The Heroic Age
Part 3 They Were Jaredites
“So you really think there were Jaredites,” said Professor F. with a slightly skeptical expression and another pull at his blackened briar. He hated smoking but his profession and institution required tweeds and a pipe unequivocally as they prescribed the lounging attitude and intellectual drawl with which he confronted his visitor.
“So you really think there were Jaredites. Well, well, and what makes you think so now? Of course I read all your letters, but you seem to be worked up over something new.”
“It is new,” said the visitor, “and yet it is very old. It is the epic milieu that makes me think there were Jaredites.”
“Epic milieu? Epic milieu? What on earth is that?” queried the man of learning. For an answer, Mr. Blank (a good enough name for the other man) went to the large bookcase against the wall. After a minute of exploration in which he refused help from his host, he returned to his chair blowing the dust from an Oxford text of Homer.
“Do you remember any of this,” he asked, “or shall I refresh your memory?”
“About what? A mere thousand pages of hexameters?”
“I mean about these people,” said Blank, solemnly holding the book (Munro’s elegant India paper edition), “their wars and their journeys, their intrigues and quarrels, their food, clothes, diversions—what they chose to do and how they chose to do it.”
“Well,” said F., scratching his head thoughtfully, “I still have a fair general idea of what the Homeric world was like . . . ”
“That is a good expression, Homeric world. Homer has given us a whole world from the past, complete with all the trimmings. But now it would appear that that is more than a poet’s world of fancy: it is the actual milieu in which epic poetry took its rise.”
“You mean there really was such a world as Homer describes?”
“Apparently there was. Your question, incidentally, is basic to the solution of the Homeric question itself.”
“Ah, yes,” said the professor trying desperately to remember something about it, “the Homeric question.”
“There is hardly a branch of literary criticism or historical analysis, including the higher criticism of the Bible,” Blank rejoined, “that did not take its rise in the Homeric question.”
“Indeed,” replied his host.
“The Homeric question itself is simply, How did these poems come to exist?” Blank tapped the volume impressively, “Did a creative genius make them up out of thin air or are the scenes and characters depicted taken from life? What do you think? Was there ever an Achaian host? Did it assault a real city of Troy? Did such heroes as Achilles and Hector ever live?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” muttered the professor, thoughtfully stroking his chin, “but then there was Schliemann and all that. I dare say there are ways of finding out. By the way, what has this to do with the Jaredites? And you still haven’t told me what the epic milieu is.”
“Hand me the big Webster, will you? Thanks. Ah, here it is, the full definition (copyright G. & C. Merriam and Co., 1924): milieu: medium, environment. A milieu is an environment, a complete environment taken with all its own roots and origins; and the epic milieu is the real world in which the events described in epic poems are supposed to have taken place: it is that world and not the poet’s imagination which furnishes him with his characters and images. Everyone agrees today that the epic milieu described by Homer was a real one.”
“And now you can tell me where the Jaredites come into this,” said F.
“With pleasure. The Jaredites have a milieu, too. If there is a Homeric world that vanished thousands of years ago, so also there is a Jaredite world. And if the reality of the one can actually be proved over this great gulf of time, why cannot the other?”
“I’ll tell you why. Because the archaeological problem is a totally different one. Whereas every student—”
“Excuse me if I interrupt, but the problem is not an archaeological one.”
“Oh, come now!”
“I mean it. Students of the classics never ignore physical remains, of course—”
“Are you joking?”
“—but it so happens that the epic milieu has been most successfully investigated from another angle entirely. I see you subscribe to the AJA [American Journal of Archaeology]. That is convenient. Where is that big issue that was devoted entirely to Homer? The year 1948 I think it was. Yes, here it is. You should have read this account of Robert Wood. He was quite a big-wig in his day—Under Secretary of State to Lord Granville, in fact. Over a hundred years before Schliemann went to look for Troy, this man with his friends walked all over the terrain where Homer’s heroes are supposed to have fought and fled; and then they traced the routes of the heroes homeward bound from Troy.2 From this he became convinced and was able to convince some others that the stories in Homer had at least a real geographical background.”
“And you think you can do that with the Jaredites?” the professor interposed.
“Of course not. No one has ever identified a single Nephite artifact, let alone a Jaredite ruin! But that is not our problem at all, nor was it Wood’s solution to the Homeric question. It was only important as a preliminary step, in fact.”
“So what did our Mr. Wood do next?”
