Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Name:
Location: New England, United States

Thursday, October 25, 2007

...Upon Saint Crispin's Day

Today, October 25th, was once known as the Feast of Saint Crispin. To a modern person, that probably doesn't mean much. Saint Crispin was one of those obscure saints dreamed up in the early days of the Catholic Church, apparently the patron saint of shoemakers (and tanners; pretty much all the leather-related skilled trades). It's uncertain if he ever was a real person, or even how many Crispins there were; some stories say that there were twin brothers, both called Crispin. Nevertheless, his feast day was acknowledged and honored in Western Europe until well into the 20th Century. Ultimately it took the Vatican II Council of 1965 to conclude that Saint Crispin, like Saint Christopher and Saint Brigid, was most likely a fiction, either an amalgam of several historical figures or some local tribal folk hero press-ganged into Christianity by newly-converted pagans who wanted to hold onto some semblance of their old ways. So poor old Crispin was de-canonized by the Catholic Church, and his feast day has languished in obscurity ever since.

However, the name of Saint Crispin has retained a measure of recognition in the modern age, thanks to two events that revolve around it. The first was the legendary Battle of Agincourt of 1415. Perhaps the most famous battle of the Hundred Years' War, it took place on a muddy field in northern France, pitting the invading army of Henry the Fifth of England against that of Charles the Sixth of France. Although outnumbered and exhausted, the English had on their side the advantages of technology - the English Longbow was the WMD of its time - and terrain - the fog and mud severely limited the effectiveness of the French heavy cavalry - and somehow Henry managed to pull a decisive victory out of thin air. The victory allowed Henry to return to English territory, to regroup and rearm, and ultimately to press on to secure control of the French throne and bring an end to the war (for his lifetime, at least...which was short).

The other event to immortalize Saint Crispin's Day was William Shakespeare's dramatization of the Battle of Agincourt, in his historical play Henry V. The scene, as Shakespeare set it, is the stuff of legend. Henry's men are tired and disillusioned, fearing that there is no hope for survival, let alone victory. Then the King himself appears, and delivers a pep talk. The speech Henry gives is perhaps the most rousing ever written, full of appeals to valor and glory and the judgement of history, and it stirs his men to hope and victory. It's a testament, perhaps, to the genius of William Shakespeare, that he manages to so perfectly articulate what Henry's men need to hear, need to believe, to survive this day. For what Henry says is, I think, what every soldier wants to hear from his commander. Stand with me, and be called my brother. Fight with me, and go home a hero. Bleed with me, and poets will sing our names forever. It is the immortality that comes with heroism that Henry offers to his men, the notion that THIS is their moment, and what they do in this moment will be remembered until the end of time. Shakespeare's words are so stirring, and his King Henry so dynamic and charismatic, that a reader is on the verge of cheering at the end of the speech. And when you hear it delivered by a master actor like Olivier or Brannagh, you're ready to follow Henry straight into Hell.

Of course Shakespeare was not above fudging the facts a little, and it's more than likely the Henry V we see in his play was nothing like the historical Henry V. But the precedent of the dynamic leader who steps up to lead his people in a time of crisis is timeless, and the echoes of Henry resound even to this day. In the aftermath of September 11th, the American reponse was called by many pundits President Bush's "Henry the Fifth Moment." Shakespearean scholars understood what that meant: Henry V was, after all, the last in a series of plays in which Henry appeared. Before his own play, Henry was merely "Hal," the ne'er do well crown prince, off having misadventures with John Falstaff and his merry band of hooligans. But when the time came to take the throne, Hal grew up in a hurry. He forsook his hedonistic ways and became a dynamic leader of men. Putting aside his life of youthful indiscretions and stepping up to be the leader his country needed. There's even a moment in Henry V where Henry must execute one of his old rowdy friends for unwarranted pillaging; his duty to uphold the law takes precedence over his friendship. That's the defining moment of Henry's kingship. And for a while, it looked to be the defining moment in George W Bush's Presidency. Up until that moment, he was perceived as something of a doofus. The son of a former President with an unremarkable political career, who coasted by on family connections and a measure of goofy charm. Then September 11th happened, and this was the moment. President Bush was poised to put aside Dubya just as Henry put aside Hal, to become a serious and dynamic leader of men, to unite the people of his nation and lead them to victory over their enemies.

Unfortunately, that's not what happened. We know that now. George W Bush is no Henry the Fifth. The just and righteous war against the enemies of freedom never materialized. The vaunted War on Terrorism swiftly turned into a botched invasion and occupation. How did it happen? Simply put, Bush is no Henry. Henry put aside his old friends and turned his energies to governing; Bush kept his cronies close and took their self-serving counsel as gospel. Henry rallied his people with wisdom and eloquence; Bush spewed rehearsed talking points like some strange human parrot. Henry took the disparate people of the British Isles - the Britons, the Welsh, the Scots, the Irish - and appealed to them as a whole, as Englishmen, as a Band of Brothers; Bush split his country in two, destroying American culture, perhaps irreparably, just to keep his own sinking ship afloat. Shakespeare's Henry embodied a very Medieval ideal of leadership: man of letters and man of action, possessing both the eloquence to rally men to his cause and the strength of character to keep them there. President Bush has neither; he can only win people to his cause by driving a wedge between them. Therein lies the tragedy: what could have been his Henry moment turned out to be his Dubya moment.

Ironically, though, the war in Iraq is also a Henry moment - the historical Henry, not literary one. After all, the series of conflicts between England and France that we now know as the Hundred Years' War were largely conflicts of vague intelligence. Confusions caused by tribal migrations, intermarriage between royal families, and laws of succession that were outdated even by 15th century standards made the line of succession to the throne of France a hotly contested issue. Up until Henry's time, the Kings of England also styled themselves Kings of France, but that was purely ceremonial until Henry took it upon himself to press the matter. Thus, his invasion of France. Shakespeare even makes reference to this at the beginning of his play: two Bishops advise Henry to press his claim, and use precedents in both secular and religious law to back up their claims (it goes without saying that their precedents would never hold up in a real court), appealing to both his devotion to God and his ambition as King to take his kingdom to war.

Hmmm...a new, devout young ruler, convinced by his trusted religious counselors to invade a foreign country based on questionable justifications...The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Perhaps it's best to honor this forgotten feast day in a way Shakespeare would have preferred: to find our common ground in these disillusioning times. To band together as brothers, to be men and women of words and deeds, to know that we are stronger united, facing the enemy of all we hold dear, than we are fighting amongst ourselves. To work to ensure that wisdom and eloquence will prevail over jingoism and reductionism. To seek the Henry within ourselves, perhaps, that warrior-king who appeals to us to be heroes, to take this moment offered us and use it as best we can.

...or maybe it's just another October day.

Well, Happy Saint Crispin's Day, anyway.

2 Comments:

Anonymous portraitinflesh said...

And an Extra Crispy St. Crispin's Day to you. :)

Of course, I'll have to temper my overwhelming urge to strangle you; guess I'll just have to leave that for St. Blaise's Day.

10:19 PM, October 25, 2007  
Anonymous Zanna said...

Well written article.

1:01 PM, November 11, 2008  

Post a Comment

<< Home