A Divine Gift of the Muses by Anthony Esolen


A Divine Gift of the Muses

The Great Epics Are Theological & Mark the Hard Path to Beatitude

Some years ago I got into a rather tense conversation with a couple of students in the office of the English department. We were talking about The Lord of the Rings, and I remarked that nothing like it could be written now, because our culture—for want of a better word, I must use the word "culture" to describe our mass habits, after the reality of culture has withered away—no longer possesses a vision of the world and of man that would sustain such a work. Tolkien himself could write his trilogy only because he was something of an anachronism, as he was steeped in the medieval epics—the sagas of Snorri Sturluson, the Finnish Kalevala, the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, and so forth—and was a devout Catholic, seeing all things by the light of revelation and three thousand years of meditation upon the ways of God to man.

The students resisted. No youngster likes to hear that he lives in an age of decline and decrepitude. But over the years I've grown more convinced that my hunch was correct. Not only about the decrepitude—the palsy of the soul that mistakes cynicism for sophistication, and cold-hearted lust for love. Consider the ringing verse from Isaiah: "For my ways are not your ways, nor are my thoughts your thoughts, saith the Lord. For as high as the heavens are above the sea, so far are my ways from your ways, and my thoughts from your thoughts."

That's a verse that would set Homer himself to thinking. It expresses the vast distance between the divine and the human. But it is also addressed to man: it is a clarion call for man to set out on a journey to cross that distance, even as God reaches out to man in the events of human life. The sentiment on the part of the prophet is not despair but fear and wonder, and the appeal of an adventure in being itself.

The Inner & Outer Adventures

This sense of adventure is everywhere in the Jewish wisdom writers. "As the deer longs for the running stream, so my soul longs for you, my God," says the psalmist, and there we have the inner adventure of the spirit. Nor need we confine ourselves to the Scriptures. We have the farmer Hesiod stretching his mind to sing of the birth of the gods. We have Pierre in his tattered clothes, retreating with his fellow Russians from the Battle of Borodino, given a vision of the meaning of human life by the simplicity of a large-hearted peasant.

But elsewhere in the psalms it is written, "The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done; it is wonderful in our eyes," and there we have the outer adventure of history, seen not as one damned thing after another, as Henry Ford put it, but as providentially led, with real surprises that finally make sense.

We have the Chosen People, that small and otherwise unremarkable nation, becoming a blessing to all the world. We have St. Peter, in Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis?, conquering the Rome that crucified him. I daresay even an agnostic must admit the possibility that someday a photograph of Mother Teresa, standing in Missouri between a cad and a hag, will cause people to say, "Yes, they never suspected it at the time, but the really important and revolutionary figure in this scene was the little nun from Albania, and not the president—which one was he now?—and his wife."

So I suggest that the inner and the outer adventures, in the epic, are one; or rather that the world-crossing adventure of an Aeneas or an Odysseus is dependent upon, and is expressive of, the spirit-soaring adventure of the human heart answering the call of what transcends it. The epic is then essentially theological. The epic is vast, and requires a vast field; as vast as the seas sailed by Ahab, that tormented theologian and captain of despair; as vast as heaven and the deep tract of hell; as vast as the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Invoking the Muse

If I'm right about this, then we may draw some implications about what might otherwise look like adventitious features of the epic, but what are really to be expected, given its theological soul. The first is this: We must listen to the Muse.

It's commonplace to treat the epic invocation to the Muse as a commonplace. It's just something that's done, stuck onto the opening of a long poem as a brand name, announcing, "Here followeth an epic." That would be a mistake. Indeed, one of the signs that we don't have a genuine epic is the demotion of the gods to poetic machinery, and the invocation to a

Consider the opening to Luigi Pulci's Morgante: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, / And the Word was with God, in my opinion." In my opinion? Pulci has invoked God and the mystery of the Incarnation with bold impropriety and irrelevance to the rest of his poem, which goes on to relate the crazy feats of knights and sorcerers, and especially giants, marauding across a Europe that seems, as in his much greater imitator Ariosto, about as big as a comfortable county with a town or two in it.

