Author: Francis Edmunds
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This article examines the need for epic literature in the life of the high school student. First of 2 parts. Orginally published in Child and Man, Vol.2, #1.
The child of fourteen and fifteen has particular difficulties to live through. He is beginning to develop a “mind’s eye,” to grow objective, to range and order his experiences. He swings between outer inquiry and inner searching; beats back and forth between enigmas without and doubts within; is subject to sudden impulses, strange moods and feelings, unexpected thoughts. Question after question forms itself rising to startling clearness out of dim worlds of feeling. “How am I related to my parents, to the people around me? Do I accept their authority? What is death? Is there a spiritual world? Is there immortality? What do my teachers really know?” And the great underlying questions that we all seek to answer, “What am I as a human being? What is my task in the world?”
Children at this stage can feel great loneliness, and uneasiness.
The ordinary world to-day can give no satisfactory answers to such questions. Too frequently the child grows up therefore to feel himself an unhappy stranger in the world, an isolated factor unable to relate himself to his environment or to his historic past. He stands an uncomfortable onlooker, or feels about helplessly for anchorage.
Man can only find his true position in the world through a right knowledge of human evolution; and amongst all the evolutionists to-day, whatever their position may be, Rudolf Steiner alone has taught the evolution of the whole man. He has taught how man can experience his full humanity only by understanding how he is related in every detail to his environment; how man and the world are one and have always been one; how changes in the outer world have accompanied changes of consciousness, and how the world to-day and the consciousness of man to-day are one stage in a great organic development.
For the adult it becomes a task to unlearn and to relearn; to labour, often with difficulty, out of one’s own accustomed thinking life, slowly to gain freedom and begin anew.
The child of fourteen and fifteen is still to a large extent free in his nature and can receive directly, without prejudice, what the adult can acquire only through great effort. True knowledge lives in every human being; it has only to be awakened and brought to consciousness. The teacher standing before his class knows that the beings before him, in their inner nature, are wise, wiser perhaps than he is himself, and less spoilt. Let him but present his facts rightly, and the children will themselves from inner necessity seek out the right connections. There may be individual questions and difficulties, but his chief task is to try and represent, in a series of powerful pictures drawn from life, some aspect of human development down to the present day; the children will seize on the truth in his narrative through the knowledge that is already there in their unconscious lives. Their inner problems, as yet only beginning to grow conscious, will find answers in the light of this world development, and they will gain assurance in life and a feeling of security in the world.
In the literature course it becomes a question of selecting a number of characteristic works, beginning with the ancient Epics, the first great literary compositions, following the transition into Drama, which already implies a stepping out upon the earth, and leading over into later forms of literature nearer the present day.
We will begin with Homer’s Iliad (Lord Derby’s translation, Everyman edition):—
“Of Peleus’ son, Achilles, sing O Muse,
The vengeance, deep and deadly; whence to Greece Unnumber’d ills arose; which many a soul
Of mighty warriors to the viewless shades Untimely sent. …”
Is this invocation merely literary? Is the story that follows the fruit of a single man’s inventiveness? Or is it true that through the poet we enter into a real world of past human experience ?
We speak of a poet’s originality, of that which he describes as his unique experience of the world. We do not question his integrity. We delight in the manifold uniqueness’s to be found in any anthology. It stimulates and lights up our own life experience. But what if the poet should describe experiences for which we have no parallel in our own lives? Occasionally there are such poets. For many the Irish poet, A. E., is one. For years he has practised the art of matching word to thought, of giving true and noble utterance to his experiences. He describes a world of imagination behind the world of sense, of greater majesty, splendour, beauty than anything the physical eye can behold. He tells how the light of day is darkness to the brilliance of that other light.
What do men say to such descriptions ? They are divided in opinion, perhaps speak with respectful reserve. No one doubts the “reality” of A. E’s experiences for himself, but do they arise out of his nature or are they related to an objective world which he perceives with an inner eye ?
That which Homer describes was felt to be true by many generations of men; it was the life pulse of a great civilization. The Greeks enter history out of a world of “Myth,” but right through their historic period this world of myth is for them very truth; it is the substance of their daily life; their being echoes to the wonder of it. The events of the Epics had long preceded historic Greece. It is indeed at the entry of Greece into outer history, when consciousness of these events was fading into memory, that Homer gathered up into his soul those great imaginative experiences and wrote his Epics. Greek Art taken as a whole is homogeneous. The Greek Gods and Goddesses stand clear in men’s imaginations; they are the same for all Greeks and they are for all Greece as they were for Homer. What is the picture of the Greek world in the poems of Homer ?
