Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Lion Heart (Of the Great and Good in Story, and the Valour of Olde England)

     “What, Wamba, art thou there?” said Richard; “I have been so long of hearing thy voice  thought thou hadst taken flight.”
     “I take flight!” said Wamba.  “When do you ever find Folly separated from Valour?”
—Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe

When I hear the word “plume,” which I don’t very often, I think of gallant knights and/or Millie, and I suppose Millie has that attitude that we call chivalry: the first to charge, the last to leave the battle.  She protects the weak—such as myself—from invaders like the mailman, and the merry voices of the Green kids next door, when their giggles menace us through the fence (ages 4, 2, and .5).  14 pounds of oreo-furred ferocity, a panda face of black eyes and that white plume sprouting up from between them (plus that lopsided underbite) amply account for the perfect unconquered record our home and castle has hitherto enjoyed.  Once a mailman knocked on the door then left, just wanting to let us know a package was on our doorstep.  Millie howled like we were being assailed by Hitler himself, and when I opened the door to pick up the package, she shot past me to tear the deuce a new one.  I had to run a good forty feet down our long sloping driveway to catch her in the process of throwing out her chest to get that devil off our property.  He laughed and heiled it off as he hopped into his truck.  As Millie trotted back up the driveway, she looked at me still full of wrath at the evil of we’d just seen.  Nevermind she was a Shih-Tzu, the set of her jaw was downright pugnacious, I could almost see “the challenging tilt of a cigar”…and suddenly I realized I’d never seen such a striking resemblance to Winston Churchill: the “never give in” ideal personified.  It made me a little jealous to realize that Hitler himself could not have bombed our dog into submission, to think she would have faced the whole Nazi Luftwaffe.  She would have led the charge, like The Last Lion (the Churchill biography I’ve been reading, two years after that mailman moment), and in her howls we might have heard, “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”  Shih-Tzu means “lion” in Chinese.

There’s a moment in Braveheart where Robert the Bruce’s father dismisses William Wallace’s fearlessness by saying, “He has courage—so does a dog—but it’s precisely the ability to compromise that makes men noble.”  I’m afraid I fit far too well under his definition of “noble.”  Isn’t faith, the soul of heroism, as Talmage said, more like the soul of Reepicheep, the mouse-knight of Narnia who only wanted worse odds, that he might have greater glory, or perhaps that he might better glorify?  Do I have to write the whole St. Crispin’s Day speech right here, to show what heroes think of impossible odds?  Why yes—I do:

WESTMORELAND: O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING: What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are marked to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

There was apparently a film version of Henry V, made during WWII in Britain, where the silhouette of a soldier in a tent could be seen donning military fatigues during the St. Crispin’s Day speech.  There was nothing rational at all about defying Germany.  France’s army had outnumbered even the Germans (and far, far outnumbered the Brits), and yet it had fallen within 30 days.  All the Brits had going for them was their moat—the English channel—and their death before dishonor mentality, which they all as one band of brothers shared.  “Like the great and good in story if we fail we fail with glory—God speed the right!  God speed the right!”  English blood itself is an heroic heritage.

Millie’s blood also carries in it the fearless and savage defiance of one who cannot know him or herself beaten.  The mere possibility is inconceivable.  Thus such people—heroes—actually crave worse odds.  It was said of Churchill that after June of 1940, his “world of imagination ‘coincided with the facts of exernal reality in a way that rarely happens to any man.”  These odds were terrible enough that they were finally worth fighting for.  And it wasn’t just Churchill.  Even for the common Englander, morale actually rose when France fell, and when they faced a Europe submerged by the Swastika, utterly alone.  As The New Yorker reported on June 22: “The individual Englishman seems to be singularly unimpressed by the fact that there is now nothing between him and the undivided attention of a war machine such as the world has never seen before.”  “News vendors chalked: ‘we’re in the final—to be played on home ground.’”  Wrote Dorothy L. Sayers:

This is the war that England knows,
When no allies are left, no help
To count upon from alien hands,
No waverers remain to woo,
No more advice to listen to,
And only England stands.

I saved my textbook from my “History of Europe: 1914-present” class, almost exclusively for a single British poster from WWII which it showed: a flight of Nazi planes were sailing in from darkness over the sea; beneath them, a lone British infantrymen raised his fist in defiance of them all.  I’ve wanted that poster ever since then.  I haven’t stopped hoping I’ll find one.

While Hitler was staging a victory parade through the Brandenburg gate—so sure England would see the futility of resistance, and thus fold—a Gallup poll in may found that only 3% of Britons thought that they might lose the war—and “by the end of July, the percentage was so small it was immeasurable.”  This was due to the modern Lion-Heart and true.  (I’ve heard the old Lion-heart, King Richard, wasn’t quite what we know him as in Disney’s Robin Hood or Ivanhoe, historically, but I do not much know.)  After the war, “Englishmen as skeptical of politicians as Bernard Shaw [and others] agreed that had anyone but Churchill been prime minister in the summer of 1940, Britain would have negotiated an armistice with Hitler.”  When Churchill pleaded with the French leaders not to lose spirit and surrender (even the hopelessly outmatched Poles had held out for 3 weeks), one of the French lamented, not that it would change what happened: “If we capitulate, all the great might of Germany will be concentrated upon invading England.  And then what will you do?’ Thrusting his jaw forward, the P.M. replied that he hadn’t thought about it carefully, but that broadly speaking he would propose to drown as many of them as possible and then to hit on the head any of them who managed to crawl ashore.”  So Churchill deserved a lot of the credit for the high spirits of his countrymen, yet they deserve the credit for adopting his.  As Churchill said of his people: “It fell to me in those coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions.  This I was able to do, because they were mine also.”  And hence people like Hugh Dalton, “long his opponent in the House, wrote [after a speech declaring that “if this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground,” which caused many MPs to rush up shouting to his chair and clap him on the back): ‘He was quite magnificent. [He is] the man, the and the only man we have, for this hour.”  This, their finest hour.  They had literally joined the great and good in story.