But what happens if we take the invocations seriously? Hear how Homer opens the Iliad: Menin aeide, Thea, Peleiadou Akhilleos / oulomenen. To translate literally and more or less in the Greek word order: "The rage sing, Goddess, of Achilles son of Peleus, / the dreadful rage." We have here a work of consummate artistry—and we've hardly gotten to the second line. Rage, in the accusative case, begins the poem; it is its controlling theme. The adjective that marks its horror begins the second line, hung out on it alone, and acting as the end bracket for the clause: rage at one end, dreadful at the other. What's in the middle, then? Divinity is. We have a singing goddess, and Achilles, born of the goddess Thetis and the mortal King Peleus.

Like the Wrong God

Those are not just metrical placeholders. Achilles is dios Akhilleus, divine Achilles, sky-bright Achilles, as the final line of the opening passage affirms. But in what does his divinity consist? He is fleet of foot and strong of arm, a terror in battle. His mother, Thetis, advises him and pleads for him before Zeus. But the god to whom Achilles is most pointedly compared in the Iliad is not Zeus, the glorious and cunning, but Hades, Death, the implacable. According to Hesiod, the Muses, daughters of Zeus begotten after he had defeated the Titans and, through strength and farsightedness, consolidated his power on Olympus, confer upon men the gift of eloquence in the service of straight judgment. They are the inspiring powers that found the polis.

But in the Iliad, Achilles turns from defending the army against Agamemnon's avarice and insecurity to abandoning the polis, that is, the army, sulking in his tent and gloating when his fellow Greeks are mowed down by Hector. Even the appeals of three chosen speakers fail.

And who are these speakers? Ajax, not brilliant but the next strongest of the Greek warriors; Phoenix, a surrogate father to Achilles, who pleads on behalf of Achilles' self-interest, and who reminds him of all he did for him when he was young; and Odysseus, most eloquent, who places words of warning upon the lips of Achilles' aged father Peleus, spoken just before the lad was to leave for the war. Each man represents an appeal to Achilles to reintegrate himself into a social world, one held together by gratitude and piety—due reverence to the gods and to men of authority. Achilles' heart is moved, but his will does not budge.

Humanity and divinity are both at issue here. Achilles' rage is superhuman in its intensity, and inhuman in its inflexibility. He is like a god, but the wrong god. Somehow, he must move from Hades to Zeus, or at least to a distant reflection of Zeus—from the rage to the singing Muse, or from the man who dragged the body of Hector three times around the walls of Troy, in the sight of Hecuba his mother and Andromache his wife, to the man who gives that body back to Priam in the end—to King Priam, old and weak, who enters Achilles' tent one night and appears to him, Homer does not tell us quite how, like a god.

Motifs of Vision & Blindness

Now that, I'd say, is a fruitful way to hear the invocation. To confirm us in our course, the great poets who followed Homer come forth to testify. Let's look at the end of Milton's second invocation in Paradise Lost, his glorious address to the holy light of heaven. The poet has dared to venture down the dark descent to hell, but now his task is even more arduous, far beyond his native powers. He must speak of heaven.

Hence he plays, for the first time, upon his own blindness. This is most fitting, since sinful man cannot penetrate the darkness of heaven, dark with excess of bright, as Milton puts it. Sinful man is in this sense no healthier than the blind poet, who cannot enjoy the sight of flocks, or herds, or human face divine. Wisdom itself, Milton says, is at one entrance quite shut out. But the more profound entrance of the soul remains:

So much the rather thou celestial Light
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate; there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see, and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight.

Just as Homer had done, Milton locates in his invocation the essence of the epic. It isn't simply that the motifs of vision and blindness are convenient for his purposes. The very temptation that meets man in the fall is a temptation of vision. Says Satan, accusing God of envy:

    He knows that in the day
Ye eat thereof, your eyes that seem so clear,
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Opened and cleared, and ye shall be as gods,
Knowing both good and evil, as they know.

But when Adam and Eve, having sinned and sealed their guilt with licentious play, awake from their restless sleep, they

    soon found their eyes how opened, and their minds
How darkened; innocence, that as a veil
Had shadowed them from knowing ill, was gone;
Just confidence, and native righteousness,
And honor from about them, naked left
To guilty shame: he covered, but his robe
Uncovered more.