Below is the world of men, and above, in the upper atmosphere as it were, dwell the Gods grouped around Zeus (Jove). Sensible and supersensible, physical and imaginative consciousness merge into one. Man is not only surrounded by objects, he is everywhere surrounded by beings. Human thought, feeling and will is penetrated by this world of beings. The Gods and Goddesses appear in their own form; in human likeness as friend or foe; or they speak through signs and tokens and dreams. They are favourable or adverse; protect or injure; have human offspring and fosterlings—that is, men on earth in whom is incarnate a portion of their being; group themselves round chosen heroes who carry with their leadership the fates of communities or kingdoms; are inseparable from the warp and woof of human fate and action. Men see them, know them, converse with them, are guided or misled by them.
A young race in the ascendant is opposed to an old race in marked decline. Achilles, young, proud, impetuous, extreme, preferring a short memorable life to a long easy one, stands opposed to Hector, also young, but wise with the experience of his race, temperate, constant, loving life and friends, but heroically submissive to fate. The Gods, according to their attributes and tasks, are ranged on the one side or the other, Apollo with the Trojans; Athene and Hera (Minerva and Juno) with the Greeks. Homer has an epithet for each, a specific epithet, expressive of their whole being; by their natures they are impelled to enter the field of human action, to play their part through men for the fulfillment of world destiny.
Jove alone is free. He alone does not appear amongst men though he watches and directs all. He alone is impartial, for in him there works a deeper law. He can enter the inner sanctuaries of existence and understands the wisdom of fate.
“Expect not Juno, all my mind to know,
My wife thou art, yet would such knowledge be
Too much for thee; what I in secret plan,
Seek not to know, nor curiously inquire.”
He holds the scales; in his will is cosmic law. A higher knowledge makes him free among Gods and men.
“While yet ’twas morn, and wax’d the youthful day,
Thick flew the shafts, and fast the people fell
On either side; but when the sun had reach’d
The middle Heav’n, th’ Eternal Father hung
His golden scales aloft, and plac’d in each
The fatal death-lot; for the sons of Troy
The one, the other for the brass-clad Greeks;
Then held them by the midst; down sank the lot
Of Greece, down to the ground, while high aloft
Mounted the Trojan scale, and rose to Heav’n.
Then loud he bade the volleying thunder peal
From Ida’s heights; and ’mid the Grecian ranks
He hurl’d his flashing lightning; at the sight
Amaz’d they stood, and pale with terror shook.”
Nothing in the Iliad is by chance; everything, great and small, is ruled by wisdom. Love and hatred, sympathy and antipathy play themselves out in human souls, not merely personally but with a human mission. It is not a personal destiny that sets Hector against Achilles. Each knows, or half knows, his own fate and the fate of his opponent. They stand opposed on earth by a greater destiny. So, too, with the Gods. For men the drama is of life and death. For the Gods there is obedience to cosmic laws by which they live. As the planets are now in conjunction and now in opposition, so do the Gods group themselves according to their natures and the script of the heavenly constellations.
Often it is difficult to follow their actions, to grasp their moral nature.
“All night in sleep repos’d the other Gods,
And helmed warriors; but the eyes of Jove
Sweet slumber held not, pond’ring in his mind
How to avenge Achilles’ cause, and pour
Destructive slaughter on the Grecian host.
Thus as he mus’d, the wisest course appear’d
By a deluding vision to mislead
The son of Atreus; and with winged words
Thus to a phantom form he gave command:
‘Hie thee, deluding Vision, to the camp
And ships of Greece, to Agamemnon’s tent:
There all, as I command thee, truly speak.
Bid that he arm in haste the long-hair’d Greeks
To combat; for the wide-built streets of Troy
He now may capture; since th’ immortal Gods
Watch over her no longer; all are gain’d
By Juno’s pray’r; and woes impend on Troy.’
He said: the Vision heard, and straight obey’d;
Swiftly he sped, and reach’d the Grecian ships,
And sought the son of Atreus; him he found
Within his tent, wrapp’d in ambrosial sleep;
Above his head he stood, like Neleus’ son,
Nestor, whom Agamemnon rev’renc’d most
Of all the Elders; in his likeness cloth’d
Thus spoke the heav’nly Vision-”
Can it be that Jove must stoop to deliberate deception, that he must lie in order to bring Agamemnon and the Greeks to disaster ? Can moral necessity take such a form ? Or is it that Agamemnon, by the misuse of his kingly prerogative has weakened his nature and so laid himself open to the forces of delusion ? There, where he is weak, he is seized upon by the Vision, that a wrong committed may find adjustment. Jove, perceiving the .necessity, allows the consequences to come about according to the nature of the circumstances. He is no judge punishing the offender. Agamemnon, although in error, is still his representative on earth.
