Tygers-hvot

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Written on the Old Norse meter fornyrthislag by Grim the Skald

It was the 36th Pennsic War in A.S. 42. The East was badly outnumbered, and there were many who thought they may not survive this war. On the eve of the first battle, King Gryffith looked out over the army of the East and saw the men were solemn and gloomy. He bade a herald, Diomedes Sebastianus, to get the men’s attention, and then he summoned his Skald. The King spoke loudly, “Grim. There are around 300 warriors of the East here. There is a famous tale of 300 warriors outnumbered by a much larger foe, is there not?” Grim smiled, and spoke this verse:

1. Men of the south[1] have a matchless tale
A thousand years old, ageless and true
Three hundred men ‘gainst many did stand
And laid down their lives to the last shield-man

2. Of Sparta I speak, spear-head of Greece
Leaders of men, lovers of battle
They bear blades ever from birth until death
Nor lay down their shields ‘till lain down on them. [2]

3. Small the kingdoms and cities of Greece
Mighty the Empire that massed without
These South-born folk saw but two choices:
Fight as free men or fester as slaves

4. These brave warriors would bear no lash
Marched they to meet their massive foe
King Leonidas led his Spartans
Heart of a lion housed in his breast

5. Their enemy desired all the Greek lands;
To seize and enslave these South-People.
A mighty army marched from the sea
To a gorge men call the Gates of Fire [3]

6. The Greeks stood brave to guard this pass
Leonidas’ men made the first line
Spear-bearing Spartans spanned ‘cross the gap
To stop a foe stretched past all sight

7. Xerxes the Sovereign, self-proclaimed god
Yelled to the Spartans “Yield up your arms!”
The Greeks called back “Come and get them”
Xerxes ordered his army to charge

8. A swarm of slaves sallied forwared
Three hundred men matched against them
His Medes first met spear-wielders
And fell by the score— fed well the crows! [4]

8. The horde fell back bloodied and fearful
All then did learn not least Xerxes
Humans are many but men are few. [5]
God-king resolved to send his elite

9. Called “Immortals” were these mighty ones,
They thought easily to overwhelm
Back fell the Greeks to flee it seemed
Then they flanked the foe in a fierce pocket

10. Immortals were made mortal that day
As one spear then Sparta struck home
Fell on that field foes without number
And few of the Greeks fell in return

11. From his throne Xerxes thrice leapt and stood
He feared greatly the fall of his men
His elite soldiers were sorely pressed
And fell back from the fire of swords [6]

12. But guile can defeat great warriors
A hidden way wound ‘round the pass
A foul traitor took armies through
Around the flank of the famed Spartans

13. Leonidas ordered the army retreat
For if all died there doomed were their homes
But to hold off hordes hard men must stand
Or else their foes may fast pursue them

14. The Spartan men ne’er spurned duty
Stalwart they stood stern and unyielding
Formed they a phalanx and faltered not
Though death was sure by day’s ending

15. A terrible swath tore through the horde
The fierce Spartans fought like heroes
When their spears shattered sharp swords they bared
Each man fought on ‘till their final breath

16. Their bold sacrifice saved their fellows
The Greeks escaped, scattered men rallied
The Spartan’s stand inspired greatness
When the war was done all had won glory.

17. Now it is we who face fearsome numbers,
And march to meet mighty armies
We follow the great Gryffith, our King
Heart of a tiger housed in his breast

18. This day we may die or on this day triumph
But for a thousand years our tale will be sung

©2007 Dan Marsh

Footnotes

  1. Grim is an Icelander, ergo the Greeks are referred to as “South Men” throughout the poem.
  2. A common quote said by Spartan wives to their husbands was reportedly, “Spartan, return with your shield or on it.”
  3. Thermopylae in Greek. This is a more of a poetic translation than a literal one, as “Gates of Heat” does not particularly sound very stirring.
  4. “Feeding the crows,” or other carrion-eaters, is a frequent Kenning for being killed, particularly in battle.
  5. This is a close paraphrase of Heroditus’ History. “…they made it evident to every man, and to the king himself not least of all, that human beings are many but men are few.”
  6. A Kenning for “battle,” derived from the gleam of the swords in the light.
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