Bad Ass One-Liners from the Epic Tradition May 21, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback
There is, across the world, an epic literature, sometimes in prose more often in poetry, celebrating the deeds of men who lived, in happier times, caught between the gods and the earth. The ‘shapers’ who sang the heroic ages of the world – in pre-Christian Scandinavia, Homeric Greece, prehistoric India… – had none of our modern preoccupations about peace, turning the other cheek or – how they would have laughed – ‘the high road’. They celebrated the clash of arms. And in playing up the tedium of the afterlife – ‘I would rather be a slave in a landless household than Lord of all the dead!’ – they heightened a warrior’s sacrifice in the here and now, as men with biceps and shields proved unmoved by extinction, caring only for renown.
Within this literature there are some excellent examples of heroic one-liners that mix comedy and heroism together in a way that no one, not even Tarantino would get away with today.
Ashley, over at Sedition, who has a bit of a thing about Vikings, has sent in an excellent example from Grettir’s Saga: ‘Thorbjorn came rushing up to the door, and with both hands he drove the spear into Atli’s waist, forcing it right through his body.’ But Atli, passing over to the other side remains cool, looking down at the weapon of his undoing he merely notes: ‘Broad spears are becoming fashionable nowadays’.
Note that Ashley gives a whole post over to this Atli quotation and does it far better justice.
Beachcombing has been looking for equivalents from other heroic traditions. One favourite and famous example appears in Herodotus’s account of the Spartan last stand at Thermopylae in 480 BC. Always sold as democratic and liberal Greeks doing their bit to keep the Oriental despots out, Thermopylae was, of course, despotic and tyrannical Greeks trying to keep tyrannical and despotic Orientals out, but, anyway, Beachcombing digresses.
King Leonoidas, the Spartan general, on being told by a Spartan, Dienekes that there are so many Persian arrows that the sun has been blocked out replies: ‘Good, then we shall fight in the shade!’
It is stirring but stupendously silly stuff, enough, in fact, to make Beachcombing wish that he had some Greek blood in him.
A ‘Trojan’ line comes, instead, when Glaucus faces his enemy Diomedes on the plain of Troy in book six of The Iliad. Glaucus in a bit of pre-combat flyting gets all lyrical:
The generation of men is like that of leaves. The wind scatters one year’s leaves on the ground, but the forest burgeons and puts out others, as the season of spring comes round. So it is with men: one generation grows on, and another is passing away’.
But whoever wrote these beautiful lines – ‘Homer’? – was wise enough to deflate the whole thing. Diomedes is so moved by this reflection and some genealogical considerations that he refuses to fight and he and Glaucus, instead, swap suits of armour (as you do). However, the poet tells us that ‘Zeus stole Glaucus’ wits’ because his armour was worth a hundred oxen and Diomedes’ only nine.
Remember this passed for high humour in archaic Greece… They were laughing all the way to the slave market.
The medieval Irish were particularly good at blending the heroic with the obscene, especially when gore or/and excrement figured. Forget Cu Chulainn tying himself to the pillars of Dublin’s postoffice with a raven on his shoulder and read, instead, the far more attractive Story of Mac Dathó’s Pig. Two Irish warbands gather and argue who should get the first cut of a huge boar. The warriors insult and counter insult each other till at the end Cet and Conall, the two most impressive warriors in the room, face off.
‘Get up from the pig now,’ said Conall.
‘But what should bring you to it?’ asked Cet.
‘It is quite proper,’ said Conall, ‘that you should challenge me! I accept your challenge to single combat, Cet,’ said Conall. ‘I swear what my tribe swears, that since I took a spear in my hand I have not often slept without the head of a Connaughtman under my head, and without having wounded a man every single day and every single night.’
Cet has looked into the abyss and begins, at this point, a humiliating climb down.
‘It is true,’ said Cet. ‘You are a better hero than I am. If Anlúan were in the house he would offer you yet another contest. It is a pity for us that he is not in the house.’ ‘He is though’, said Conall, taking the head of Anlúan from his belt, and throwing it at Cet’s breast with such force that a gush of blood burst out from Anlúan’s lips. Cet then left the pig, and Conall sat down beside it.
There must be many other examples of this ‘bad ass’ heroic tradition, mixing high courage and low comedy. Beachcombing, certainly, would be grateful for any other examples. He’s trawled the Romans’ poor excuse for epics and has come up with nothing, he would be particularly interested in Indian traditions. drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
20 May 2011: Ashley has just sent in another. Perhaps the Vikings have the edge here… ‘The other one that I always remember is the one family is going to burn out the ‘hero’. This involves lighting the house on fire and killing the occupants as they flee or letting them remain and die in the fire. The guys want to be sure the target is home first. So they send one guy up to the door to check. The door is open a little so he leans in to peek and a hand axe swings down across his face. He staggers back to his friends with his scalp hanging half off and they say, ‘Well, is he home?’ And the reply is: I don’t know if he’s home but his axe sure is!’ Thanks Ashley