Another Memorial Day has come and gone, a holiday dedicated to remembering. It seems appropriate, therefore, to pause and consider the relationship of memory to the imagination, in this case historical rather than personal memory. “Holiday” originally meant holy day, marked by a ritual dramatizing a central myth, and there is often a tension between that definition and the other definition of “holiday,” namely, “excuse for a party.” But what we are trying to get at here is the underlying myth.
England has a similar ritual. At 11:00 on November 11, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, two minutes of silence are observed for those who have died in battle. But remembering those who have sacrificed their lives in war is an impulse far older than these modern observances. Recently, I have been trying to re-acquaint myself with Old English, the first form of the English language, before the Norman Conquest, so different from modern English that it has to be studied like a foreign language. I studied it for a year in graduate school at the University of Toronto in 1978-1979, and fell in love with both the language and its literature, so much so that for a brief time I toyed with the idea of becoming a medievalist. The world, at least the academic world, is a better place because I came to my senses and realized I am dreadful at languages. But other people have loved Old English as well. One of them was J.R.R. Tolkien, who was very good indeed at languages. It is in fact from Old English haligdaeg that we derive our word “holiday.”
Using my own forty-three year-old translation (!) as a crib, I have been making my way through “The Battle of Maldon,” commemorating the Anglo-Saxon warriors who, rather than flee or surrender, were wiped out to the last man in a battle against the invading Vikings in 991 CE. It is a moving poem, known especially for the speech of heroic defiance made by an Anglo-Saxon warrior to the Vikings. Tolkien has two essays on it and a kind of sequel to it, “The Homecoming of Beorthnoth Beorthelm’s Son.” Maldon still exists, a coastal town in Essex, by strange coincidence a mere ten miles from my friend Sandral, who lives in Chelmsford. If San were to visit modern-day Maldon, I’m sure she would see no sign of what took place there over a thousand years ago. What survives is the poem.
Why should the memory of that battle survive for over a thousand years? One answer of course is that the Anglo-Saxon leader Byhrtnoth and his men were lucky enough to have found a gifted poet who enabled their survival by uploading them into words, sending them down the stream of time in a verbal equivalent of the ship burials common to that culture. But why choose the battle of Maldon, an inconsequential skirmish that the Anglo-Saxons in fact lost—and not only that, lost because of the overconfidence or pride (depending on how you translate the Old English ofermod) that caused Byrhtnoth to allow the Vikings to cross a causeway so that battle could be joined?
The answer is clear from the poet’s focus, which is not on the cause, the ideological reason for the war, but on the courage and personal loyalty of men to the liege lord who gave them gifts, who above all gave them symbolic rings: one ring to bind them. There is no doubt that Old English poetry deeply informs The Lord of the Rings. Causes can always be questioned; loyalty can be misplaced. The terrible uncertainty of history is undeniable, and the attempt to deny it merely turns people into fanatics, just as it does with religion. What cannot be questioned is something so deeply human that it communicates across a thousand years and radical changes of cultural values.
Causes and loyalties in fact should be questioned, must be questioned, which is not the same as saying they should all be cynically denied. Consider: we have two holidays, one to commemorate those who died in war, the other to commemorate a man, Martin Luther King, who advocated non-violence. Are we confused about this, not perhaps dishonest but at least evasive? I would say not necessarily. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the presence of these two holidays in a potentially creative tension with each other is a credit to the profound vision of American democracy at its best.
I would distinguish between defensive and imperialistic wars: wars fought against an undeniable existential threat and wars fought for causes, slogans, theories, occasionally outright lies. World War II is to most Americans the primary example of a “just war” if there is such a thing because of the undeniable fact of Pearl Harbor. The Civil War was fought because of the undeniable fact of slavery—those then and now who attempt to deny its evident horror are simply lying, whether to others or themselves. In contrast, the “domino theory” that rationalized our involvement in Vietnam was a theoretical lie; the weapons of mass destruction that rationalized Iraq were a factual lie. This is not mere opinion: the other countries of Southeast Asia did not topple like dominos when we left Vietnam, and there were no weapons of mass destruction, other than, of course, the lies themselves. The lies were necessary precisely because there was no existential threat. This is a personal interpretation, but Martin Luther King, and his mentor Gandhi in India, were opposing what they saw as imperialism, the use of violence for power and domination. Such power is always rationalized by lies: British imperialism had the “white man’s burden”; we have “American exceptionalism.” The aftermath of violence in the service of a lie is invariably bitter disillusionment. The imperial Roman poet Horace wrote that it was sweet and fitting to die for one’s country; in a famous poem, Wilfred Owen, knowing the horrors of World War I, called that “the old lie.” This is why Tolkien’s ring of power is evil, what my mentor Northrop Frye would call a demonic parody of Anglo-Saxon rings of loyalty.
The tragedy is that good people may die in selfless, heroic service to bad causes. I think that the true spirit of nonviolence is the renunciation of the bad causes, the ideological lies. A primary purpose of education in a democracy is what we humanities teachers call critical thinking, which is simply practice at telling true causes from the lies that can sound so much like them. But all judgment is heartbreakingly fallible. The best we can do is make war an absolute last resort in the face of imminent danger, at the same time that we work to change the world into a place in which demonic possession by the will to power, going over to the dark side, is less likely because there are better ways to satisfy it, what William James called moral equivalents of war. Examples are not hard to find: the heroic rescue workers of 9/11 and the heroic health care workers of the pandemic deserve to be remembered for the same courage and loyalty, the greater love that lays down its life not just for friends but for strangers, simply because, libertarians notwithstanding, we are all members of one another on a level below either religious belief or disbelief.
Correction: As some people no doubt realized, there was an inaccurate citation in my previous newsletter about Bob Dylan. The speaker dryly says “good luck” to Columbus as he lands in America in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” not “Tombstone Blues.” As my English friend San would say, Pfft! She tells me it’s a European expression of exasperation, more sophisticated than the homegrown American expletive it would be my impulse to use. Thanks to another friend, Dennis McCurdy, for catching the error. A fitting postscript to a newsletter about memory and its vicissitudes.