“Next he went to Syria, and there came upon ‘a type of community strangely remote from the world of contemporary scholarship,’ but it was a real world, just the same. You know how many travel classics have given substance to the mysterious Bedouin world since Wood’s day. Well, Robert Wood’s critical eye detected the same ‘combination in the Arab traits of savagery and chivalry which also characterizes the heroes of the Iliad.’ Was that just a coincidence, he asked himself, or could the ways of the modern Arabs be used to check, of all things, the authority of Homer?”
“Lehi in the Desert stuff, eh?”
“You might say. Anyway, Wood thought there was a connection and, as the book says, he ‘intended to write a detailed work in which similarities of the cultures exhibited in the Old Testament, in Homer, and in the Near East of his own day should be collected, and prove that the “Heroic Age” is a real and recurrent type in human society and that Homer’s picture of that of Greece is reliable.’ “3
“And did our man succeed?”
“Unfortunately he died before he could carry out the project, but he did publish an essay on the nature of epic poetry that made a big impression on the Germans. That was the time, you know, when the German romantics were busy reconstructing the wonderful misty world of woods and crags from which they fondly supposed their own national epic poetry took its rise. In England Bishop Percy was hot on the trail of another epic milieu. Two years before Wood’s essay appeared he brought out the first edition of his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.”
“It’s right behind you,” said the professor, “third shelf from the top.”
“Thank you. Note the acknowledgment to ‘the late elegant Mr. Shenstone,’ who really started the thing. Here in the introductory essay Percy says that the ancient minstrels ‘had before them too many recent monuments of the Anglo-Saxon nation, not to know what was conformable to the genius and manners of that people; and therefore we may presume that their relations prove at least the existence of the customs and habits they attribute to our forefathers before the conquest, whatever becomes of the particular incidents and events themselves.’ 4 Note how he goes to the heart of the thing: as a historical source for ‘particular incidents and events’ these old poems may not be worth a bean, but the sort of thing they describe, the things that happen recurrently, familiar scenes, and accepted patterns of behavior may be reliably reported and carefully confirmed in their verses. In other words, it is possible to detect in the early English ballads just such a genuine cultural milieu as one discovers in Homer.”
“And where does that get us?”
“To our next point, which is that one not only finds genuine epic milieux (how do you pronounce a final ‘x’ by the way?) looming behind one ancient literature after another, but also when you compare those different milieux they are all the same!”
“Do you mean to tell me that Bishop Percy’s English Heroic Age or epic milieu, or whatever you call it, is exactly like Homer’s—two thousand years earlier?”
“That is what I am coming to. For a long time the Germans, for example, insisted that they had a very private epic world of their own. But Schneider, the leader in the field, has shown how they gradually came to recognize that the epic world described in their poems was exactly like that depicted in the epics of other nations: so they finally came to the conclusion that epic poetry in general is not the product of a national spirit or a poet’s fancy but before everything else of the Völkerwanderungszeit—the time of the Great Migrations.”5
“So the Teutons were like the Greeks. That’s not too surprising.”
“But it is only the beginning. At the turn of the century Hugo Winckler in that old classic Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament—I see you have it here—wrote as follows:
We now know that the tides of people, such as the Germans at the beginning of the “Middle Ages,” [these are the “Great Migrations” we just referred to], the Islamic expansion, . . . and the Turkish-Tartar-Mongol movements . . . were not anything extraordinary, and that the history of the ancient world is likewise composed of a continuous chain of such migrations. 6
“He is pointing out here a fact that is now being appreciated every day, namely, that the great migrations were by no means confined to one period of the world’s history, but have been a recurrent event, involving all of Europe and Asia, throughout historic times.”
“But if it is these great migrations that produce epics, shouldn’t there be a lot more epic poems than there are?”
“A natural, if hasty, conclusion. A more correct deduction would be that epic literature should be much vaster not than it is but than we have hitherto supposed it to be. Actually investigations now going on are showing that for lo, these many years, the scholars have had all sorts of epic material lying around under their noses without knowing what it was.”
“Are you serious?”
“Actually it has only been since the 1930’s that the real nature and scope of the epic world has begun to be appreciated. It was the studies of H. Munro Chadwick and Milman Parry in our own generation that first showed the real nature of the epic. Back to our AJA—here you have it:
Poetry is heroic only because it is created by a people who are living in a certain way, and so have a certain outlook on life, and our understanding of the heroic will come only as we learn what that way of living is and grasp that outlook. We find, for example, that cattle-lifting is a common theme in the ancient European poetries, but it is found there because of no law of poetry, but because these people happen to live in a way which led them to the stealing of cattle on the one hand and to the practice of poetry on the other. The heroic element in early poetry is not a problem of lore, but one of anthropology and history, and the students of heroic poetry have done a very great deal in showing how the social background is mirrored in the poetry.7
“No matter when and where it is produced, genuine epic poetry can be only the product of a particular way of life, and that way of life is our epic or heroic milieu—it furnishes the ideas and images reflected in the poems.”
