War Against the Fowls

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.

5 thoughts on “War Against the Fowls

  1. This is a good corollary to your ‘Don’t be a Chump’ article. Not being on social media I was blissfully ignorant of the Cranes and Pygmies. Thank you for the brief primer.

    Now I also have a fitting alternative to the idiom ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’

  2. Pingback: War Against the Fowls | Reaction Times

  3. Back when I was a wee lad, I wondered how a civilized educated populace such as Germans in the Weimar Republic could elect such nasty thugs to office. I was ignorant of Weimar’s conditions at the time. For the past 19 years, however — since the Bush-Gore election, in fact — I’ve come closer and closer with each passing year to understanding and sympathizing with the Krauts as I’ve witnessed the transformation of the Left in this country. I confess that I’m now well past sympathizing with those Nazi-voters. Bonald was correct when he wrote that the cure for fascism is fascism — in the sense of wresting power away from termites (that are hollowing out our civilization) and then restoring civil order. My conservative tendencies demand a cautious, moral, prudent statesman to steer the ship away from the rocks, but thumotic rage wants anyone — anyone — who will send these folks away. I’ve some suggestions for where, but I’d be happy with “away.” My own fantasy is that a legion of angels makes them melt into the earth like the Nazi minions from _Raiders of the Lost Ark_, but “away” is good enough. Of course, it would be better for another Great Awakening — for the prodigals to return home, for the blind to see, for the sick men to rise up . . . good Christian sentiments all around. But, honestly, I listen more eagerly to other voices now, and I want the heathen to melt. This is how wicked opportunists get power. I understand — and still I’d take the chance . . . because any state is better than whither we’re going. That’s how people must have felt in the early 30s. It’s probably wrong (look at what happened to Germany), but, like the pinkos with hope undying, maybe this time, things won’t fall so apart. We won’t get sociopathic goons in charge, we won’t lose the war, we won’t crumble under the weight of our society’s contradictions . . . Well, yeah, I guess that we’re screwed, regardless. I’d still like to see them melt.

    • There is a point where irony becomes either hatred or despair. The story of the political Right for the past twenty years has been more and more people passing that point.

  4. War in Homer’s time may well have had the possibility of being silent, or at least mostly quiet enough not to disturb the onlookers coolly discussing the tides of battle as a Sunday afternoon entertainment.

    Alas, the modernization of war has been a process of inventing diabolical devices to outdo the cranes in both noise and destruction. Those Greeks, thrifty and grim as they may be, would retire in haste in the face of an artillery barrage.

    I mourn the things we lose.


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