“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
— G.K. Chesterton
War, it seems, is a big part of what people perceive to be literature—at least all the exciting bits. Everyone knows, of course, of the Trojan horse and that it was involved after a Trojan war. Captain Ahab and his private battle with the “white whale” is another classic conflict. Dr. Jekyll fighting with his inner demon manifested into the form of Mr. Hyde is an example of an internal struggle. The infamous Battle of Thermopylae has been recently manifested into film form, depicting the power of the Greeks against the massively outnumbered Spartans. In short, people love to read about—and watch—war and other such violent confrontations. Whether due to sadistic impulses, a need for inspiration by those who overcame incredible odds, or a mere curiosity about mankind’s bloody history, war has fascinated the public. The earliest texts, originating in what was then known as Mesopotamia, are primarily concerned with savage struggles and the heroes (and enemies) who were involved. These texts, as well as many others, embrace such conflicts as symbols of honor or of justice.
Those who acted for honor or justice were the protagonists, or the heroes. Nearly every ancient story features warriors as their main character and the various adventures, obstacles, and missions they must accomplish. The oldest known Mesopotamian story is The Epic of Gilgamesh and recounts the fictional adventures of the Uruk warrior king, Gilgamesh, and his savage friend, Enkidu (“The Epic of Gilgamesh” 56-58). Gilgamesh at the beginning of the story, is quite the bully, even being described as “a wild bull [who] makes himself mighty, head raised above others” (The Epic of Gilgamesh 60), and takes advantage of young girls and forces young men into hard labor. Enkidu, created as Gilgamesh’s equal, attempts to stop Gilgamesh, and the two warriors have a mighty fight:
“They grappled with each other at the entry to the marital chamber, in the street they attacked each other, the public square of the land, the doorposts trembled and the wall shook” (66).
Gilgamesh is the eventual winner, but he acknowledges Enkidu’s strength, and they become friends. It is this confrontation that sets up the remainder of the story. The pairing of Gilgamesh and Enkidu leads to more violent battles in which they fight (and win) together, and ultimately, the friendship changes Gilgamesh profoundly, especially after Enkidu succumbs to a cursed illness. Even after Enkidu’s death, the king does not return to his bullying ways, and proves to be an effective ruler (67-97).
Another great epic, the Iliad, features similar friendships, and a bloody war between the soldiers of Greece against those of Troy. The entire Trojan war lasts over ten years, though the Iliad only recounts the last few days of fighting. Even so, it is a lengthy account, filled with many violent confrontations not entirely related to the whole of the war and inevitably, death. The hero of the Trojans is Hector, the young prince, and he fights for honor, even if it means losing his own life. He proclaims that “it would be much better . . . to go against Achilles, and slay him, and come back, or else be killed by him in glory in front of the city” (Homer 230). Achilles, hero to the Greeks, is one of the few warriors who has a choice offered to him: to fight or not to fight. Due to a tiff with the Greek king and the fact that “it is decreed [his] death must come soon after Hektor’s” (216), Achilles chooses at first to sit the rest of the war out and sulks outside the battlegrounds with his friend, Patroclus. However, Patroclus, like Hector, feels the pull of honor calling him to the battlefield and leaves Achilles to fight, unable to stand by as his countrymen perish. Unfortunately, he does not survive an encounter with Hector, an, like Gilgamesh, Achilles is devastated upon hearing of his dear companion’s demise. Forgoing all thoughts of dying and releasing his grudge against the king, Achilles dons his armor and sets off to avenge Patroclus’s death. It is this keen sense of justice that drives nearly all the characters in the Iliad, even affecting the gods of Olympus. They too partake in the events of the war, taking sides and influencing the tide of battle (201-55).
Achilles was fortunate, indeed, having a choice to fight, despite his claiming otherwise. Most of time, especially in ancient stories, the heroes do not have a choice to fight. Divine intervention is quite commonplace in these old tales, notably in the Iliad. The goddesses Athena and Hera support the Greeks due to their being slighted by the Trojan soldier, Paris, who preferred the beauty of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, over theirs. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, after all, and Hera, undaunted in her quest to see the Trojans utterly destroyed, attempts to bully Zeus, king of the gods and her husband, into supporting the Greeks as well. Zeus is neutral toward the whole affair but favors the Trojans throughout most of the battle, due to an appeal by Achilles’s mother, who had promised her insulted son that the Greeks would lose the war. In the end, however, when Achilles rejoins the Greeks, Zeus literally weighs the outcome, and the scales dictate that Troy should fall. Even Fate, it seems, supports conflict and strife (210).
