Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010



Throughout the literature of empires, tales of bravery, physical strength, and ambitious quests set individuals apart in distinct historic epochs and locales, from the hardihood of the biblical Hebrew warrior Gideon, the Scandic hero Beowulf (ca. A.D. 800), and the Shawnee warrior in the Canadian poet Charles Mair's Tecumseh (1886) to the paddling and surfing gallants who woo a princess in the anonymous Hawaiian romance Laieikawai (1863). Over time, the literary survey of heroism emphasized character traits and difficult choices alongside physical prowess, a theme of JOSEPH CONRAD'S antiheroic novels HEART OF DARKNESS (1899) and Lord Jim (1900) and of GABRIELE D'ANNUNZIO'S criminal Corrado Brando; MARYSE CONDE'S motherless Tituba; and PETER CAREY'S Ned Kelly, the legendary Robin Hood of Australia. Over time, heroic values shifted away from the mythic and legendary to the victim of circumstances, a permanent fixture in the history of empires. One example is the work of combat reporter JOHN HERSEY, who shifted headline news into works such as Men on Bataan (1942) and Hiroshima (1946), which fed the American hunger for valor and grace under pressure.

Around 1200 B.C. at the beginning of the Israelite occupancy of Canaan (present-day Palestine), the late Bronze Age warrior Joshua stood out as a leader of the militaristic clan of Ephraimites. Mentored by Moses, the commander is the central character in the biblical book of Joshua, written about 1050 B.C. Linked to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses of GENESIS (ca. 500 B.C.) and EXODUS (ca. 450 B.C.), Joshua faces the devotees of Asherah and Baal, divinities reverenced with sexual orgies, human disfigurement, and infant sacrifice, elements conducive to GOTHIC drama. In chapter 2, Joshua, a commander of pilgrims longing to cross the Jordan River and himself trained as a secret agent, assigns two spies to surveillance in Jericho, five miles west of the river. Before committing the Israelite army to siege, he observes religious custom by reinstating circumcision, a ritual passage of manhood required before his followers can enter “a land that floweth with milk and honey” (Joshua 5:6). Yahweh (God) readies the commander for battle through an epiphany. The seven-day encirclement of Jericho requires that the 12 clans select leaders. Launching forth with the cry “Shout; for the Lord hath given you the city” (Joshua 6:16), the decisive siege results in GENOCIDE and arson, a show of annihilation of the enemy that confers on Joshua the sovereignty of Moses (Joshua 6:27).

The Female Hero

In contrast to Joshua's male heroics, a subsequent hero saga, the book of Ruth (ca. 500 B.C.), a feminist narrative, prefaces the rise of the Davidic dynasty of Judah with female assertiveness. A simpler idyll than the Song of Solomon (ca. 590 B.C.), a love cycle and EPITHALAMIUM credited to King David's son Solomon, the book of Ruth departs from the nationalistic conquest motifs of Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel with a graceful and redemptive romance between a Jew and a foreigner—the Judaean landowner Boaz and the title figure, a Moabite widow from Syria. Coached by her mother-in-law Naomi, Ruth openly courts the wealthy bachelor as a solution to homelessness and poverty. Set around 1100 B.c., the biographical narrative recounts the preservation of a genealogy through intermarriage with worthy immigrants.

The action begins with a triple tragedy, the widowhood of sister-in-laws Orpah and Ruth and their return with their widowed mother-in-law Naomi to her home in Bethlehem. Extending her marriage vows to include her husband's family, Ruth pledges to Naomi with tender parallelism, “Intreat me not to leave thee… . Thy people shall be my people, and thy god my god” (Ruth 1:16). Naomi reciprocates by matchmaking Ruth, a founding mother of Israel, to Boaz, a goodhearted barley farmer. By appealing to Boaz on his threshing floor, Ruth wins his love and becomes the great-grandmother of David. Bible historians conjecture that Ruth dates to period around 500 B.c. after Babylon's capture of Israel when xenophobic Jews attempted to preserve their racial purity under Persian rule, the love story encourages an open-mindedness toward bicultural relationships based on worthiness of heart and the willingness of a Gentile to convert to Judaism. This narrative of female risk-taking was the theme of the film The Story of Ruth (1960), starring Elana Eden and Peggy Wood as Ruth and Naomi and Stuart Whitman as Boaz.

