Remember the Epic Tale: Be It The Alamo or Celtic Cattle Thieves
By Michael Lind
351 pp., $25
By Randy Lee Eickhoff
283 pp., $22.95
The very earliest great works of many of the world's literatures were epics. The "Iliad" and "Odyssey" of Homer, the Sumerian "Gilgamesh," the Indian "Bhagavad Gita," the Anglo-Saxon "Beowulf," all were stories detailing the exploits of heroic figures who exemplified the most admired values of the cultures which gave birth to them.
Later authors sought to continue in the epic tradition. Virgil consciously modeled his epic of Rome, "The Aeneid," on Homer's masterworks. Dante went so far as to actually incorporate Virgil as a character - Dante's own personal guide - in his epic, "The Divine Comedy."
In the Renaissance, some of the most ambitious poets, such as Edmund Spenser, Ariosto, and Milton, dedicated themselves to achieving monumental greatness in this form. Certainly, any writer who declares he is writing an epic nowadays places himself in an egregious position. The very idea seems so archaic, it is hard to guess how seriously he intends to be taken.
Now, Michael Lind, a poet, novelist, journalist, and native Texan, boldly offers us not only a bona fide epic about the legendary, real-life, historical heroes of Texas' fight for freedom in The Alamo, but also one that is written in the time-honored epic form of verse: rhyme royal, employed by Chaucer in his "Troilus and Criseyde" (Cressida) and by other classic poets.
Clearly, Lind expects - and deserves - some credit merely for daring to undertake such an enterprise. He is swimming against the current of the mainstream of most modern and postmodern poetry, not only in his choice of a traditional (perhaps even archaic) genre and an old-fashioned verse form, but also in his unabashed celebration of old-fashioned American freedom fighters, like the band of stout-hearted Texans who defended the Alamo.
Everyone knows the expression "Remember the Alamo," but one wonders how many of today's students understand that this was not some American "imperialist" war against Mexico, but a rebellion against the tyranny of a Mexican military dictator, Santa Anna, who was also the bane of Mexican liberals.
All this and more is made vividly clear in Lind's lively and colorful recreation of the stirring story. Major characters such as Jim Bowie, William Travis, Stephen Austin, and Sam Houston are deftly limned in rhyme, whether by narrative description:
"If even Austin, peacefulest of all/ the Texan leaders, could be seized and penned/ without a hearing, what fate might befall/ those fellow Texans aching to defend/ their chartered rights with more than ink and wind?"
Or in dialogue, such as these words spoken by Sam Houston: "There's nothing in the world that's worse than war,/ with one exception, and that is defeat."
The siege of the Alamo was, in fact, a defeat for the Texas freedom fighters, but the gallantry of the fort's defenders inspired their comrades to win their ultimate victory. Lind's research and story-telling are quite impressive. But does "The Alamo" succeed as an epic poem? I suspect that the quality of the verse is too uneven to assure it a place alongside such previous American favorites as Longfellow's "Hiawatha" or "Evangeline."
Writing metrical, rhymed poetry is no easy proposition. Even if you succeed - as Lind does - at getting the basics right, getting the right diction and tone can be tricky when you have to balance the need for a precise word against the temptations of a good rhyme. Robert Frost remarked that writing free verse was like playing tennis with the net down. Lind must be commended for undertaking this big project with the net up, but his prosody does not always rise to the challenge.
One of the oldest epic tales in European vernacular literature is the "Tin B Cuailnge," or "Cattle Raid of Cooley," part of the "Ulster" cycle of sagas of the ancient, pre-Christian days of Ireland.
It is certainly quite a story. The trouble begins when the king of Cormacht and his bold, sexually promiscuous wife, Maeve, get into an argument over who is wealthier. In order to win the competition, Maeve wants to acquire the massive Brown Bull of Cooley in the neighboring kingdom of Ulster. So she and her husband (who is remarkably tolerant of her whims and cravings) launch a full-scale attack on Ulster - where, unfortunately, the local warriors are suffering under a curse that prevents them from defending their land.
Only the heroic, god-like boy-warrior Cchulainn - who later inspired many of Yeats's poems - is able to take his stand, single-handedly defending his country from the vast armies of the raiders. A thoroughly modern, predominantly prose, version of this tale is available in Randy Lee Eickhoff's The Raid. Eickhoff clearly relished the task of bringing this colorful story to today's readers, with all its pagan sensuality and vitality intact.
Unlike the defenders of the Alamo, these ancient Celts seem to enjoy fighting for its own sake, requiring no great "cause" to animate them. The sheer pettiness of the incident that triggers their many heroic actions makes the Greek war over Helen of Troy look like a noble enterprise in comparison!
Yet the fantastic quality of their exploits, the amazing characters of Maeve, Cchulainn, and other warriors, and the sheer exuberance of their pagan culture make this tale well worth reading.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.