In the third book of the Iliad, Homer likens the battle on the plain before Troy to the legendary battle between the pigmies and the cranes. This later battle was said to occur annually, somewhere beyond the Great Desert, perhaps in Ethiopia, perhaps in faraway Ind.
Homer does not tell the story of the battle between the pigmies and the cranes, but rather alludes to it in a simile that contrasts the squawking ferocity of the Trojans and the grim resolve of the Greeks. This same simile would serve, I think, to contrast the recent battle between our squawking public moralists and the boys from Covington Catholic High School.
Homer could allude to the battle between the cranes and the pigmies because his audience already knew the legend. Each year, the Greeks saw great flocks of cranes migrating south from their northern nesting grounds, and they attached to this natural spectacle a moral story about a recurrent battle between the innocent pigmies and these massed and screeching cranes.
In a more fully developed version of the story, the pigmies are said to be a peaceful and industrious race. The medieval Legend of Prester John tells us,
“They be good Christened folk, and they have no war against no man. But they have war against the fowls every year, when they shall have in their fruit and corn.”
So the pigmies are peaceful and industrious, dwelling in the shadows of the Mountains of the Moon (as said Hecataeus), or possibly near the fountains of the Ganges, and they wish for nothing but to gather in the harvest and to stock their tiny barns. Their condition reminds me of harmless high school students waiting for a bus to take them home. But these pigmies are, alas, annually beset by loud and plundering birds, and although, in the end, “the birds flee away from them,” it is not before “there be slain on both sides many one.”
In the Iliad, Homer tells us that the Trojans likewise attempted to cow the Greeks with loud and fearsome cries.
“The Trojans would have fray’d
The Greeks with noises; crying out, in coming rudely on
At all parts, like the cranes that fill with harsh confusion
Of brutish clangor all the air; and in ridiculous war
. . .
Visit the ocean and confer the pigmy soldiers’ death.”
Meanwhile, like the long-suffering pigmies,
“The Greeks charg’d silent, and like men, bestow’d their thrifty breath
In strength of far-resounding blows . . .”
Although Twitter is, strictly speaking, a silent medium, it might be said to “fill with harsh confusion of brutish clangor all the air.” And although we are not daumlings scarcely two spans high, normal people daily learn how much their lot is like “that small infantry warred upon by cranes.”
But let us neither screech nor squawk, I say. Let us instead bestow our thrifty breath in far-resounding blows.