Combat versus Domestic Valor

The history of strife among imperial factions in the Middle East extended to all faiths and cultures. With a minimum of self-adulation, in 721 B.c., Assyrian King Sargon II related in The Fall of Samaria his capture of the capital of northern Israel. Written in Khorsabad (east of present-day Mosul, Iraq), the war report covers a siege that resulted in 27,290 prisoners of war from the Ten Tribes of Israel. Included among the prisoners was King Iamani of the port city of Ashdod, Israel, where the troops led him away in chains. Sargon II headed a royal corps of 50 chariots and enriched his realm with an ongoing taxation of Samarians. With fishing imagery, the heroic king depicts the ease with which he netted the Ionian colonists of the western isles. Upon the betrayal of the Hittite pretender Ia'ubidi, Sargon moved against Qarqar, Syria, which he laid flat with fire. The impressment of local people added 200 chariots and 600 infantrymen to the Assyrian force. Sargon wisely installed Arab bedouin in Samaria and received tribute gifts from the Sabaeans of Yemen. Sargon's field text contains the gratitude of a king to the national god Ashur and characterizes the efficiency of empire building when backed by a dependable military.

In contrast to battlefield literature, a Cinderella tale, the book of Esther (ca. 175 B.c.), the source of the Jewish festival of Purim, relates from an insider's view the struggles of a captured people. The narrative contrasts Ruth's story with a more daring deviation from womanly submission during the Jewish diaspora. In 480 B.c. at Susa, an ethnically diverse city in present-day southeastern Iran, Ahasuerus, called by many Xerxes I (ca. 519-465 B.c.), inspects replacements for Queen Vashti, whom he divorces for disobedience, a paternal act of female disenfranchisement common to imperialism. The rest of the story depicts female subversion of supreme male authority. As a king's privilege, he selects an orphaned peasant girl for her beauty and modesty and celebrates their union with lavish entertainments and remission of taxes. Thus, in 480 B.c., Esther, the heir of King Saul and the beloved of Ahasuerus, becomes queen of Persia.

The plot of Esther's hero story turns on the power of a single malcontent to overcome racial issues. The brooding Haman, Persia's chief councillor, plots to exterminate Esther's guardian, her uncle Mordecai, by arranging the genocide of Jews, whom he dehumanizes as encumbrances to the empire. To rescue her people, Queen Esther breaches court protocol to approach the king and invite him and Haman to a private dinner. After the king discovers in an official chronicle that Mordecai saved him from assassination, Ahasuerus attends another private feast and learns from Esther that Haman plots to kill all her people. In a show of imperial ethics, the king rules against pogroms. In a twist of poetic justice, the king observes Haman entreating Esther for mercy, charges him with attempted rape, and has him executed on the gallows built to kill Mordecai. Film versions of Esther's life featured Joan Collins in Esther and the King (1960), Victoria Principal in The Greatest Heroes of the Bible (1978), Louise

Lombard in Esther (1999), and Tiffany Dupont in One Night with the King (2006).

Historical Heroes

In the KORAN (A.D. 633), separate passages reveal aspects of the heroism of Abraham, Ishmael, Ezekiel, Jonah, Joseph, and Job. Noah's story creates conflict out of the scorn of neighbors toward the builder of the ark. As a token of obedience, the scripture pictures the survivor of the flood as contrite before God: “Forgive me and have mercy on me, or I shall surely be among the lost” (Koran 11:47). Of the courage of Moses and his brother Aaron, the text refers to the 10 plagues of Egypt as “Our signs to Pharaoh and his nobles. But they responded with scorn, for they were wicked men” (Koran 10:75). In the introduction to the rise of the Davidic dynasty, the text asserts of the warrior king, “We taught him the armourer's craft, so that you might have protection in your wars” (Koran 21:80). David's successor, King Solomon, develops judgment over physical strength—from combat hero to intellectual and soothsayer.

