Into the hall alone, my son?
Now hear your mother’s prayer.
Go back onto the battlefield
And aid your father there.
I’d far prefer your blood be spilled
Like water on the ground
Or have you in your shroud arrayed
Than as a coward found.
Go thou into the hall and see
The portraits of your sires.
The eyes of each and every one
Alight with raging fires.
Not mine the son who would disgrace
His family’s name and home.
“Kiss me, my mother dear,” he said,
She did, and he was gone.
He has come back unto the door,
No longer does he live.
His mother cries, “My son, my son!
Oh God, can you forgive?”
Then comes an answer from the wall,
“While rivers run through Wales
Far better is the hero’s death
Than life when courage fails…”
As presented in The Legacy of Heorot by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Steven Barnes.
I found the poem in a book I am reading and it made me wonder how much truth I find in it. My initial reaction was “hell, yeah!” My wife’s family comes from the area of Greece around Sparta and I immediately had visions of her, with her strong will and sense of honor, telling our son this. And having a deep sense of the heartbreak she would have, even as she said it with steel in her voice.
But, as I read it again I began to wonder what compelled this woman to say this? Where does this archetype of the Lady of the Manor come from? Not the simpering “Ah declare Miz Scarlett” Lady, but the one with a steel ramrod for a spine.
I remember growing up in the Deep South in the late ‘70s. Part of that culture, at least for the smaller community we were a part of, was church attendance every Sunday. For us kids, it was an exercise in torture. Putting on scratchy pants and shirt, a belt and a tie, then itchy socks and Buster Browns. We had great fun there, but why did we have to put on those crazy cloths!
If you had asked my parents, their theological answer would have been that we should be putting on our best to go to God’s house. Scratch that a little deeper and they would have admitted a lot had to do also with peer pressure within their social group. I know this because, when times changed in the ‘80s and it became in vogue to come to church casually, they jumped all on that bandwagon. Not only was there less static from us kids, it was more comfortable for them! But, this shows that their actions were dictated more by society and their place in it than deep conviction of a moral certitude.
Why did the Lady in the poem send her son out? Did she hold a deep conviction about honor or was she bowing to her fear of social pressure? It makes a big difference how and why we approach certain things in life. Honor is one of those things.
The men below also had honor, not as a social thing, but as a deeply held personal matter. I wonder if it exists anymore and what it would take to re-learn it as a society.