“A very majestic concept, this epic background of the oldest literature. But must you find it everywhere?”
“Of course not, but where we do find it, we are beginning to know where we stand.”
“And who, pray, are ‘we’?”
“You know what I mean. But there are experts in quite a number of fields who are finding the fact of a world-wide heroic age of great service in helping them interpret their materials. In many cases it is, in fact, decisive, and I think it will prove decisive in the case of the Jaredites.”
“How about a concrete example?”
“That, of course, is what I wanted you to ask. I love concrete examples. Well, here is Professor Samuel Kramer, writing in this same useful volume of the AJA—”
“He’s an orientalist, isn’t he?”
“Yes, he is our top Sumerian scholar, and in his archaeological capacity he is the director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum. And here he tells us that our epic milieu provides the only possible means yet devised of reconstructing the history of the earliest Sumerians.”
“Wait a minute! When you say our epic milieu, do you mean Homer and the Northmen?”
“Exactly. It is the epic literature of those people that enables him to interpret the new Sumerian evidence.”
“What is this new evidence?”
“Kramer says it is contained in the fragments of nine epic poems, which indicate ‘that early in their history, the Sumerians had passed through a cultural stage now commonly known as a Heroic Age. . . . Once the existence of a Sumerian Heroic Age had been determined, it was possible to adduce its cultural pattern and historical background on analogy with such long-known heroic ages as those of the Greek, Indian, and Teutonic peoples.’ He feels that the reality of the epic milieu has actually ‘permitted a reinterpretation of the earliest history of Mesopotamia which may prove closer to the truth than those suggested hitherto.’ “8
“What about his archaeological activities?”
“They are out. ‘Fortunately enough [he writes here] this new evidence has nothing to do with the highly ambiguous material remains of prehistoric Mesopotamia; it is of a purely literary and historical character.’ ” 9
“Dear me, that is something! And he actually thinks that Greek, Indian, and Teutonic heroic ages can explain doings of the first Sumerians?”
“They go farther than that; he says they furnish the key ‘for the early history . . . of the ancient Near East as a whole.’ “10
“Including the Jaredites, eh? But your book of Ether is no epic poem.”
“That remains to be seen—what it was, that is, before Moroni got through with it remains to be seen. But please remember that epic writing does not always take the same form by any means; but it does always talk about the same things. And those are the very things the book of Ether talks about. In all essentials it is an epic production.”
“Which, as you say, remains to be seen,” replied the professor.
“Of course it remains to be seen. Three things in particular remain to be seen: (1) Is the epic milieu old enough, and is its reality well enough established and defined to provide a valid test for the book of Ether? (2) Is the epic milieu truly and unmistakably depicted in the book of Ether? (3) Can it be faked? You will realize that much depends on the last question, which we haven’t even mentioned until now.”
“You insist on talking about the epic milieu as if there were only one. Aren’t there really as many of them as there are epic literatures?”
“Like gold, it is the same wherever you find it, the same effects always following the same causes. It is true that one can establish actual historical ties between various epic cultures—even between some that appear very far removed from each other. But whatever its cause, it is the fact of uniformity that justifies one in speaking of the epic milieu as a single phenomenon. It is not a case of coincidences between vague and general aspects of various cultures or between quaint and striking bits of such detail as dress and behavior; what we have is an elaborate and thorough-going identity of practices and institutions, always found together in the same imposing complex.”
“It would take an awful lot of work to prove that,” the professor observed.
“And an awful lot of work has gone into proving it. Chadwick’s your man for that.”
“How did he do it?”
“He set three corpuses of epic poetry or literature (it wasn’t all poetry) side by side. Here, let me show you . . . ”
The tireless Blank scouted through the shelves and took down a Beowulf, Finnur Jonsson’s edition of Egils Saga, and an elegantly bound little volume of the Dun Cow.
“Very weak in the Celtic department,” he commented, nodding at the latter item as he set the three books up on the desk beside the Homer, “but then most people are in this country—a crime and scandal, too, since half the population has Celtic blood. Translation, too—can’t really use translations, you know; romantic balderdash for the most part, nineteenth-century romanticism and Victorian preconceptions warp every line; miss all the main points, to say nothing of the fine points. However, this will have to do for now. Behold!”
He pointed to the books standing in a row. “There they stand four of them side by side, four out of a possible hundred, selected at random, mind you, written in different parts of the world, with a full two thousand years between the oldest and youngest of them—and yet they are as alike as peas in a pod!”