Medieval heroic lore continued the bardic tradition of retelling feats of daring and acts of humility from past generations as the supreme compliment to the protagonist. In 1113, the earliest use of the Myanmar language preserved the Myazedi Inscription on a stone stele at a temple in Bagan, Burma. First published in 1919, the text, written like a royal proclamation or encomium, acknowledges the fealty of Prince Rajakumar, the royal love child of King Kyanzittha, who, around 1100, dedicated three slave villages to Buddha as a means of attaining wisdom and of propitiating the gods to improve his father's health. In 1298, the Venetian traveler MARCO POLO produced similar praise in The Travels of Marco Polo after his encounter with Kublai Khan, the emperor of the Tartars of Mongolia. As the focus of a lengthy odyssey narrative, the khan fulfills Plato's concept of a philosopher king for his self-control and noble aim. Excelling previous monarchs, he stands out as a wise organizer and innovator as well as the leader of a massive cavalry. To humanize his image of the Asian empire builder, Polo admits the khan's failures and balances them with incidents of mercy, generosity, and courtesy, such as his acceptance of the Christian cross as a symbol of goodness and justice.

Heroes of Southwestern Europe

The militant nature of feudalism produced a hero cult of the protector of agrarian society and the defender of the realm. Around 1175, the Anglo- Norman poet MARIE DE FRANCE lauded the virtues of the chivalric hero in chansons de geste, or French heroic epics, some reflective of Arthurian lore. To the northwest, the Icelandic mythographer SNORRI STURLUSON, a preserver of Viking lore, mentioned in the Prose Edda (1225) the importance of the champion to Norwegian monarchy. In a lengthy discourse differentiating between royalty and warriors, the text honors “Men of War, Brave Men, Valiant Men, Hardy Men, Overpowerers, Heroes” as opposed to “Coward, Skulker, Weakling, Qualmish, Caitiff, Scamp” (Sturluson 1916, 234). The poet applies grim diction to honor the “fairpiercing weapon, the render of blue birnies (chain mail),—with bitter thrusts and edges” (161). Mention of blood is frequent because of the many battles: “I see the heroes' slaughter on the fair shield-rim's surface” (161). In the later section, gift giving supersedes carnage and distinguishes the victor: “The king sows the bright seed-corn of knuckle-splendid gold rings,” an overt public symbol of reward for loyalty (173).

In Iberia, the Castilian-Spanish knight-errant adventure tale Amadis de Gaula (Amadis of Gaul, 1508) narrates a Portuguese hero legend that was refined and extended by the Spanish author Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo (d. 1504), an alderman of Medina del Campo. A model of chivalric romance, the text bases conquest on an Arthurian motif of the abandoned bastard boy—the “Child of the Sea” (Montalvo 2003, 41)—reared by the Scots warrior Don Gandales and shielded by supernatural powers and PROPHECY, a standard token of promise from prehistory. Amadis develops into an invincible knight who fits the biographical outlines of an identifiable warrior, Simon IV de Montfort (1160-1218), a savage French fighter of the Fourth Crusade and the protagonist of William of Tudela's Chanson de la croisade Albigeosie (Song of the Albigensian Crusade, 1213). For four years, Amadis suffers the crusader's isolation and alienation while traveling through the Roman Empire and maintaining chivalry “at a higher level than in the house of any other king or emperor in the world” (110). He challenges Endriago, a satanic dragon that symbolizes the paganism and degeneracy of Islam. Throughout the 16th century, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish writers added sequels to the popular cycle about a warrior “nothing short of wondrous” (176). The Spanish satirist MIGUEL DE CERVANTES mocked the super heroic Amadis in Don Quixote (1605), an antichivalric SATIRE.

New World Heroism

The prototypes of European epic writers set unlikely precedents for the characterization, action, and style of hero tales from the Western Hemisphere. The New World epic O Uraguai (Uruguay, 1769), composed in five cantos of blank verse by the Brazilian- Portuguese writer, former Jesuit novice, and rebel Jose Basilio da Gama (1740-1795), merged conventions of European romance with the near genocide of the Amerindian. The poem begins during the Guarani Wars, or Jesuit Wars, of 1754-56, when some 30,000 Guarani who had lived peacefully in Jesuit-run communities fought against Spanish- Portuguese armies who wanted their land. Da Gama opens on the carnage wreaked by General Gomes Freire de Andrada's Iberian army. Progressing to parlays at the Uruguay River in southern Brazil between the Spanish/Portuguese commanders and chiefs Cacambo and Sepe Tiaraju, the narrative tells of the one-sided warfare between bow-and-arrow soldiery and the advanced European firepower that kills the noble Sepe. Gama gains poetic momentum from wound descriptions: “The stript Sepe / Whose face was ghastly with the glaze of Death / Bathed in the flood of darkling gore that gusht / From the torn bosom while his livid arms, / Hoof-bruised, betrayed his miserable fall” (Gama 1982, 73).

