basically means “virtuous” or “good.” Let’s take a look at Frollo, and see if we really think he fits the title he’s given himself.

Is Frollo virtuous? He definitely thinks so. He waxes poetic about his virtue during Hellfire, and he certainly seems to hold himself to high standards, but high moral standards? Not so much.

Has he shown that he’s virtuous in any way? Has he done any good deeds to warm our hearts and make us like him? Not really. There’s a rule in writing, called “show, don’t tell,” and Frollo breaks it. He tells people about his virtue – brags about it, even – but he’s never really shown us any virtuous moments.

“But what about that time he saved Quasi from certain death?” you might say. Well, since he was about to drown Quasimodo until the archdeacon stepped in I’d say that doesn’t really count. The only reason he doesn’t kill Quasimodo is because he doesn’t want to feel guilty about it. It’s not because he’s a genuinely good person – it’s all about avoiding unpleasant feelings. Since that doesn’t count, I’d say no, he is not a virtuous man.

Unlike Frollo, who praises himself pretty heavily during his song, Esmeralda is pretty frank and honest about herself. She calls herself an “outcast”, which is true, since gypsies aren’t really well liked over the course of the movie. She also makes a really interesting comparison, during her prayer:

Yes, I know I’m just an outcast;
I shouldn’t speak to You
Still I see Your face and wonder…
Were You once an outcast too?

If you’ve ever read The Bible, then you’ll know that yes, Jesus didn’t exactly have the best experiences on Earth. Like Esmeralda, he was a bit of an outcast as well, and just like Esmeralda almost does toward the end, Jesus is killed by some pretty righteous people. His death is made a spectacle; crucifixion meant that he would be up on a cross for the world to see, his death on display much like Esmeralda’s was in Hunchback of Notre Dame. Of course, Esmeralda’s story in the movie ends with her surviving, but it’s a pretty close call. The comparisons between the two are pretty interesting, as both were outcasts and scorned by the ruling class.

There’s also the interesting fact that both Esmeralda and Frollo are praying in their ballads. They’re pleading in both prayers (although Esmeralda’s is for her people, while Frollo’s is desperate pleading for himself), and there is a tie to Mary in both.

One of the things that caught my attention listening to Hellfire was that Frollo prays to Beata Maria (which translates to Blessed Mary). Out of anyone to speak to, he speaks to the Virgin Mary. Why? Maybe it’s just Frollo’s creepy obsession with virginal women. Or maybe he thinks that out of anyone, Mary would judge him the least. I’m not sure of the answer myself, but it definitely piqued my interest when I listened.

Then, earlier in the movie, there’s Esmeralda’s lovely moment, when she sings to God. However, while she sings to God, the statue she stands in front of is that of Mary holding Jesus. So not only do we have the Jesus comparison from earlier, but we also have Esmeralda in parallel to Mary.

hunchback esmeralda mary and jesus 1 hunchback esmeralda mary and jesus 2

Esmeralda has a very maternal spirit during the movie. She stands up for her people and has a soft spot for people like Quasimodo who have been persecuted unfairly. Take, for example, her reaction when Quasimodo is tormented at the Festival of Fools. She stands up and unties him, standing up against the angry crowd and Frollo. She could’ve done nothing, but Esmeralda isn’t that kind of person.

hunchback injustice

Esmeralda is someone who acts on her virtue and beliefs. And that is where she and Frollo differ, in terms of religion.

Frollo uses religion as an excuse. He uses it as a shield to excuse his actions and persecute those he doesn’t like, for example: the gypsies. There’s a term for this, called religious persecution, and he embodies it. He also uses it to put down others and boost himself up, calling himself “purer than the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd.” Frollo’s uses of religion are incredibly selfish, whereas Esmeralda’s are very selfless. In opposition to Frollo raising himself above others, Esmeralda is the one to point out: “I thought we all were the children of God”. It’s a nice contrast that shows a lot about their character.

To me, religion at its core has always been about finding guidance. It’s about having something to look up to that fills you with hope, even when the world around you is sometimes dark and bleak. Esmeralda’s prayer is her looking to that light for answers and help for her people. She doesn’t need to prove her faith the way Frollo does. She just believes, and stands by her belief. She doesn’t know if He will listen, or if He will hear her prayers.

But what Esmeralda understands – and what Frollo does not understand – is that at the core of it all, religion isn’t just something bound to only those highest in power. God isn’t someone who cares about your wealth or position, or how ‘righteous’ you proclaim yourself to be. His judgment is about your deeds, about what you do to back up all of those claims. And whereas Esmeralda has done some great, selfless things, Frollo has not. It’s why he looks so fearful when he falls to his death, directly into the hellfire raging below. At the end of his life, Frollo is forced to come face to face with his sins, and it’s not pretty.

Meanwhile, Esmeralda, Quasimodo and Phoebus step out into the light, free of persecution, and free to embrace the rest of their lives. A happy ending for all. (Well, except Frollo.)

I’ll end this with one last parallel:

hunchback god help the outcasts end hunchback hellfire end

The difference is striking, isn’t it? An image speaks a thousand words, and I think these both have a lot to say. All I’m going to say about them is that I think they both sum up each character’s soul quite nicely. Esmeralda’s is bright and spirited; Frollo’s is dark, cold and lonely.

Feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions below, whether they’re about those final two images or anything else I discussed today.

[Note: I’ve known I wanted to talk about Hunchback of Notre Dame and religion for a while now, but it wasn’t until I was cruising through YouTube, listening to some old Disney classics, that I thought about tackling the three more religious songs of the movie. And thus, a meta was born.

[Also, my lyrics came from:

[I know a lot of these songs by heart, but in cases like looking at the meanings of the Latin in Hellfire, or trying to remember all the words for Heaven’s Light, lyrics sites come in handy.]

Cheers and have a happy Tuesday!



2 responses »

  1. Pingback: Disney Villain Songs: Part Two | For the Love of Stories

  2. Pingback: Disney Princess “I Want” Songs: Part 1 | For the Love of Stories

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