For it is central not only to the meaning of the poem but to its very narrative structure that vision, holiness, and genuine love are all mutually inseparable. Sin darkens the mind and blinds the eye. Hence, Satan is literally envious: his sight is invidious, wrong-side-out, as when, spying upon Adam and Eve, he overhears the lovers reminiscing happily about how they first met, and then watches them conclude the conversation with passionate kisses:

    Aside the devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plained:
Sight hateful, sight tormenting!

He is filled with pride, and therefore he cannot love; he cannot love, and therefore he sees, but he does not see.

The True & Heavenly Muse

Here we may follow Milton one step farther, and still remain well within the understanding of the ancient Greek poets. If we invoke the Muses, or the Holy Spirit that is Milton's muse, then we are confessing that our art is not simply our own. What shall it profit a man, if the Muse sing, and he heed her not? The attitude of the epic poet is mysteriously receptive. Milton suggests as much when, in the prologue to Book Nine, he confesses that his wing would droop too low for the great flight that remains to him if all his art were merely his and not "hers who brings it nightly to [his] ear."

That's no courtly nod to a pleasant fiction. Consider Torquato Tasso's invocation in the second stanza of his epic, Jerusalem Delivered:

O Muse, who do not weave a garland of
The fading laurel-fronds of Helicon,
But far in heaven among the blessed choirs
Wreathe deathless stars into a golden crown,
Breathe into my heart the fire of heavenly love,
Illuminate my song.

Milton seems to follow Tasso's lead here: the old muses who danced upon Helicon were empty dreams, but the true and heavenly Muse is a poetic representation of the Holy Spirit. "Breathe into my heart the fire of heavenly love," cries the poet, and we err badly if we do not take him precisely at his word. The whole of the epic concerns that love. The conquest of Jerusalem is Tasso's metaphor for the union, within one man, of the faculties of reason and appetite and thymos, high-spirited drive; the head, the belly, and the chest, as C. S. Lewis, following Plato, put it so well; and the communion of men with one another, manifest in the army commanded by Godfrey of Bouillon. Neither union is possible apart from the love of God, both subjectively and objectively understood: the gracious love that is God's gift, and the receptive love whereby we answer him. Let him who has ears to hear, hear.

Bursting the Boundaries

The second lesson follows from the first: because the Muse brings knowledge we cannot attain on our own, the epic bursts the boundaries of our common experience. Theology and epistemology unite. The metaphor for this limit-testing is, naturally, a voyage or a pilgrimage. It is a journey in space or time—usually into the deep backward and abysm of time, and hence the association of the Muse with memory—that reflects the depths fathomed or the heights scaled by the soul.

The voyager we immediately think of is Odysseus, and here it's well to look at the opening of Homer's other great epic, the Odyssey: Andra moi ennepe, Mousa, polytropon, ho mala polla / Planchthe. Again, translating with painful literalness: "That man to me sing thou, O Muse, him of many turnings, who suffered many evils." Here, too, the first word is a touchstone: andra, the man, the real deal, the pattern of manhood. The man is polytropos, full of shifts, an artful dodger. Odysseus's capacity to fake left and run right shows that he's a worthy favorite of the sly goddess Athena, herself sprung from the head of Zeus the master tactician; he is also, on his mother's side, kin to Hermes, patron of thieves.

Odysseus is crafty, in various senses of the word. He has knowledge in his hands; he planes the beams to build his boat on Calypso's island, he knows how to peg them together, and how to caulk up the chinks; and when he handles his famous bow in Ithaca, he strings it in one swift motion of skill and strength, and plucks the string, making it sing like a swallow—as if he were a master of the harp. He has knowledge in his speech. He knows exactly what to say to the lovely girl Nausicaa, in that tense moment on the beach, to hold her eyes to his eyes, so she will not look down upon his nakedness. He is neither abject nor arrogant, neither skulking nor aggressive. Nausicaa turns to her playmates and says, laughing at their fear, "Haven't you ever seen a man before?" The answer to that question is, of course, no, they haven't ever seen a man before, and neither has Nausicaa; imitations, sure, but never the real thing.