Though gods are less of a prominent presence in Gilgamesh, they still play an extremely important role. They created Enkidu in the first place, hoping that his equal status with Gilgamesh would force the latter into ceasing the torment of his people. This was a successful venture, and the duo’s first adventure involves the slaying of the demi-god, Humbaba, who guarded the Cedar Forest. This beast had a fearsome reputation of being unbeatable, but Gilgamesh remained undeterred (though he had to convince Enkidu) and the two went in search of Humbaba (The Epic of Gilgamesh 61, 67). Despite discouraging dreams and other ominous signs, the head god, Shamash, favored them in the end and “raised up against Humbaba mighty tempests . . . thirteen winds rose up against him and covered Humbaba’s face . . . so that Gilgamesh’s weapons were in reach . . .” (74). Their victory sealed, Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill Humbaba and return to Uruk, triumphant. Though it is not to say that they would not have been successful without Shamash’s assistance, it certainly made their mission easier, and helped them overcome their fear of Humbaba (75).
Fear is obviously a large part of warfare, and the psychological problems it causes is explored in the Bhagavad Gita, an important part of the Hindu text, the Mahabharata, which is a collection of stories of war and other conflicts. In the Bhagavad Gita, prince and warrior Arjuna begins to have doubts about his involvement in the approaching war, feeling that killing his own kinsmen is wrong (The Bhagavad Gita 841-3). The Lord Krishna, a manifestation of God according to Hinduism, responds to Arjuna’s hesitancy by explaining that he has a duty as a warrior, his dharma. “The great chariot warriors will think you deserted in fear of battle; you will be despised by those who held you in esteem. Your enemies will slander you, scorning your skill in so many unspeakable ways – could any suffering be worse?” (847), Krishna asserts. He goes on, encouragingly, “Our bodies are known to end, but the embodied self is enduring, indestructible, and immeasurable, therefore, Arjuna, fight the battle! […] Death is certain for anyone born and birth is certain for the dead; since the cycle is inevitable, you have no cause to grieve!” (845-6). Krishna’s overwhelmingly positive support of war infects Arjuna, who in the end decides to continue into battle (851).
The issue of why a violent conflict is necessary or just does not concern any of the characters, Achilles and Arjuna being the exceptions. Mostly, the sense of honor and justice is all that is needed to justify participating in a fight. Achilles had not wanted to fight, preferring to save his own neck and also out of spite, but subsequently chose to seek revenge for his friend, thus ending up in battle anyway (Homer 201-55). Arjuna thought it might be a sin to kill others, but Krishna convinced him that he had his dharma to uphold, and Arjuna too decides to fight (The Bhagavad Gita 839–851). Some people’s incentives for war are less than admirable,but still powerfully motivating. Enkidu had had apprehensions about confronting Humbaba, but Gilgamesh persuaded him by boasting of the renown that he will receive after killing the demi-god: “’They will say: “It was Gilgamesh who locked in battle with Humbaba the Terrible!” […] It is I who will establish fame for eternity!” (The Epic of Gilgamesh 67). Enkidu was apparently unwilling to let Gilgamesh receive all the glory, and agreed to go with him, and of course, they won (59-97). Overall, it seems that critiques to the morality of going to war are not particularly important in ancient texts. The heroes are the warriors, who fight for honor and justice. Such stories embrace violent conflict and praise those who partake in it.
- Damrosch, David, and David L. Pike, eds. The Longman Anthology of World Literature. New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2009. Print.
- Homer. The Iliad. Damrosch and Pike 201-55. Print.
- The Bhagavad Gita. Damrosch and Pike 839-851. Print.
- “The Epic of Gilgamesh.” Damrosch and Pike 56-59. Print.
- The Epic of Gilgamesh. Damrosch and Pike 59-97. Print.
This is from the fall of 2010, written for my “Masterworks of World Literature” class. I was not a fan of the professor, but we did read a lot of great stories, not just the ones everyone knows but also some that I’d never heard of, from different cultures and countries. I still consider Beowulf to be my favorite old time epic, but The Epic of Gilgamesh is a close second. No feedback for this essay (I know it’s not the best, but it’s interesting to see how I improved over the years!).