“You exaggerate, as usual,” was the professor’s comment.
“On the contrary, anyone who reads them side by side is quite bowled over by the resemblances, which rarely come to the attention of one who reads them separately and far apart, and—I can guarantee you this—never come to the attention of one who never reads them at all! How many people do you suppose ever get around to comparing the originals of even half a dozen epics?”
“You know the answer to that one. Somewhere between one and three maybe?”
“Apparently nobody did until Chadwick came along. Though he compared just three epic literatures, he gave them a good going over—he was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, you know—and he was able to show just how detailed and fundamental the resemblances really were. Then he turned to the nonliterary sources in each case—the histories, chronicles, genealogies, physical remains, etc., and easily showed that they described or depicted the same world that the poets told about. Not only did the three epic literatures tell the same story, but also in each case that story was seen to have a background in solid fact.”
“Three aren’t so many,” the professor intoned.
“A great truth! But three points are enough to establish a curve on a graph. That curve represents a law, one might say, and of course the more points we can fix the more certain we will be of our curve and of the law it represents. Dozens of other epic points have been determined or identified since Chadwick’s original three, and all fall quite close to the original line. Thus when Dr. Kramer found evidence that would put his proto-Sumerians smack on Chadwick’s curve, he did not hesitate to project his limited information along the lines of a general law.” Mr. Blank fortified the first curve with another chalk line and then read from the book:
” ‘Once the existence of a Sumerian Heroic Age had been determined,’—that was the little ‘x’ we drew on the line—’it was possible to adduce its cultural pattern and historic background on analogy with . . . long known heroic ages,’—they were represented by the first curve.11 Kramer gives credit to Chadwick for establishing the original curve: ‘It is largely to the credit of . . . Chadwick that it is now generally realized that the so-called heroic ages which we come upon from time to time and from place to place in the history of civilization are not mere figments of the literary imagination, but represent very real and very significant social phenomena.’ “12
“Has anyone else used the curve?” Professor F. asked.
“You may have heard of the very recent decipherment of all but twenty of the eighty-eight mysterious symbols of the so-called Minoan Script B. Some 4000 tablets written in that script now await interpretation, and to date Chadwick’s heroic age has been a most useful guide in reconstructing the world those tablets are talking about.”
“How does that work?”
“Once the heroic situation is established, the researcher knows what to look for—he is reassured when he is on the track and admonished when things don’t ring true. Professor Nilsson uses Chadwick in the same way, working in this area. Then in quite another cultural area, Cyrus Gordon has recently detected in the heroic age or epic milieu a sure guide to restoring the historical and cultural background of Abraham and his people, whose true nature, he believes, has escaped the scholars. He gives full credit to Chadwick as his guide.”
“And now, my dear sir,” said the professor, “if this discussion is to continue, as you seem determined it shall, would you be so kind as to tell me how I can recognize your epic milieu when I see it?”
“Always willing to oblige. By a fortunate coincidence I happened to bring Chadwick with me. We can go through it and list some of the stock characteristics of heroic ages on the blackboard.” He took a fat book from his briefcase; it was bristling with page markers. “To begin with,” he said, picking out the most conspicuously marked passage and reading didactically, “‘The heroic age coincides with the period of upheaval, . . . the period generally known as the age of National Migrations.’13 That is point one. Kramer here says much the same thing:
The factors primarily responsible for the more characteristic features of the . . . Heroic Ages are two. In the first place these Heroic Ages coincide with a period of national migrations, a Völkerwanderungszeit. Secondly—and this is by far the more significant factor—these peoples . . . had come in contact with a civilized power in the process of disintegration. 14
“It is too bad that we have no word in our language that remotely resembles the rich and succulent Völkerwanderungszeit. Our ‘Swarming Time,’ ‘Migration of peoples,’ ‘National Migrations’ and all that are weak and unsatisfying.”
“Yes,” F. agreed, “it’s a chocolate-coated word all right. Just what does it mean?”
“A Völkerwanderungszeit is one of those periods of vast and compulsory nomadism that from time to time fill the whole world with commotion. A tremendously important historical phenomenon, and of course the most significant of all the hundred-and-one different types and degrees of nomadism. Most nomads aren’t good at keeping records, but a good old Völkerwanderung is such a titanic event evolving such masses of people that it can’t very well keep out of the record: the reports come from both sides—the victims describe in chronicles of woe how the barbarians move in on them, while the invaders glorify the same exploits in epic song. At any rate real epic poetry always describes conditions prevailing in times of world upheaval and mass migration.”
“You can chalk that up as one point for Ether,” the professor conceded.