All this know-how is a gift of the gods, but Odysseus has come to know things also that the pagan gods cannot know. He knows suffering. The gods can use strategy to get their way; Odysseus must use it, merely to survive. His life, though overseen by Athena, is deeper and more fascinating than anything the pagan goddess can ever experience. Zeus may weep over the death of his son Sarpedon on the battlefield of Troy, but there's always nectar and ambrosia to smooth away the grief, not to mention a tumble in the hay with any female of his liking. Thus does Homer encourage an ambivalence toward the ease of the gods, and their gift of prosperity to mortal men.

A Journey Through Suffering

The case of Menelaus is instructive. He arrived too late to avenge his brother Agamemnon's death—one day too late. His journey to Egypt after the war was mercantile; he did not "map the minds of many," as Odysseus did. He mourns the loss of his friend Odysseus, but he hasn't lifted one finger to find him. All of his protests to Telemachus are couched in the conditional: I would do this; I would do that. And just when he and the boy think of Odysseus, and begin to weep silent tears, along comes the person who wears the greaves in the family, Helen, to slip a narcotic into their drinks, so that they could sit calmly and cheerfully even if a brother should be slaughtered before their eyes.

The journey of Odysseus, then, is existential, not just geographical; it is a journey through suffering, it defines him as the man, and though the suffering sharply distinguishes him from the gods, it is also not wholly in his power either to embrace or to conquer. Thus, his journey far north to speak to the shades from the underworld is the paradigmatic adventure of the poem. Agamemnon, betrayed by his wife Clytemnestra (the sister of Helen, of course; there's a family reunion I'll skip), recommends that Odysseus exercise caution when he returns to Ithaca, though, says the bitter old chief, Penelope will no doubt prove to be a paragon of faithful women, as opposed to the bitch he married. So there are those strategic reasons why Odysseus consults the shades.

But Homer won't leave it at that. Odysseus meets Achilles, and flatters him: "Achilles, what glory it must be for you to be the greatest among the warriors here!" But Achilles, who could not combine in one life military glory and the joy of living with his family in his homeland, replies that he'd rather be a servant to a plowman up above, manuring the fields, than lord of all the gibbering shades below. Odysseus meets Ajax, whom he drove mad when he won the arms of the dead Achilles, and Ajax will not forgive him or even speak to him. He meets his mother, who died not of old age or disease, but of grief for him, Odysseus, her beloved son. Then he sees, one after another, the virtuous women of old—and he is in awe of them. Odysseus, for a moment or two, seems small to us by comparison.

I won't say that Odysseus learns from these experiences, to become a new Odysseus, one who achieves the knowledge of the blind Oedipus at Colonus, who says—and approaches the Christian revelation as closely as any pagan poet would—that the secret of human knowledge is love. Even that Oedipus is still the old Oedipus, cursing his prodigal son Polynices; no slaying the fatted calf here. But Odysseus's adventures hold out for us the ideal—the man who has entered upon the threshold of a world beyond the ultimate boundary, death, and returns to tell us what he has seen.

The Heroic Quest for Knowledge

In this regard too, other poets have understood the principle. Lucretius, wishing to grace his philosophy with the glory of the epic, casts his master Epicurus as a warrior general who shatters the boundaries of the unmeasured All, and returns in a Roman triumph. Other generals bring back slaves and plunder, but, says Lucretius,

Our victor returns with knowledge of what can arise,
What cannot, what law grants each thing its own
Deep driven boundary stone and finite scope.
Religion thus lies trampled beneath our feet,
And we are made gods by the victory.

Setting aside the over-praise, this trampling of superstition is, in Lucretius's mind, a deeply religious thing; it merits for Epicurus the praise of an ultimate hero, far greater than that due to Hercules, the supposed benefactor of mankind.

