The Glass Walking Stick



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THE ROMANCE OF HISTORY


1924

THE signs of the resurrection of Spain of which I think there are many to be seen lately, have turned my thoughts to certain subtleties in the tradition of that land. They are things so subtle that they always appear to be simple. One of them is the tradition of chivalry and the double attitude towards it which we connect with the name of Don Quixote. There is no more fantastic paradox in all history than the life and work of Cervantes. He is generally recognized as having written a book to show that romantic adventures are all rubbish and do not really happen in this world. As a matter of fact, the one man in this world to whom romantic adventures were incessantly happening was the author of ‘Don Quixote’. He covered himself with glory and lost his right hand at the most romantic battle in history — when the Crescent and the Cross met in the blue Mediterranean by the Isles of Greece, trailing all their pageants of painted and gilded ships with emblazoned sails. He was just about to receive public recognition from the victor, Don John of Austria, when he was kidnapped by pirates. He organized a series of escapes, each like the ideal adventure of a schoolboy; he organized supplies and comforts for his fellow-prisoners with the laborious altruism of a saint. As men go, he was really a pretty perfect pattern of the knight of chivalry; eventually he escaped and returned home to write a book showing that chivalry was impossible. At least, that is what three rationalistic centuries have taken it as showing. But I think the time has come to dig a little deeper in that stratified irony and show the other side of Cervantes and chivalry.

Hero-worship has fallen out of fashion with Carlyle, who forced it into fashion. But in the case of Carlyle there were circumstances that were a needless handicap of hero worship and even to heroism. Carlyle set himself the impossible task of making heroes out of the successful men of history and politics. It was not much more hopeful than that of making heroes out of the successful men in soap or petrol. In one sense that sort of hero-worship is heroic, in the sense of being impossible. The task is heroic be cause the subject is unheroic. In Carlyle’s characteristic work it soon ran into absurdity. It reached the point of praising Frederick the Great — a form of hero-worship which is clearly a reductio ad absurdum, and even almost a contradiction in terms. The character of Cromwell had more human elements; but what was best in it was human and emphatically not heroic. The best case for Cromwell is that he was a moderately sane man in a very insane age. His best work was done as a moderator and maker of compromises, not as an originator or inspirer of enthusiasms. He saved works of art which the wilder Puritans would have destroyed, but we cannot picture him as a great patron of art in the sense of a friend of artists. He insisted that there must be good pay for good soldiers; but he was not the sort of man to be a romance to his own soldiers, like Napoleon. He was a seventeenth-century English squire whose family had grown rich in the great pillage; and morally he was no worse than most of his kind and perhaps better than many of them. He was certainly much better than Frederick the Great whom Carlyle made even more of a hero, and even a god.

The worship of Frederick the Great can hardly be called hero-worship. It is rather devil-worship softened by a touch of monkey-worship. It is superstition and therefore heresy to say such things seriously, but we may say symbolically that if a demon could enter the body of a monkey the result might be something like Frederick II of Prussia. It is not only true that he had a large mind and a small soul, it might almost equally truly be said that he had a large brain and a small mind. Even his intellectual pride was petty. Moreover, he was in another sense curiously like a monkey. He was an imitator. As the old mystics used to say that the devil was the ape of God, we might more literally say that Frederick II was the ape of Louis XIV. But just as the monkey imitates the man without understanding the man, just as the ape can copy an action that he cannot comprehend, so the Prussian had nothing of the national and civilized quality of the Frenchman. He substituted a new impudence and malignity for the last trailing tradition of medieval chivalry and Roman law. But Carlyle had to make a hero out of him, on his own theory of the heroism of success. Frederick had nothing else except success — not even the power to enjoy it.

But when we have got rid of this sort of hero-worship we may really come back to heroes. There really were heroes who were historical characters though they were not generally successful men. More often the true hero was a tragic hero. But while his tale was often a tragedy in so far as he failed, it was often a wildly impossible romance in the moments when he triumphed. The curious thing is that real history is much more romantic, and not less romantic, than Carlyle made it out. The hero may sometimes have lost his campaign, but he won his battles. And he can often be seen winning his battles single handed like the most legendary knight winning his spurs. Chivalry really did succeed in doing the impracticable things, even when it failed to do the practical things. We may differ or feel doubtful about the ultimate success or even the ultimate value of various policies pursued in the past; but nobody can doubt the thrill and enthusiasm and courage of the pursuit. The only really reliable part of history is the romance of it.

For instance, Godfrey de Bouillon died young, wasted by a fever that might have been cured in more sanitary conditions and wearied with a problem which was perhaps almost insoluble. That is a tragedy of the modern sort; it may well be said that his life was a failure; it might be said that the Crusades were a failure. We might argue about whether he was a maker, a builder, a man who can, or any of the Carlylean descriptions. For those depend on elaborate historical results which arise later; and the end of everything arrives sooner or later. It is disputable whether Richelieu was a successful man, since the French monarchy went down in the French Revolution. It is disputable whether Frederick the Great was a successful man, since Prussianized Germany went down in the Great War. So it is disputable whether Godfrey was a successful man, since the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem went down in the disaster of Hattin. What is quite indisputable is that Godfrey was a hero of romance, a hero of the wildest and most improbable romance, a hero behaving as heroes behave in the extravagant romances of chivalry. What is certain is that he, the Commander-in-Chief of the whole military system of Europe in the East, did really behave in the manner of Dick Dauntless among the Redskins or How a Powder-Monkey Foiled the Pirates. It is a cold and concrete fact that he was himself the first to leap from the battle-tower on to the Saracenic turrets, exactly as the boy who ran away to sea is the first to leap from his baffle-ship on to the slaver’s deck. All that part of the business that was a statesman’s calculation may or may not have been falsified. All that part of it that was like a schoolboy’s daydream came true.

There are any number of other examples of the kind. Nelson is too near to us for us to be certain of the duration of his practical achievement; but the nearer we are to him the less doubt we have of his purely poetical achievement. Near as he is to us, he is nearer still to the morning of the world, and has the colour and the clear outline that belongs to the primitive legends of the dawn. We do not know how long the naval leadership of England will last, but we do know that the legend will last. We do not know how far aviation has altered everything or how far politicians would go in the direction of scrapping the British Navy. But we do know that Nelson could hardly have been a more mythical figure if he had flown upon wings; or that his ship might have been a fairy-ship and hardly shone more strangely on the storied sea. The things that are quite certain about Nelson are all the improbable things; that he died in the very hour of triumph; that he died on a vessel that bore the very name of victory; that he was shot through wearing the flaming stars with which he had just offered to die in honour — all the coincidences that would be called crude and far-fetched in a story. They are the fancies that are considered a little too romantic for historical fiction. They are also the only fixed facts of history.





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