“And a rather neat one,” Blank replied. “The book gets off to a flying start. But let’s leave Ether out of this until we get a clear image of the epic milieu by itself. Then we can make comparisons if we want to.”
“Then let’s get on to point number two,” said Professor F.
“That is point one of what makes a heroic age.15 Now consider the second characteristic.” Blank drew a figure 2 on the board and read from Chadwick: “‘Feeling for nationality,’ says our guide, ‘is of no account in heroic poetry and saga. Love of home and the duty of defending it are of course recognized. But the interest . . . is always concentrated upon the doings or experiences of individuals.’16 Kramer describes the situation succinctly:
Now the most characteristic feature of all four of our Heroic Ages is this: they represent a rather barbarous cultural stage in the life of a people which has come far indeed from the primitive but has not yet attained the maturity and stability of a civilized society. Its dominant element is a rather numerous military class . . . to whom the underlying bulk of the population counts for very little. It is these knightly aristocrats who have freed themselves from the tribal obligations and ideas which govern the more primitive peoples. At the same time they have developed no true national organization and are inspired by little if any national feeling; their success and failure depend on the personal prowess of their leaders and kings whom they follow, . . . but from whom they are ready to drift away if these tend to turn too peaceful or become ungenerous in their rewards.17
“Looks like a whole list of points for Ether,” the professor observed, and Mr. Blank modestly confessed that it was a remarkably good description of the very conditions described in Ether and pointed out by him in a minor tract on the world of the Jaredites. “But isn’t it remarkable,” he added, “that this complex and peculiar—we might almost say freakish—state of things turns up complete in epic literature wherever we find it?”
“There is one slip though,” said the professor, “Kramer says these are people who have ‘not yet attained the maturity and stability of a civilized society,’ and yet your Jaredites are supposed to have had everything that belongs to a very sophisticated world, including a library.”
“Well, what does Kramer or anybody know about any of these people before their migrations started? Only this, that something in every case forced them to move; if they come onto the stage rather shabbily equipped, it is not because they began life that way but because something happened that made them pull up stakes in a hurry and clear out with just enough stuff for a forced march. Remember, these people are not habitual nomads—they are moving because they have to, and in every case they are looking for lands to settle in. They have been forcibly evicted from their old homes and grazing lands. Now it is granted that these people wherever they go find civilization ‘in the process of disintegration,’ to quote Kramer—it is a time of world calamity. What reason have we therefore to doubt that it was the disintegration of their own less stable civilization that forced them to move in the first place? If they move in on a world in collapse, you can be perfectly sure that they left one behind as well—otherwise they would never have migrated.”
“Any evidence for that?”
“The epics are full of it. The mere fact that our heroes do not enjoy what they are doing but want to get the business over with and settle down as soon as possible should be indication enough. Most epic poems are in mood little more than a prolonged agony. Remember what Goethe says about the Iliad? That it teaches us just one thing: ‘that life on this earth is a hell.’ But note what Kramer says here: these people have all ‘freed themselves from . . . tribal obligations.’ That means the breaking up of old orders and the cracking of old molds. These people have seen their traditional social order collapse, and with it all sense of security. The heroic mood is one of sheer desperation, as E. V. Gordon points out. Do you have him? Good: ‘A good resistance against overpowering odds was made the characteristic situation of heroic literature. . . . The gods themselves knew that they would in the end be overwhelmed by the evil powers, but they were prepared to resist to the last. Every religious-minded man of the heathen age believed that he existed for the sake of that hopeless cause,’ and so on.18 That is not, I submit, a permanent, stable, or even tolerable state of things. And what about their military organization? Do you remember how things went in the council of the chiefs in Homer?”
“I seem to recall,” the professor shut his eyes, “glorious Agamemnon and godlike Achilles going at each other like a couple of alley cats . . . ”
“Exactly. And that is typical. You have a loose military hierarchy, a very mixed army thrown together in a forced campaign of survival under chieftains who quarrel ferociously among themselves and are always trying to decide who outranks whom. It is a tense and unpleasant situation from start to finish, with everybody’s nerves strained to the breaking point and all the people running around and asking, ‘Who’s in charge around here?’ I ask you, can this chaotic organization in which no one is sure of his place possibly be the result of orderly growth, settled tradition, or careful planning? It is a desperate makeshift that pleases nobody. As Achilles says right at the outset, the whole thing wasn’t his idea, and he had left much better things behind. So had the lady Andromache left a happy world behind—in ashes. The Jaredites didn’t travel light, but still they never regarded their own civilization as anything but a pale reflection of the original article they had to leave behind.”
“Let’s get on to our third point,” said the professor.