Naturally, the idea of a quest for knowledge, especially supra-mundane knowledge, was congenial to Christian poets, whose heaven is not the sensualist oasis of the Mohammedan, but the beatific vision, the sight of God. Here, if we turn to Dante, we may see a progression from what the sinner knows, which is little, and dimly, to what the human mind may know through its own powers, though with assistance, to what the human mind can only come to know by divine love—the love that is a free act of God from without, and an infused virtue or power from within.

So, near the beginning of his epic, as he prepares for the journey down to hell, Dante invokes the Muse, but abruptly and ambiguously:

O Musa, O alto ingegno, or m'auitate:
    O mente che scrivesti cio ch'io vidi,
    qui si parra la tua nobilitate.

Here the Muse is renamed twice, in quick succession. She is the alto ingegno, and the mente; the high or deep indwelling genius, the native powers, and the mind that wrote down what Dante saw. It appears that Dante is calling upon his own muse here, announcing that he is about to crack his poetic knuckles, stretching mind and craft to their limits, to show their nobility to the world.

Assistance Needed

But when he opens the Purgatorio, Dante compares his genius to a little boat sailing upon the sea: la navicella del mio ingegno. The sea figures prominently at the beginning of the Purgatorio, as souls must be ferried from the mouth of the Tiber clear to the Mountain of Purgatory, in the southern hemisphere, opposite on the globe to Calvary. These are waters, says Dante—alluding to the misadventurous voyage of Ulysses—"that no
man ever sailed / who lived to tell it in his native land."

The sea would overwhelm his little ship of ingenuity, were it not for the Muse—now a goddess to whom Dante owes allegiance. Dante had traveled down into the realm of death. Now he must climb a mountain of life that brings healing, and no man can mount its slopes without the grace of God. That grace is akin to the favor of the Muses, whom Dante now calls holy:

Here rise to life again, dead poetry!
    Let it, O holy Muses, for I am yours,
    and here, Calliope, strike a higher key,
Accompanying my song with that sweet air
    which made the wretched Magpies feel a blow
    that turned all hope of pardon to despair.

The Magpies, daughters of the Thessalian king Pierus, challenged Calliope to a singing match, lost, and were for their presumption transformed into those big, gaudy European cousins of our squawking blue jays. The word despair suggests that the defeat is spiritual; the daughters of Pierus lost their souls when they lost their contest, or tossed their souls away when they embarked upon the contest. They are like the Ulysses of Inferno 26, who gave his men evil counsel, whetting their appetite to sail beyond the bounds set for unassisted human knowledge. Ulysses is correct to suggest that it is natural in man to seek to know what transcends man:

Think well on your begetting and your seed!
    For you were never made to live like brutes,
    but to pursue the good in mind and deed.

But the problem is that Ulysses does not seek to receive this knowledge as a gift. The implicit lie is that the vast ocean before him is, in the end, no different from a stream that a boy may cross by stepping on stones. One may be crossed with ease, the other with great trouble and risk—but both may be crossed.

The Breath That Makes New

The presumption of Dante's Ulysses belies a fundamental contradiction. The epistemological aim is vast, or seems to be, when suddenly the heavens collapse, and the great voyage is no different in kind from a trip from Central Park to the lower East Side, with the exception that the latter may be more dangerous at certain hours of the night. The spirit of Hesiod, rather, and, I suggest, of Homer's own Odysseus—or of the ever-searching Socrates in the Phaedrus and the Symposium—approaches that of Dante when he prays for wisdom and poetic genius as unmerited gifts. The invocation to the epic Muse in the Purgatorio becomes, in the Paradiso, a prayer to Christ, the Wisdom of God, the true Apollo:

O good Apollo, for this last work of art,
    make me as fit a vessel of your power
    as you demand when you bestow the crown
Of the beloved laurel. Till this hour
    one peak of twin Parnassus has sufficed,
    but if I am to enter the lists now
I shall need both. Then surge into my breast
    and breathe your song, as when you drew the vain
    Marsyas from the sheath of his own limbs.

Please keep in mind that image of the arena of battle; I shall return to it soon. There are two things I wish to point out here. The first is Dante's prayer for the breath of Apollo: entra nel petto mio, he says, enter my breast—thinking of the Sibyl, seized by the god and compelled to speak his words—e spira tue: and breathe yours, that is, breathe your power, breathe your knowledge, breathe your song.