Back to Millie, who was the prompt for this Churchillian tribute, and “ruminE/mediation/reflection/expose word” on courage.  She too has something fearless in a feral way, a legacy to her blood.  Our little Horton (“…Hears a Who”--a fluffy elephant, half Millie’s size) enrages Millie; the sight of him awakens an ancient, feral thirst in her to seize by the throat and rampage around the room thrashing back and forth so as to snap the neck and let the blood and take the life of the thing.  I’ve probably seen her do this a dozen times (and I’m not always home from school).  I tried training her to do it by saying “Millie—savage!” once she was already doing it, hoping she’d begin to associate the thrill of slaking her bloodthirst with the sound of that word, but it never worked.  Instead, the word would bring her back from the original instincts of her kind and leave her wondering what the word meant.  The way she thrashes really is savage—violent to the point of blindness.  It makes me wonder about that instinct, how many lives have been lost to its origins her ancestors, those with a more expressive scope.

I’m back on that idea of blindness—Robert the Bruce’s father’s statement that the ability to compromise makes us noble.  I wonder if it’s even noble to reason.  Was it wise to defy Hitler?  I trow not.  Was it right?  “Never in the history of human combat has so much been owed by so many to so few,” said Churchill, of the RAF after their triumph in the Battle of Britain.  I’ve got an RAF pin (a duplicate, I think), given to me by the kind man sitting next to me during Evensong in Christchurch College, Oxford.  He’d learned the only souvenir I wanted was a Royal Air Force bomber jacket, and only regretted he hadn’t brought one of his three to give to me.  A rather unreasonable thing, that, too—he only knew one thing about me.

I wonder more and more about this lofty blindness.  Some people are blinded by odds, and fear; others are blinded by honor, and believe.  Our eyes were made to be single, perhaps, to be blind to all but that thing which we love most; and where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.  Once our hearts are pure, then only we shall see (Him).  So if it were a sin to covet honor, how vicious would my own heart be?  Millie barks before she calculates the odds.  She howls and charges the moment a knock’s at the door (kind of annoying, actually--she's doing it right now and I lie not).  Do the details (defeat or victory) matter?  Or is she so committed to honor that she already knows what she’s going to do: she is beyond the reach of odds.  Goliaths are the ones who win through the odds.  And what is winning worth besides a few more years?  (To flip the cultural contexts, such that the English are the bad guys:)

Young soldier: “Home! The English are too many!”

Wallace: “Aye, you can run, and you’ll live—at least awhile.  But one day, dying in your beds, would you be willing to give every day from that day til this, for one chance, for just one chance, to tell them that they may take away our lives, but they’ll never take OUR FREEDOM!”

“Every man dies, not every man really lives.”  I believe that if we die for principle, we die for all our principles—all the ones we would have lived had God granted us more days.  I don’t think we have anything to lose by losing our lives now.  Don’t get me wrong—I haven’t sworn for death before dishonor yet—but I am working on it, as I believe God is working on me.  Hence I have some hope for this.  Faith is the soul of heroism, true true--and thus heroes are embodiments of courage.

Reepicheep longed for death-or-glory charges, forlorn hopes, and last stands.  Why? Because his time and talents (his life and his blade) were but things with which he hoped to secure the only thing that mattered.  I'm praying for such a shift in my paradigm.  "God help me.  Here I stand." - Martin Luther

Millie’s funny too, like Churchill, “the most amusing warlord in history.”  A lot of this comes from the fact that neither he nor she ever went in for any of that nonsense that (s)he wasn’t the most important being in the room.  For instance, my dad likes to nap, typically on the couch.  Millie likes to catch him napping, hop up on the couch, then settle herself on his face.  He pushes her off.  She hops on again.  She just does that.  I don’t know where her self-confidence comes from: perhaps she’s a little inflated with herself, not wholly devoted to the humble sort of honour: "Perhaps you think too much of your honor, friend," said Aslan to Reepicheep.  She didn't used to be.  The Christmas Millie first appeared—puffy, small, and tentative—“taking her out” (to do her business) was complicated.  She was so small we couldn’t tell if she was squatting in the snow or just shivering in it, wondering why we were doing this to her.

The other thing she does—simply freaking out—also happens when she feels something commensurate to her capacity for wonder—like when you come home, after a long time off at school.  Then she may be relied upon to rocket to the sound of your voice, and bunch up at your feet, and shake visibly with excitement, literally to the tip of her nose—she sneezes when she’s thrilled.  Then she sprints back into the living room as you greet and hug your sisters, leaps onto the back of a couch and begs you for attention by basically having an affectionate seizure.  Maybe I love her because she loved me first.  Her heart in many ways is godly, so I guess it’s no shame to want to be more like her, a little more gallant and doughty.  Once, when I came home, I was so happy to see her that I realized I couldn't tell her any better than she could tell me (how can you elocute affection to a dog?).  I scratched behind her ears and along her back aggressively (my love language, apparently, along with persecution of siblings etc) such that it rolled her over a time or two.  Apparently she got the gist of what I meant, because it shot her off again, around our basement stairwell at a reckless sprint.  Then she rounded it again.  And then she did again.  And then she did again.  Her strides were the fullest, fiercest things she could express, suspending her in air at full length for an instant before her toes touched the deep beige carpet and she tore herself onward again.  She lapped the stairwell seven or eight times at a breathless pace, then inexplicably reversed directions (I was laughing to myself) then lapped it six more.  Then she lay down, panting desperately, totally spent in her cause.

No comments:

Post a Comment