Da Gama aimed his polemical epic of the colonial period at an expose of the Jesuits of the Seven Missions for attempting to found an independent papal state in Uruguay. To raise the stakes for the outnumbered Guarani, he introduces in canto 3 a vision of Sepe's spirit that convinces Cacambo to torch the Portuguese camp. Treachery in the form of assassination by the shaman Balda on behalf of his ambitious son Baldetta removes Cacambo from the action. Preceding the destruction of the Guarani settlement by Spanish-Portuguese forces, the poet inserts an ironic EPITHALAMIUM for the union of Baldetta and Lindoia, a tragic bride who grieves for Cacambo and who views Lisbon's destiny in a bowl of water. A conclusion to the 1,400-line epic contrasts the massacre of natives with the final humanitarianism of General Gomes Freire de Andrada to those Guarani resisters who survive. Ironically, Da Gama's poem proved valuable to leaders of the Indianist movement of the mid-19th century. In 1986, the Oscar-winning film The Mission featured Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons as clerics in a reenactment of the displace - ment of Brazilian mission Indians already weakened by smallpox epidemics.

The Byronic Hero

The romantic era in England popularized the Byronic hero, a literary cult prototype named for the controversial poet Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron, 1788-1824). In 1813, he depicted the outsider's abhorrence of the ritual execution of adulteresses in The Giaour (Infidel), which sets the Christian title figure against a vengeful Muslim husband. The protagonist suited a period of history in which European powers sought religious justification for attacking small nations of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. With flowery panache, the hero sweeps through a benighted culture: “He came, he went, like the Simoom (desert wind), / That harbinger of fate and gloom” (Byron 1826, 59), who bears the sorrow of a failed rescue attempt.

Delving into history, Byron's “The Destruction of Sennacherib” (1815), a rhythmic conquest narrative, surveys a doomed military quest—the Assyrian king's downfall while overreaching for conquest of Judah in 681 B.C. In the poem, Death engulfs Sennacherib: “For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast, / And breathed in the face of the foe as he pass'd” (590). By annihilating the Assyrian in the heat of action, Byron elevates the king's death as a measure of soldierly risk.

Byron described the self-absorbed heroic figure in the poem that made him famous, the autobiographical Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812-18). The lengthy TRAVELOGUE characterizes Europe's restlessness in the Napoleonic era's aftermath, when the title figure roams the eastern Mediterranean and views the Russian attacks on Turkish territory along the Danube River. With the adventurer’s passion for live-or-die glory, Harold exults, “View us as victors, or view us no more!” (21). Of the endurance of empires, he admits to the unpredictability of history: “A thousand years scarce serve to form a state; / An hour may lay it in the dust” (22).

The brooding Byronic hero became fully developed in the poet’s master narrative, Don Juan (1824), a 17-stage epic journey that begins, “I want a hero” (152). The poet salutes Greek islanders for trying to throw off the dominion of the Ottoman Empire for libertarian rather than religious reasons. Two cantos mourn shackled figures “chain’d and lotted out per couple / For the slave market of Constantinople” (212). A subsequent motif of female liberation from social and religious constraints depicts the picaresque hero as a champion of women, the pawns of empire: “Poor Thing of Usages! coerc’d, compell’d, / Victim when wrong, and martyr oft when right” (309).

The Byronic model influenced ALEKSANDR PUSHKIN’S Eugene Onegin (1832); Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), in the form of Edward Rochester; and MARYSE CONDE’S La Migration des Coeurs (Windward Heights, 1995), a restructuring of Emily Bronte’s gothic feminism in Wuthering Heights (1847).


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