We must not leave the breathing behind to think of some vague inspiration, as when people say they are "inspired" by a fireman singing the national anthem, meaning that they feel modestly uplifted and are glad for firemen who can sing. The breathing recalls Genesis: when God formed Adam from the dust, and breathed into him the breath of life, and he became a living soul. The breathing here is to make Dante new.

It is to effect what is parodied by the punishment of Marsyas. That sorry satyr had challenged Apollo to a musical duel and lost—he is therefore analogous to the Magpies at the beginning of the Purgatorio. But Marsyas wasn't condemned to shrieking at crows. He was devaginated; unsheathed from his members, flayed alive. But Dante, too, wishes to be unsheathed from his limbs, in a certain sense: to be unbound from the limitations of the flesh. He calls this transformation trasumanar, man's soaring beyond man. It elevates man to godhood.

Yet in another sense he does not wish to be unbound from the flesh—because, following the cryptic words of Job, he wishes to see his Redeemer in the flesh, with his own eyes, and not another's. Even in his ascent to Paradise he will not deny the possibility that he was raised both in the soul and in the body:

        If I bore alone
    that part of me which You created last,
    O Love that steers the heavens, You surely know,
For Your light lifted me.

Bearing the Two-Edged Sword

But there it is: he didn't raise himself, but was raised, by the Love that steers the heavens. On his own, Dante is, as he'll say at the culmination of his voyage and his vision, no better than a baby who wets his tongue still at his mother's breast. Most obviously, his words allude to Mary, Seat of Wisdom, whose intercession he has entreated, but they remind us also of what he believes the true voyage of poetry and knowledge is all about. So Statius in the Purgatorio describes Homer as the Greek who drank most deeply at the Muse's breast, and again we'd be wrong to read that line as a mere nod to convention. It expresses well the epic thirst for knowledge—which comes from beyond the self, beyond man alone.

Yet there's a way in which the analogy to the baby is not adequate, either, as Dante knew. When, in the Quest of the Holy Grail, Galahad, Bors, and Perceval board the Ship of Faith, they consign themselves wholly to the direction of God, and this is well symbolized by the fact that the ship has no tiller. It sails where Providence takes it. So far, they might all be babes at the mother's breast—except that they are all courageous and tireless warriors.

The word of God, says St. Paul, is a two-edged sword, piercing to the quick, able of dividing soul and spirit and discerning the intents of men. Those three good knights bear the sword of the word of God. The unknown Cistercian author of their epic narrative makes them at once receptive and active, in the field of battle and in the field of knowledge. Adventures come to them—that's what the word adventure means, and that might lead us to think of them as blanks upon which are inscribed the plans of God; yet they are adventures indeed, in our sense of the word, battles against wicked knights, sorcerers, and demons, and voyages toward the vision of what eye has not seen, nor has it entered into the mind of man to conceive, the direct vision of Christ in the Eucharist.

The Law of the Epic Battle

Here the two characteristics I have named point us toward the third. The epic is fundamentally theological; it is epistemologically receptive, especially of knowledge beyond the unaided capacity of man to discover; therefore it naturally takes us into battle. That's why Dante, at the beginning of the Paradiso, says he must enter the lists. It is not simply a commonplace. "He who would save his life must lose it," says Jesus, and that expresses what we might call the Law of the Epic Battle. It is a law not arbitrarily imposed by God; it is implied by the nature of man's attempt to approach the divine, setting forth on a voyage for that divine knowledge. Death must needs stand between us and rebirth. The man who does not risk all, risks nothing—except his chance to find all, to see all.