“Which is, that epic is concerned not only with individuals but also primarily with individuals who are princes: the cast of characters, we are told, ‘consists almost wholly of princes and their military followers.’19 Among these ‘there is usually one character whose adventures form the chief subject of interest.’ “20
“That, I suppose, is why the whole thing is called heroic—centers around a hero?”
“Yes, in every epic there are heroes and also the hero.”
“A sort of superman.”
“He is always mortal and human, and he always occupies a position of subordination, taking orders from a relatively colorless king or commander. He has almost superhuman, but never supernatural, strength, and yet from time to time he receives supernatural aid. Altogether a strange and impressive figure!”21
“You will forgive me,” said the professor, “if I suggest that you have been describing the brother of Jared to the life.”
“His overwhelming importance is understandable if one considers that during actual migration the complete preponderance of one strong character is a necessity. Have you seen C. S. Coon’s new opus? I have it here, by the way. Here at the beginning he gives us an interesting picture of the human race living for at least ninety percent of its lifetime on earth as wandering hunters; I must admit it is strictly in the H. G. Wells tradition, but anyway he imagines that these ‘hunters lived in bands of from two to twenty or so families, all usually related to each other. In each band, while families were independent, the leadership was vested in one man in his prime, distinguished for his skill at providing meat, in preventing and settling quarrels, and in conducting foreign affairs.’22 If there is anything to that, then the organization of the epic migrations was simply a reversion to normal ways of life. Be that as it may, the portrait of the brother of Jared as a great primal hero and migration leader is a very striking one—remember that the book of Ether as it comes to us is supposed to have been composed from traditions and materials handed down for thousands of years.”
“In a way,” mused the professor, “it is rather remarkable that the only really heroic figures in the Book of Mormon are found in Ether. Lehi, Nephi, King Benjamin, and the others were certainly great men, but after all they were normal human beings in trying situations. With Ether it is different—you get some positively real heroes in the legendary sense—überlebensgross, the Germans would say: the outsized images of real people, like statues of heroic size.”
“And yet,” his friend added, locating another passage in Chadwick, “there is this interesting thing about them. Chadwick notes that even though the most ferocious and even depraved characters occupy the stage of epic, ‘there is no character who appears uniformly in an unfavorable light.’ 23 You will find that also true of the Jaredite monsters—one can’t help feeling a touch of admiration and sympathy even for Shiz and Coriantumr, and the licentious tyrants like Noah and Riplakish are not real patrons of the arts but have also a touch of real magnificence. Chadwick rings the bell here: ‘The behavior of the heroes often strikes their reader as childish or brutal.’ “24
“No comment necessary,” said F.
“In their dealings with one another,” the other continued, “a ‘dignified and fastidious tone . . . prevails,’ even between bitter rivals, that is.”25
“Rules of chivalry and all that.”
“Yes, as is well-known, the rules and the cult of chivalry originated with these people. Fighting was strictly according to the book, with formal challenges and exchange of messengers. When one hero submits to another, his followers are spared. Fighting ceases formally at sundown, with no funny stuff during the night . . . ”
“Do you seriously think those old boys actually kept the rules? I seem to remember Achilles and Ajax flying off the handle.”
“And do you remember how Achilles was slapped down for it by his divine mother? And how when Ajax sobered up he was so humiliated by what he had done that he committed suicide? Of course they break the rules, but the rules are there. ‘Yet, strangely enough,’ says Chadwick, ‘even the greatest heroes sometimes win their most notable triumphs by means which appear to us unfair.’ ” 26
“That sounds like a prize understatement.”
“Our heroes fight a lot. I think Gordon is right when he says that the idea that they loved fighting is wrong—they fought only when and because they had to.”
“Which was most of the time, it would seem.”
“Yes, Chadwick writes, Warfare is ‘an essential’ rather than an accessory of heroic life.27 And that leads to our next point: that the scene of action in the epics is confined exclusively to the battlefield, the court, the hunt, or some place of adventure—usually a wilderness.”28
“Aha! You say wilderness to put me in mind of Ether. But I guess it’s fair game.”
“No, I am thinking of certain key epics in which the wilderness is the normal background. Of course there is Siegfried, vibrating between the woods and the court—I dare say Wagner’s heroic world of caves and forests was not all papier-maché. But bring Ether into it if you must; I will make no objection. In fact the next point almost compels you to think of it: ‘Fighting is apt to take the form of single combats between the leading heroes.’29 Offhand I would say that that is certainly the best-known aspect of epic story.”
“And quite well known in Joseph Smith’s day,” the professor commented.
“For which reason,” the other countered, “it is all the more necessary to distinguish between mere eyecatching episodes and the complete epic milieu, which was definitely not known in the Prophet’s day.”