. . while in the midst
The mighty monarch Agamemnon mov’d:
His eye, and lofty brow, the counterpart
Of Jove, the Lord of thunder; in his girth
Another Mars, with Neptune’s ample chest.
As ’mid the thronging heifers in a herd
Stands, proudly eminent, the lordly bull;
So, by Jove’s will stood eminent that day,
Mid many heroes, Atreus’s godlike son.”
So it is with all things in the Iliad, till the conviction grows that it is patterned everywhere on cosmic law. Day follows day evenly. The narrative proceeds as steadily and as inevitably as the sun through the sky. Nothing is hurried and
nothing delayed; nothing is overstressed, and no detail is neglected. The story is grandly human; we accept all or none; it stands in the realm of art as a sublime mountain range in nature.
The feeling grows that in the past there lived a race of men whose “real” was not our “real.” Space and time, life and death, what man felt as his environment, were different. It was an age when imagination was an objective experience, common to all. The world of objects stood revealed as the shadow picture of a world of being. It was a golden age when the spiritual was manifest outwardly in daily life and men inherited a knowledge of their divine origin.
The question might be asked, was asked indeed, “Do you then believe in these Gods and Goddesses and in their existence? Where are they then?” One may believe in the reality of the Greek Imagination. To that Imagination the spiritual world of beings and facts appeared in mighty pictures as described in the Homeric Epics. For centuries men shared this common experience. They discussed these higher facts as we discuss the weather. As they changed, this experience changed; slowly it withdrew from outer consciousness and was drawn into men to live as vitalizing force within the subjective real of to-day. When man overcomes the tyranny of self, then, with God-inspired eye, he will know that world again.
To other men, in other times, according to their natures and their mission in the world, the spiritual world appeared differently. They had a different Imagination of it.
We will now turn to another Epic, the Volsung Saga (William Morris’s version).
This Epic, too, had lived amongst men for centuries before it was written down. Here, too, a world experience is gathered up around a particular race of men, around the last of that race, the mighty figure of Sigurd’. The inspiration of an age-endeavor pours itself into the grand imagination of the slaying of the dragon. There is the brooding of an even higher world in this story, profound preparation, a universal sacrifice. The epic speaks of an approaching darkness, a world death. It is as though something of the deepest consequence is offered, is longed for, and recedes; as though something had been prepared but could not, for that time, be given. That which lived in Greek imagination actually descended into earthly life; filled a mighty epoch of human history; brought to earth an era of art, religion, science. That which lives in Norse imagination seems only to have reached down to the outer hem of human existence, to have lit up a strange wonder and longing in the human soul and then to have faded away before men’s gaze; it is as though a Being of the highest wisdom and grace hovered above men but could not find entry and was lost to them. Everywhere in this epic there is the pain of parting, of being sundered, of sinking out of light into darkness. As men look the sun of the world appears to be setting for ever. Strange contrast with the sun-filled vigor of the Iliad!
“There was a dwelling of Kings ere the world was waxen old;
Dukes were the door-wards there, and the roofs were thatched with gold:
Earls were the wrights that wrought it, and silver mailed its doors;
Earls’ wives were the spinning women, queens’ daughters strewed its floors,
And the masters of its song-craft were the mightiest men that cast
The sails of the storm of battle adown the bickering blast.
There dwelt men merry-hearted, and in hope exceedingly great
Met the good-days and the evil as they went the way of fate:
There the Gods were unforgotten, yea whiles they walked with men,
Though e’en in that world’s beginning rose a murmur now and again
Of the mid ward time and the fading and the last of the latter days,
And the entering in of the terror, and the death of the People’s Praise.”
It is strange that this mood should find an echo in a man of to-day, in A. E.
“We dwindle down beneath the skies And from ourselves we pass away:
The paradise of memories Grows ever fainter day by day.
The shepherd stars have shrunk within The world’s great night will soon begin.”
When the story of Sigurd opens, the glory of the day is already nearly by* The Gods have withdrawn, all but one, Odin, the greatest and the last to be with man. He still comes in rare moments to give or to end a mission.
“Then into the Volsung dwelling a mighty man there strode,
One eyed—and seeming ancient, yet bright his visage glowed:
Cloud-blue was the hood upon him, and his kirtle gleaming grey
As the latter morning sun-day when the storm is on its way:
A bill he bore on his shoulder, whose mighty ashen beam
Burnt bright with the flame of the sea and the blended silver’s gleam
And such was the guise of his raiment as the Volsung elders had told
Was borne by their fathers’ fathers, and the first that warred in the wold,”
Out of an ancient past he brings to men once more the mission of the race, the sword for the slaying of the dragon. Sigmund alone can wield that sword; his son, Sigurd, fulfills the mission. He passes from the world like the last golden beam of a setting sun. Death descends like night on that race and generation of men. It is the death of the ancient imagination. The curse of something misbegotten is the cause of that ruin. That curse descends indeed into earthly history, it is the curse of a phantom treasure on earth and leads to a universal forgetting of the spirit.