Here we may, as so often, rely upon Milton to see how the battle is central to the epic, and why this is so. I'm thinking of the passage in Book Nine, when he disclaims sole authorship or even principal authorship of his poem, and then seems—seems—to strike at the heart of the epic tradition. He is going to describe the Fall of man and the wrath of heaven, a sad task, he says,

    Yet argument
Not less but more Heroic than the wrath
Of stern Achilles on his foe pursued
Thrice fugitive about Troy wall—

So much for the Iliad—yet note that he does grant the heroic nature of that poem—

    or rage
Of Turnus for Lavinia disespoused,
Or Neptune's ire or Juno's, that so long
Perplexed the Greek and Cytherea's Son—

So much for Virgil's Aeneid— 

If answerable style I can obtain
Of my celestial Patroness, who deigns
Her nightly visitation unimplored,
And dictates to me slumbering, or inspires
Easy my unpremeditated verse—

An astonishing description of what it feels like, for a great artist, to be visited with ideas or images or words or music from beyond the self—

Since first this subject for Heroic song
Pleased me long choosing, and beginning late;
Not sedulous by nature to indite
Wars, hitherto the only argument
Heroic deemed, chief mastery to dissect
With long and tedious havoc fabled knights
In battles feigned; the better fortitude
Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom

It seems that battle does not make the epic, but epic demands the battle. Milton may have in mind the most arid stretches of Ariosto, whom otherwise he admired; canto upon canto describing the feats of knights such as never lived, fighting the Saracens in a battle for Paris that never took place, with all the "tilting furniture" of lances and helmets and warhorses and bannered tents and trumpets. That's an injustice to Ariosto, but a glance toward Milton's "sage and serious Spenser" is instructive: the Knight of Temperance, says Milton,is not a puppet-Adam, but a man who enters the battle, not without dust and heat, and faces head-on the temptations of the world.

Spenser's Faerie Queene, as Milton surely saw, was filled with that "tilting furniture" of jousting that he so derided, but always in the service of what Milton calls "the better fortitude." In other words, Milton's rejection of the epic tradition is not based on pacifism, on any dismissal of the manly call to fight; he wants not less fighting, but more; the problem is that a war between Mycenae and Troy is not enough of a war. The battlefield must be decisive. "Know you not," says St. Paul, "that we strive against powers and principalities?" No less than the whole of man—body and spirit and soul, past and present and future, the temporal and the eternal—is at stake.

No Less than All

The epic hero is, to use Milton's term, a martyr,a fighting witness to the truth that has come to him from beyond his natural ken. That definition may shed light even upon the heroes of the pagan epics. Virgil is chary of words, not allowing us much leisure to dwell upon the turbulence of Aeneas' heart; but if we pause to notice, we see a man seeking to perform his duty in the twilight of human passions and misunderstandings, a man who learns, as he moves from one unhappy incident to another, what the gods require of him.

Aeneas has not only to fight Turnus. He has to fight Aeneas. He is not the fury-ridden young Achilles. He is a man slightly past his prime, whose wisdom is hard-won and bitter. Few sadder words have been written than those that Virgil put on the lips of this man, as he prepares for his final battle against Turnus—having already conquered his dearest desires:

Labor and manhood learn from me, my son;
Good fortune you can learn from someone else.

Aeneas is a martyr to what remains, at the end of the poem, an unresolved riddle: the virtue of piety, which embraces duty to the father and the household gods and the great gods, and which Virgil has tried, and failed, to integrate with mercy to all those who suffer in this dark and baffling world.

But the epic demands no less than all. Were it not for our knowledge of Achilles' dreadful dilemma—he may win everlasting glory on the battlefield but die as a young man, never to see his homeland or his father again—we would see his fury in war as no more admirable than that of a butcher. He witnesses, wrongly I believe, to the transcendent worth of that glory.

It is why Galahad must die, gratefully yet still as a martyr, as soon as he beholds the mysteries of the Grail. It is why Spenser's Red Cross Knight, in both nights of his three-day battle against the dragon, undergoes a symbolic death, raised to life again first by the water of the well of life and then by the balm of the tree of life, so that the puzzled galoot of a beast, on the morning of the third day—on the morning of the third day, note well—wonders whether it's the same knight he has been fighting, or some knight newborn.

It is why, if Beowulf had ended with the rassling match between the Geat and the monster—with Beowulf locking him in a half-Nelson, ripping his arm off, and giving our poet-monk the opportunity for the greatest line of ironic understatement in Anglo Saxon poetry, which I loosely translate as "that was not a good day for Grendel"—if the poem had ended there, Beowulf the man would never have attained full heroic stature. He must do more than risk death. He must dive into the realm of death: into the mere, where old Ma Grendel lurks, and, in the end, into the lair of the dragon.