“But after all, he could have read Homer or Robin Hood, or something.”
“Homer, yes. But Robin Hood isn’t epic. You would be surprised how few epic texts had appeared in print. Homer, in fact, was the only real writer available—people thought Dante, and Camoens, and Vergil were epics, of course, but that only shows how little anyone understood what epic was. While I was still in high school scholars firmly believed that epic poetry was ‘deep-browed Homer’s demesne,’ the product of poetic imagination pure and simple whether of a great individual genius or the spontaneous expression of Volksgeist. In that belief many naive souls in the past have undertaken to compose genuine epic poems of their own—with alarming results.”
“But what was the scientific view?”
“Until recently it was the universal consensus of the experts that epic poetry had its origin in nature myths, and that the heroes were really faded sun-gods. Some diehards still believe it.”
“But what about Bishop Percy and other eighteenth-century scholars?”
“In every case they were students of national literatures pure and simple. Even Robert Wood’s comparisons were meant to cast light on Homer only—mere footnotes to the text. The world view, which is the very essence of the epic milieu, had to wait until our own day.”
“Let’s get back on the track. What comes next?”
“That heroic societies are held together entirely by oaths. The oath is the one social tie from top to bottom, and so the whole heroic world is a constant ferment of secret oaths and combinations. The oaths are strictly personal affairs between individuals, and need I say that the violation of an oath was considered the one unforgivable crime?30 In this rough society ‘the cardinal virtues of a hero are courage, loyalty, and generosity.’31 The courage is strictly physical—bravery in the field; the ‘loyalty is purely personal.’ Chadwick says, ‘It involves the duty of vengeance, as well as protection.’ As to generosity, it is always a matter of policy—the generosity of a chief to his followers, a princely bribe, with the admitted intent of buying and binding supporters by gifts.”32
“Ether all over again,” said the professor.
“We were going to keep Ether out of this for the present,” his friend replied, “but anyway it is further significant that all this generosity is paid for by systematic plunder and organized raids. Chadwick says:
Plunder is a necessity for the hero who wishes to maintain an active force of armed followers. . . . Plundering raids appear to be a characteristic feature of the Heroic Age everywhere—indeed, we may say, an essential feature. The booty derived therefrom enabled active and ambitious princes to attract to themselves and to maintain large bodies of followers, without which they were at the mercy of their neighbors.33
“If I do say it myself, that reads like an excerpt from The World of the Jaredites. Chadwick even mentions that the normal trophies of heroic enterprise ‘consist usually of the accoutrements or heads of . . . foes . . . valued as evidence of . . . prowess.’34 This is not true of heroic ages everywhere, but it holds in a surprising number of cases—especially with the northern Europeans and Asiatics. The most coveted forms of wealth among these people—objects lovingly and lengthily described in almost all epic poems—are weapons, horses, wagons, jewels, woven stuff, and damsels, the latter usually bought with so and so many head of cattle. It is all portable wealth—the stuff normally prized and cultivated by nomads. And, as you recall from the opening lines of Beowulf, the epic people are always heaping up and dispensing wealth: the economy of plunder requires a brisk turnover.”
“But you said these people are only reluctant and temporary nomads.”
“Yes, in every case they dream of settling down as soon as they can. But even after they have grabbed themselves lands and pinned them down with castles and strong places, they continue a semi-nomadic existence—a merry round of feudal wars and ‘abominations.’ ”
“Just what do you mean by that?”
“The period of migrations is followed immediately by what Chadwick calls the saga time. It is a jockeying for power among the great houses. The great house is the center of everything. Who came right after the epic and elegiac poets when you were reading Greek?”
“The tragedies, of course.”
“And you will recall that Aristotle says the tragedies deal with the doings of the great houses because they are ‘naturally tragic.’ They certainly were a mess: sordid struggles for power, maniacal hatreds, bestial murders—and all within the household. ‘The history of the family,’ writes Chadwick of a typical cycle of horrors, ‘is indeed little more than a catalogue of the crimes committed by one member against another.’35 Everything is on a personal level, and invariably the antagonists are relatives, with women taking a leading part in the dirty work.36 To make it even more like Ether’s world after the migration, abominations abound: Stories of incest and malicious serving up to a guest at a banquet of his own children occur with surprising frequency. 37 This sort of thing leads in turn to plots and alliances that culminate in wars of extermination, in which not only whole houses but also entire nations are wiped out. All that is left behind is the strange and tragic figure of ‘the lone survivor.’ “38
“That’s one I never heard of,” said Professor F.
“And yet he occurs with surprising frequency in the epic world.”