The world of the epic dissolves away and man sinks more and more into the sense-perceptible, the physical. What was darkness before is now his only light.
The last descendant of the heroes is Beowulf. In the story of Beowulf there is also contained a world experience. In this story, however, a cosmic Heaven has shrunk to a blue sky, a flaming sun-hero to a grim warrior fighting for truth. The eye of imagination, almost blind now, still perceives dimly something of the grandeur in human life; sees in the gloaming of the gathering soul-night the last faint rays of a spirit sun gleaming round the helmet and glancing along the sword-edge of the fighting figure.
Beowulf wrestles with the first dragon at night, in the dwelling of man. He lays aside all external means, and fights with his hands alone, with his mighty grip, his will.
The second dragon, the fiercest and the mother of the brood, he can only reach in the murky depths below earth existence. He descends into the water to fight below the surface. His companions are left above on the shore in the daylight. There below the surface—that is, in the imaginative worlds, for so only can one understand the story—he fights the doer of evil on earth; and he fights with the weapons of that world, for the sword with which he slays the monster is taken from her hall and melts at contact with her blood.
The third dragon he kills in the sight of men. The fury of this dragon is roused by a man stealing its treasure. Beowulf alone, in his old age, dares go to meet it, and of all whom he has helped and befriended in his long life, one alone stands by the hero in his last conflict. The rest dare not approach. They keep their distance, and when dragon and hero are dead, rush for the treasure and receive its curse.
With Beowulf’s death half the world’s history comes to an end. Men sink into despair, for their last hope and support seems gone—but already something new is approaching. It is woven curiously into the story of Beowulf itself like a message of unfamiliar sound borne across great distances.
The following passage comes early in the story:—
“There was the sound of the harp, the clear song of the minstrel. He who could tell of men’s beginning from olden times spoke of how the Almighty wrought the world, the earth bright in its beauty which the water encompasses, the Victorious One established the brightness of sun and moon for a light to dwellers in the land, and adorned the earth with branches and leaves: He also created life of all kinds which move and live. Thus the noble warriors’ lived in pleasure and plenty, until a fiend in hell began to contrive malice. The grim spirit was called Grendel, a famous march-stepper, who held the moors, the fen and the fastness. The hapless creature sojourned for a space in the sea-monsters home after the Creator had condemned him. The eternal Lord avenged the murder on the race of Cain, because he slew Abel. He did not rejoice in that feud. He, the Lord, drove him far from mankind for that crime. Thence sprang all evil spawn, ogres and elves and sea-monsters, giants too, who struggled long time against God. He paid them requital for that.”
Later occurs the following phrase:—
“The truth has been made known, that mighty God has ever ruled over mankind.”
And what a mingling of something old and something new is in the following:—
“Then the sword, the battle-brand, began to vanish in drops of gore after the blood shed in the fight. That was a great wonder that it all melted like ice when the Father loosens the bond of the frost, unbinds the fetters of the floods; He has power over times and seasons. That is the true lord. . . .
“The wave surges were all cleansed, the great haunts where the alien spirit gave up his life and the fleeting state.”
Beowulf lying wounded calls for a sight of the treasure.
“Then he spoke, the aged man in his pain; he gazed on the gold. ‘I give thanks in words to the Prince, the King of glory, the eternal Lord, for all the adornments which I behold here, that I have been able to win such for my people before my death-day. Now have I sold my old life for the hoard of treasures; attend ye now to the need of my people. No longer may I tarry here.”
A few lines later:—
“The prince of brave mind took from his neck a golden ring, gave to the thane, the young spear-warrior, his helm bright with gold, his ring and corslet; bade him use them well: £Thou art the last of our race, of the Waegmundinges. Fate has swept all my kinsmen away to their destiny, earls in their might; I must needs follow them.’
“That was the last word from the old man’s thoughts, before he sought the pyre, the hot, fierce surges of flame. His soul passed from his breast to seek the splendour of the saints.”
The substance of the story is old, yet the language declares the presence of something new. As men sink finally into the sense world, they are greeted there, on the floor of the world, by a new teaching. Beowulf, at the last, has perhaps caught a glimpse of an approaching new day. Christ has walked this earth. The moment of greatest loss becomes the moment of greatest gain.