Thursday 23 June 2016

Written in Water #6: An Interlude Concerning The Elk

A breather. A story about an animal.

There are also animals called elk, which look a little like goats. They are a little bigger than unicorns, and they have stubby horns. Their legs have no knees, so they can’t lie down if they want a rest. If they’re unlucky enough to fall over, the poor kneeless elk can’t get up. They use trees as beds – they lean on them, and fall asleep in the leaning position. When a hunter finds the traces of one of these animals, he usually takes all the trees in the area and either pulls them up at the roots, or cuts them just enough that they are left standing. When the elk lean, as they usually do, against the unstable trees, the weight of the elk knocks over the tree and, in due course, the hunter comes along and kills the elk.
Julius Caesar, Gallic War 6.25
Every Latin class I've ever taught has had this passage handed to them, from Heckmondwike grammar school to the Swansea University MA programme. It's a touchstone for me.

It's from outside my period, this, from that time in Roman history where, even though they were in the middle of a solid century of war, civil and foreign, everything was documented. Everything was open and real.

Except of course it wasn't. Once you crossed the Rhine and got into the forests, Roman fact became a distant thing. The forest was full of stories.

Here's a story: fifty years after Caesar wrote this, two Roman legions, guided by a German prince called Arminius, walked into the German forest.

The end.

Tacitus tells the story of how, years later, a small detachment of soldiers would steal into the forest, breath held, and find Roman skulls nailed to trees, shields split, bones. Groves full of long-dead comrades.

The Romans never really knew much about the Rhine and the Danube, a border in the North as solid as the Sahara Desert in the South, the Persian Empire in the East and the Atlantic Ocean in the West. Caesar's expedition in the 50s BCE was an excuse for him to spin tales of the things he'd seen, or said he'd seen; the chances are that just as he might never even have been on the ship that travelled to Britain, he might never have crossed the river into the forests of myth and terror. By the time the Empire collapsed, they had become the home to Goths and Franks, Alamanni and Huns; and then the Goths became the inheritors of history, and the land over the Rhine became as bright and open as anywhere else.

It seems strange to think that Europe used to be a place of mystery and terror, that Britain was a land of giants and cannibals, that parts of Germany were places in which entire legions would vanish, only to turn up as skulls nailed to trees years later.

And here is Caesar, politician, general, would-be ruler of everything, telling you of the wonderful things he has seen; only you know he hasn't, and he is caught in a lie on paper, caught being gullible himself. Prey to stories about the world outside the borders of history.