“You can tell me about him later.” The professor surveyed his watch. “I suppose we could go on all night getting things out of Mr. Chadwick.”
“We could indeed. But before we break it up, let me point out just a few more things. There is the overwhelming predominance of cattle in every heroic picture; there is the prominence of feasting and drinking—and they always eat and drink the same heroic fare: bread, beer, and beef. They feast each other at great exchange banquets, that lead to some famous quarrels.
“Of course, a subject peasant population is always found in the background. And in the center of every epic looms some mighty and fabulous fortified place, a combination castle, fort, and city like Camelot or Troy. In keeping with the chivalrous pattern we find everywhere the overpowering influence of some great lady, to whom all owe ultimate allegiance; indeed as Chadwick notes, an older substratum of matriarchy is often apparent. Some authorities insist today that the concept of romantic marriage is found only in the epic milieu—completely out of place in other societies. The epic people habitually live in tents, yet they are always building mighty cities as well as sacking them: that paradox can be easily explained . . . ”
“But not now,” the professor pleaded hastily.
“Since these people are migrants to begin with,” Blank began stuffing things back into his briefcase, “everybody rides on chariots and wagons in the early epics, the heroes on horseback in the later ones. Well, so it goes. We have an unmistakable pattern: I think there is no more chance of confusing the epic milieu with anything else than there is of confusing a Sioux warrior with a European peasant.”
“Oh, I begin to see where you are going,” the professor conceded, rising, “but it’s my opinion that you still have a long way to go.”
“I’ll admit we have got in deeper than I thought we would. But now that you have led me on so far, don’t you think we should see this thing through?”
“Not tonight,” said Professor F. with a touch of panic—there was no telling what Blank would do once he got started.
“Certainly not. In fact, with the limited resources we have here we could not go much farther anyway. How about getting together next Tuesday night in Dr. Schwulst’s office?”
“Because I think he can give us some help, aside from having the only Egyptian collection between here and Puffer Lake.”
“That stuff is over my head . . . ”
“Which is exactly why we are going to surprise Dr. Schwulst next Tuesday. He works late, you know. He’ll be delighted—pathetically eager to oblige anyone who’s interested.”
“You are a menace to society,” said Professor F. at the door, “but Tuesday it is. Eight o’clock at 315 Gohira Hall.”
1. Part 1 of “There Were Jaredites,” IE 59 (January 1956): 30—32, 58—61, began at this point.
2. H. L. Lorimer, “Homer and the Art of Writing: A Sketch of Opinion between 1713 and 1939,” AJA 52 (1948): 12—13.
3. Ibid., 14—15.
4. Thomas Percy, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 3 vols., ed. Henry Wheatley (London: Allen & Unwin, 1885), 1:350.
5. Hermann Schneider, Germanische Heldensage, 2 vols. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 19 28—33), 1:14, 3—4.
6. H. Winckler, in Eberhard Schrader, Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Testament, 3rd ed. (Berlin: Reuther & Reichard, 1903), 4.
7. A.B. Lord, “Homer, Parry, and Huso,” AJA 52 (1948): 39.
8. Samuel N. Kramer, “New Light on the Early History of the Ancient Near East,” AJA 52 (1948): 157.
10. Ibid., 159.
11. Ibid, 157.
12. Ibid, 158.
13. See H. Munro Chadwick, The Growth of Literature, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932—40), vol. 1 for an extensive discussion of the Heroic Age.
14. Kramer, “New Light on the Early History of the Ancient Near East,” 159.
15. Part 2 of “There Were Jaredites,” IE 59 (February 1956): 88—89, 106, 108, began at this point.
16. Chadwick, Growth of Literature, 1:94.
17. Kramer, “New Light on the Early History of the Ancient Near East,” 158—59.
18. E. V. Gordon, An Introduction to Old Norse (Oxford: Clarendon, 1927), xxxi.
19. Chadwick, Growth of Literature, 1:64.
20. Ibid., 1:82.
21. Ibid., 1:80—95; ch. 5.
22. Carleton S. Coon, The Story of Man (New York: Knopf, 1954), 6.
23. Chadwick, Growth of Literature, 1:82.
24. Ibid., 1:77.
25. Ibid., 1:78.
26. Ibid., 1:87.
27. Ibid., 1:95.
28. Ibid., 1:79.
29. Ibid., 1:95.
30. Ibid., 1:77, 88.
31. Ibid., 1:74.
33. Ibid., 1:95, 92.
34. Ibid., 1:95, 92—94.
35. Ibid., 1:184.
36. Ibid., 1:90—91.
37. Ibid., 1:185.
38. Ibid., 1:106.