5 Characters Who Met Their Waterloo
On 18 June 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte made one last bid for European supremacy just south of the Belgian town of Waterloo. Bonaparte, fresh off an enforced holiday on Elba, was convinced that his larger force of more seasoned troops would easily defeat the British forces, whose own commander referred to them as ‘an infamous army, very weak and ill-equipped.’
Napoleon was wrong. Very wrong.
Following the rout Napoleon was sent to a more secure exile on St Helena, and Waterloo swiftly entered the lexicon, becoming synonymous with a difficult or impossible task. At the turn of the next century, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle coined the term ‘to meet one’s Waterloo’ in Return of Sherlock Holmes. The phrase came to mean a great test with a final and decisive outcome that usually results in the fall of a foe that had previously seemed invincible.
Over the years, there have been hundreds of characters who met their Waterloo (including Holmes’s own great foe, Moriarty). Here are a few that I found particularly memorable (spoiler alert!):
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle coined the term ‘to meet one’s Waterloo’ to describe a great test with a decisive outcome that usually results in the fall of a foe that had seemed invincible.
Hilly Holbrook—The Help
Queen Bee Hilly is so obnoxious and horrible you spend the whole book just waiting for her to get her comeuppance. And oh, does she ever. Not only does she eat a chocolate pie that may have a particularly...unpleasant extra ingredient; she finds many of her most embarrassing secrets revealed in her friend’s book. True, the book doesn’t name names, but everyone in their small southern town knows who the stories refer to. Just goes to show that you really shouldn’t abuse the people who make your food, tidy your house and are around you every single day.
Voldemort—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
We all knew Voldemort was going down (this is children’s literature after all; the bad guy never wins in the end) but what an ending! A pitched magical battle and Neville Longbottom playing a crucial role by beheading the final horcrux with the sword of Gryffindor? Memorable indeed.
Cardinal Wolsey—Wolf Hall
In life, as in literature, Thomas Wolsey rose swiftly through the religious and political ranks to become both a cardinal and lord chancellor of England, which had him essentially running the country for nearly 15 years while Henry VIII entertained himself elsewhere. Considering his power (and the sexual politics of the time) he never anticipated a downfall at the hands of Anne Boleyn, whom he dismissed as a silly girl and just another dalliance for Henry. He was incorrect on both counts, and his failure to secure Henry a divorce, along with Anne’s poisonous enmity resulted in Wolsey’s arrest for treason in 1530. The only reason his head didn’t end up on a spike was because he died of ill health on his way to his trial.
Look, just because you’re an undead Eastern European prince does not mean you can just go helping yourself to the wives and girlfriends of English gentlemen. Those gentlemen may be super polite, but they will hunt you down and stake you. Be warned.
Stannis Baratheon—A Clash of Kings
Stannis, a seasoned commander with an enormous force of both soldiers and ships behind him set out to conquer King’s Landing, which was defended by a handful of seasoned city watchmen under the command of a petulant boy king and Tyrion, the dwarf black sheep of the Lannister family. Naturally, Stannis thought he had this one in the bag. But what Tyrion lacked in height he more than made up for in cunning and that, combined with the timely and unexpected arrival of a large force of reinforcements under the command of Tyrion’s father, Tywin, quickly sent Stannis and the straggling remnants of his once-immense force scuttling back to Dragonstone.
What are some of your favourite literary Waterloo moments? Share them in the comments below.