In my last post on my other blog (which discusses elements in fantasy literature), I proposed that one of the reason that combat/war motifs are so popular is that man have an innate desire to see good triumph over evil, as well as a drive to participate in that personally. However, in our modern civilized world, most people occupy positions that have little need for physical combat, and so many men feel a little alienated from this aspect of their psyches. And being placed at a distance from physical conflict, we are also distanced from some opportunities to cultivate courage. Now we may still learn how to be courageous; but it is not one of top priorities among our life lessons, which may be focused more upon such things as how to please the popular and how to be recognized by your peers. So many a school boy may have a somewhat vaguer notion of courage—what does it look like? and where does it come from?
He stands beside me on the battle-line
And scans the ranks of men opposing us,
His mind and body tense and ready. Mine
Are shaking, and I wonder if we must
Go forth to fight—perhaps the foe will yield,
Or send a representative to duel.
But no: they have no champion to field—
Only greater numbers. Fear would rule
Me save for him beside me, sword and shield
In hand and set to challenge any who’ll
Approach. Together, he has promised me,
We’ll go to battle ‘gainst the Philistines,
Together we will fight; together we
Intend to leave the battle-scene.
He stands above me never giving ground,
Engaging all who dare to challenge us,
His body hot and tiring. Mine was downed
With injury and plunged into the dust,
Just moments after we’d begun to fight.
I am not dead; for hope I may be healed
I’m faithfully defended by this Mighty
Man. But now the sword of bronze he wields
Against the foe begins to dull—he might
Do better here if only I could steel
Myself to move and hand him mine. But fear
Restrains my arm, and I remain upon
The earth while he endures, remaining near
Me as the battle rages on.
He stands beneath me on the bloody plain,
With me upon his shoulders. Both of us
Have lived, the consequence of all the pain
He has endured to satisfy my trust:
Together we will fight; together we’ll
Depart. Pity such a Mighty Man
Of Valor had no partner for his zeal,
Instead of fighting next to me. I can
Not understand what peace resides concealed
Within his breast, that he could calmly stand
Immune to fear of pain and dread of death.
I cannot understand how he retains
The strength to bear my injured form, when left
On him are twice my bloody stains.
I really enjoyed reading Spenser’s Faerie Queen, but one night I found myself grumbling that the knights always triumphed by force of might. “Alas,” I tho’t, in the real world, the righteous are not always the strongest in battle.” And then I realized I had rather missed the point: I was reading an allegory, of course, so each knight’s triumph represented not the triumph of physical strength (though the adventure told that way), but the triumph of the particular virtue the knight represented.
A little while later I decided to play with this idea in my own Faerie poem. So, writing in the Faerie Queen’s stanzas, I began my own tale of adventure in Faerie–and its parallel in the real world, where moral battles were not often resolved through physical contest, and often appeared to be losing. Here is the first portion of that poem:
The Parallel Stories of a Knight in Faerie and a Boy in an American Public School
A gentle knight was riding on a trail,
Yclad in mighty arms and silver shield
Which bore the marks of many years’ travail,
Received from many foes on divers fields,
For many knights the ancient arms had steeled.
Upon this shield this ensign could be found:
The image of an humble prince, who kneeled
Before his father to receive a crown,
And eke a share of glory and renown.
The device upon his shield bespoke his name;
For generations faerie had it seen,
And sung the reputation of its fame.
The ages hadn’t dimmed the armor’s sheen,
And still the ancient sword was keen;
So now the youthful elfin knight rode forward
And bore the honored arms with humble mien,
Determined he’d be Faithful to his Lord,
And rightly bear his fathers’ active sword.
Now as he journeyed on a dusty road
The knight espied a row of sculpted stones;
Like men they were, and well the details showed;
They might have been mistook for flesh and bone.
Beside these static forms were wearied dames,
From which there rose a woeful widowed moan:
“Behold our husbands,” each of them exclaimed,
“Their lives the petrifying monster’s claimed!”
The monster lay ahead upon the path;
At last, the faerie knight could try his might!
So, spurring horse ahead, with righteous wrath
And fiery fervent zeal the faerie knight
Committed strength to serve the widows’ plight.
But beast below had not the strength of good,
And would not join his rider in the fight:
It slackened pace, and then it only stood,
And left the elf to manage as he could.
The monster loomed ahead, a bulky troll,
A muscled mound beneath a hide like rock.
The elf, with sword in hand, and heart and soul,
Attacked the thing—which did not try to block,
But let the blade rebound with quite a shock
To him who had attempted the assault;
And then, with droning voice, began to talk.
“It’s not my problem, chum, and not my fault,”
It said, and brought the knight unto a halt.
“It’s not worth any effort,” th’ otherwise
Immobile troll opined. This voice had swayed
So many men, who’d bowed to its advice,
And doing so, had let their powers fade;
At last they found their manliness unmade,
And gradually they’d been reduced to stone.
So now, beholding how his useless blade
Grew heavy in his hand, the knight undone
Was tempted just to leave the thing alone.
But Faithless would he be t’abandon right,
That Apathy might keep its fell control;
So rallying his strength the faerie knight
Betook himself again to fight the troll,
Determined to be Faithful in his role.
Discarding sword and taking mace instead,
The faerie knight with all his strength and soul
Now brought the weapon down upon its head,
And at the stroke, there Apathy fell dead.
A boy outside of faerie heard the stroke,
A little man, whose age was four and ten;
And at the sound his senses quickly woke
Up to the evil that approached him then.
For, like the faerie knight (and all good men),
He also sought for good to rightly rule,
But in a place beyond the faerie ken,
Where men and monsters both did play the fool,
A fell forsaken land called public school.
Andreas was the minor man yclept,
And from the person Christ had he been fed.
Not far from him he found a boy inept
In managing defense against his dread,
And now Tormenting Boys upon him tread.
“It’s not my problem,” said a Subtle Voice
That might have been his own inside his head;
But well Andreas knew that Subtle Voice,
And well he knew the nature of his choice.
Without a pause Andreas interposed
Between the bullies and their sobbing prey,
And made at once the bullies his own foes.
“Oh, big mistake,” he heard the leader say,
But bullies rarely tend to force a fray,
If they can have their ends by other means.
Yet this time one was keen to have his way,
And backed up a pair of wicked teens
He sought to punish him who’d intervened.
The bully’s pair of cronies checked around
To note if any teacher happened near,
And satisfied that none were to be found,
He gan to make his purpose plainly clear.
“I’ll count to three, and you will disappear,”
He told Andreas, smiling at the fun.
Then rose up from his stomach filthy fear,
Preparing him to either fight or run,
As the villain promptly counted, “One.”
You can read the remainder of the poem in Visions, and find out how Andreas faces down fear, and several other monsters besides.