Alyosha must leave the monastery and battle it out with his half-mad brother Ivan. Ahab must shrug aside the motive of profit and search the oceans for the white whale. Dante must enter those gates that read, Abandon all hope, you who enter here. Godfrey must lay siege to Jerusalem—and not be satisfied with an Edessa here or an Antioch there. He must fulfill his vow, and hang up his arms at the church of the Holy Sepulcher, where they are still to be seen.

"What shall it profit a man," says Jesus, "if he gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?" He implies also the converse: "What shall a man be harmed, if he lose the whole world, and win his own soul?" They are the words that moved Francis Xavier to set worldly gain to the wind, and voyage to India, to Japan, and to lay his bones to rest on an unknown shore.

The sagas of the pagan heroes of the north, as Sigrid Undset well saw, prepare the way for the sagas of saints, of a queen like Bridget, leaving all the perquisites of her royalty and traveling to Rome to reform the church; or of an unschooled, middle-class woman like Catherine of Siena, to cast herself fully into works of charity and contemplation, and to move the world—so effectively that I doubt any woman of our "liberated" time wields a fraction of the influence that she wielded; she, too, was a fighter, a martyr.

The Christian Warrior

"Quit ye like men," St. Paul writes, and our dainty translators, cowed by open displays of manhood and affirmations of the soldierly ideal, soften the command by rendering it merely figurative: "Be courageous," they say. Nay, but "quit ye like men" implies the agon, the lists, the arena, the battlefield, the proving grounds, where we show what kind of warriors we are.

If that notion is pagan, it is also Christian; and, Milton and Spenser and Dante would say, more truly Christian than pagan, because there it is more truly the warrior we see, the man on the quest, the witness to him who transcends all things, the man laid most open to ridicule, to treachery, to disappointment, to futility, to death.

The Christian soldier follows the trail blazed by the Master, who descended into the nether world of sin and its emptiness, the realm of death, and took captivity captive, so that we may sing out the words of that apostle who surely had the soul of an epic poet: "O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?" And he with the soul of a warrior had the soul of a lover too, as the best of warriors have, as he longs for the time when he will see, not as in a glass darkly, but face to face.

Something to Die For

And now we are ready to consider again the discussion I had with those students years ago, when I said that The Lord of the Rings could not now be written, because the congeries of habits, instilled in us by mass education, mass marketing, mass media, and mass politics could not sustain it. But if theology proves too difficult or threatening for the secular mind to approach, perhaps that mind may yet concede to a hard human reality.

At the beginning of his autobiographical book Witness, Whitaker Chambers tries to explain to his children, to whom he addresses the work, what made him a Communist. What was the appeal? Not economics, not the dictatorship of the proletariat, not the theory of history. Communism stirred something deep within the human soul—it gave modern man something for which to die. It was an evil thing, he now knows, but it was something;whereas the secular man of the West has nothing. No one will die for a house in the suburbs with a Jacuzzi. No one will die for two hundred channels on the television.

Let me then pose the question. For what will you die? For what will you stand as a witness, staking all you have and are, even your sacred honor, as the signers of the Declaration of Independence did, in what was no rhetorical flourish, as the chestless among us believe?

Frodo was willing to die for Middle Earth and the Shire. Beowulf was willing to die for the Danes he came to save, and for the glory he would gain for his fellow Geats and his lord Hygelac. Roland was willing to die for Christ and for his friends in battle. Dante would never have descended into the realm of death but for the love of Beatrice. Godfrey was willing to lay down his bones in Jerusalem. Here all three of my criteria meet: the object of ultimate love, the quest to attain to it, and the willingness to fling life itself away as a trifle beside it: that, and that alone, is what makes the epic possible. • 

Anthony Esolen teaches English at Thomas More College in Merrimack, New Hampshire, and is the author of many books, including Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity (St. Benedict Press), Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery). He has also translated Dante's Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.