Men of Harlech: A Wandering Essay of Sorts

What is heroism and manhood? Why do we fight? I’ve been thinking about that question for a couple of reasons. In part because I was watching the last battle scene from the movie Zulu and thinking back to a conversation-over-beer one night in grad school. Somehow the topic had drifted to guys, and how can you encapsulate the best and worst of guy behavior to show to women? The movie Animal House (and Dumb and Dumber) came up as the worst, and the professor said that small unit battles revealed the best. I suggested the movie Zulu, and he jumped on it. “Yes! Yes, that is the perfect combination – Animal House and Zulu.” (He taught British history and specialized in the 19th century.) I needed the clip to demonstrate firing by ranks, but started at the part where the men are singing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-lDY02DThk

And “Men of Harlech” stuck in my mind for the rest of the day. It makes me stand straighter for some reason, and gets the blood flowing. No idea why, although having imprinted on military history and tales of battle may have something to do with it. And the thought of chasing the friskiest students outside and marching them around the track until they get tired, while singing this, has some appeal. (Although with my luck, the motion and sunlight would probably just recharge their batteries.)

I think what stiffens my spine and makes me sit up (and makes me want to write a battle scene) is the ideals in the song and the scene. Standing with one’s fellows, facing honorable enemies, absolute determination to survive, discipline . . . I know there is far, far more to life than that, but there’s something there, something precious to civilization. Rising above one’s self to be part of something greater, standing or falling with brothers in arms.

What is worth fighting for? Home and hearth, family, those are as old as time, and common to every culture. Tribe and clan, fellow religionists, also old values that are practiced through history. But what about an ideal, a dream, something distant but desirable, a goal you may never reach but that your physical or spiritual descendants might? A woman waiting, hoping that her man, her men, come home safely but willing to give them up for the greater good?

The blogger Grim of Grim’s Hall once theorized that part of why so many men volunteered to serve in the British military and colonial service between 1840 and 1900 was Queen Victoria. She gave them a way to look back to the ideals of chivalry, of serving and honoring a woman they could never attain. Given the popularity of neo-Medieval stuff during the early Victorian period (Sir Walter Scott), you almost wonder. It is an interesting supposition, and one I have not seen much written about. Probably because if it was a motivator, the men never wrote about it. It was one of those private understood things one did not talk about. I’m Romantic enough I can imagine that happening, given the atmosphere of the British public schools and training in the 1800s, and the emphasis on service and family. “The Widow at Windsor” had been beautiful, was maternal (smotheringly so, according to modern historians), passionately loved her husband, and was unreachable. And she ruled (after 1876) an empire that spanned the globe.

Another reason this bubbled up is that I’ve been looking over the material for the next-next Cat book. Sergeant Lee becomes a more important character, and his relationship to Rada Ni Drako developed in ways the author did not anticipate. Without giving too much away, he decides that she is his Lady in the Medieval sense. And because he is a mature grown-up, he sorts this out himself, without making a public mess of things and without causing problems for the Regiment. No, I had no idea this would develop when he came on scene as an awkward corporal. But neither did I have a clue about Joschka or Rahoul’s backgrounds, either. I’m always the last to know.

I’ve wondered before about modern chivalry. Is there a place for that kind of manhood, for men who silently honor the unattainable and in so doing make the world a better place? I don’t know, in this hang-it-all-out world. “Men of Harlech” in a way belongs to that long-ago time.

Men of Harlech, stop your dreaming
Can’t you see their spear points gleaming
See their warrior pennants streaming
To this battle field

Men of Harlech stand ye steady
It can not be ever said ye
For the battle were not ready
Welshmen never yield

From the hills rebounding
Let this war cry sounding
Summon all at Cambria’s call
The mighty foe surrounding

Men of Harlech on to glory
This will every be your story
Keep these burning words before ye
Welshmen will not yield

There are a number of versions of the lyrics, probably as many as singers and recordings and translations of the Welsh.

Modern Words used by Regimental Band

Tongues of fire on Idris flaring,
news of foe-men near declaring,
to heroic deeds of daring,
calls you Harlech men

Groans of wounded peasants dying,
wails of wives and children flying,
for the distant succour crying,
calls you Harlech men.

Shall the voice of wailing,
now be unavailing,
You to rouse who never yet
in battles hour were failing,

His our answer crowds down pouring
swift as winter torrents roaring,
Not in vain the voice imploring,
calls on Harlech men

Loud the martial pipes are sounding
every manly heart is bounding
As our trusted chief surrounding,
march we Harlech men.

Short the sleep the foe is taking,
ere the morrow’s morn is breaking,
They shall have a rude awakening,
roused by Harlech men.

Mothers cease your weeping,
calm may be your sleeping,
you and yours in safety now
the Harlech men are keeping,

ere the sun is high in heaven
they you fear by panic riven
shall like frightened sheep be driven,
far by Harlech men.  (From www.rorkesdriftvc.com)

 No matter the translation, the spirit is the same: men shall defend, no matter what it takes. “March of the Cambreath” by (the artist formerly known as) Heather Alexander is another blood stirrer with a similar philosophical take on the matter.

Happily, the world I live in still has men of this kind in it. And I have seen men (and women) rise to meet challenges when pushed to the point. It would be a sad day if nothing remains worth fighting for, and if the world no honors those who dig in and say a version of, “No. No farther. You shall not take Rorke’s Drift.”

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