Pen Mightier than Sword (Pluma más poderosa que espada)

Authors with Sword in Hand

Throughout history, there were soldiers who wielded the pen with as much as skill as they wielded the sword; sometimes better.

Autores con la espada en mano

A lo largo de la historia, hubo soldados que manejaron la pluma con tanta habilidad que la espada; a veces, mejor.

Most of the literary output of these soldier-writers was, understandably, autobiographical: descriptions of battles and campaigns they took part in. A classic example of this is Xenophon’s Anabasis, better known as The March of the Ten Thousand, a gripping account of the retreat of ten thousand Spartan mercenaries in the wake of a lost battle across hostile territory, from Mesopotamia all the way to the shores of the Black Sea. Another is Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s The Conquest of New Spain, a similarly gripping (at least in the abridged version) account of how four-hundred desperadoes under Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico and overthrew an entire empire in the process. I warmly recommend them both.

La mayor parte de la producción literaria de estos soldados-escritores fue, naturalmente, autobiográfico: descripciones de batallas y campañas en que lucharon. Un ejemplar clásico de este tipo de libro es La anábasis de Jenofonte, mejor conocida con el título La marcha de los Diez Mil, un relato emocionante de la regresa de diez mil mercenarios espartanos después de una batalla perdida, a través de un territorio hostil, todo el camino desde Mesopotamia hasta las orillas del Mar Negro. Otro relato que es semejante emocionante (por lo menos en la versión abreviada) es la Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España por Bernal Díaz del Castillo, que narra como cuatro cientos aventureros bajo el mando de Hernán Cortés han conquistado Mexico y derrocado un imperio entero en el proceso. Os recomiendo ambos libros.

But in addition to these authors, there were a handful of soldiers who are better known by literature professors than by military buffs; a handful of soldiers who are more famous for being authors than for ever having been soldiers.

Pero además de esos autores, hubo un puñado de soldados, que son mejor conocidos por profesores de literatura que por aficionados de la historia militar; un puñado de soldados que son más famosos por ser autores que por su pasado como soldados.

Meet five of them.

Aquí abajo puedes conocer a cinco de ellos.

Aeschylus (c. 525-c. 456 B.C.) /

Esquilo (525-456 a.C.)


This Athenian playwright fought in both Persian Wars, at the battles of Marathon and Salamis respectively (490 and 480 B.C.) but he owes his fame not to his military prowess but to winning the Athenian drama competition – thirteen times. His surviving plays are ample testimony of his talent and only one of them, The Persians, draws on his war experiences. If a play by Aeschylus ever comes to be staged near you, don’t miss out on it.

(It might be wise to study a bit of Greek mythology first though!)

Este dramaturgo de Atenas luchó en ambas guerras persas, en las batallas de Maratón y de Salamina (490 y 480 a.C.), pero debe su fama al hecho de que ha ganado el concurso de dramaturgos de Atenas – trece veces. Sus obras supervivientes nos demuestran su talento, y sólo una de ellas, Las persas, es el resultado de sus experiances de las guerras persas. Total que si una de sus obras viene a un teatro cercano a tu barrio, que vayas.

(Aunque sería una buena idea estudiar un poco de la mitología griega antes del teatro.)

Luís Vaz de Camões (c. 1524-1580)

Luís Vaz de Camões

Known as ‘the father of Portuguese’ on account of his epic poem, The Lusiads, this sixteenth-century author lived a turbulent life, having been often imprisoned for duelling and debts. When not in prison, he served in the Portuguese army in North Africa and the Far East.

The Lusiads recounts the epic voyage of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the first man to round the Cape of Good Hope on the way to India – the route that Camões himself travelled a generation later.

Conocido como la padre del idioma portugués, debido a su epopeya, Los lusiadas, este autor del siglo XVI vivió una vida turbulenta, y fue encarcelado a causa de sus deudas y duelos. Cuando no estaba en cárcel, sirvió en el ejército de Portugal en el norte de África y el Oriente Lejano.

Los lusiadas narra el viaje épico del explorador portugués, Vasco da Gama, quien fue el primero en doblar el Cabo de Buena Esperanza viajando a India – la ruta que el mismo Camões siguió una generación más tarde.

Miklós Zrínyi (1620-1664)

Miklós Zrínyi

Or to be exact, Zrínyi Miklós in the original Hungarian where surname always comes first; known as Nikola Zrinski in Croatian (he came from a mixed ancestry). Among the five here he is the only one who is as famous as general and military strategist as he is as poet.

Zrínyi is the author of the first Hungarian epic poem, translated into English under the title of The Siege of Sziget. Influenced by Homer’s Iliad and Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, he tells the story of the heroic but failed defence of the Hungarian castle of Szigetvár by his own great-grandfather (also called Miklós Zrínyi) in 1566. Incidentally, this poet-general spent his life defending his country against the same enemy – the Ottoman Empire – as his great-grandfather: the Turkish wars in Hungary lasted literally centuries.

O, para ser exacto, Zrínyi Miklós, en la forma original de su  nombre en húngaro, como que los húngaros siempre llevan sus apellidos antes del sus nombres; conocido en Croacia como Nikola Zrinski (fue de una ascendencia mezclada). Entre los cinco aquí él es el único que es famoso tanto por ser general y estratega militar como poeta.

Zrínyi es el autor de la primera epopeya húngara, El peril de Sziget (que desafortunadamente no ha sido traducido al español que yo sepa, pero puedes encontrarlo en inglés, francés o italiano). Influenciada por la Ilíada de Homero y Jerusalén liberada por Tasso, la epopeya narra la historia de la heroica pero fallada defensa del castillo húngaro, Szigetvár, en 1566. El comandante del castillo fue el propio bisabuelo del poeta (también llamado Miklós Zrínyi). Y, a propósito, este poeta-general pasó su vida defendiendo su país contra el mismo enemigo que su bisabuelo: el imperio otomano – en Hungría las guerras contra los turcos duraron, literalmente, siglos.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

Geoffrey Chaucer

Often called the ‘father of English literature’, Chaucer owes this epithet to having penned The Canterbury Tales, a collection of twenty-four tales mostly written in verse which are set against the background of a story telling competition during a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. Written in Middle English, it’s still in print both in its original version and Modern English ‘translations’.

And the author’s military credentials? Chaucer took part in the Hundred Years’ War and was captured (and ransomed) during the siege of Rheims in 1360.

A menudo llamado el padre de la literature inglesa, Chaucer ha recibido este epíteto por su obra, Los cuentos de Canterbury, una colección de veinticuatro cuentos, en la mayor parte en verso. Los cuentos son relatados por distintos personajes quienes se encuentran durante un peregrinaje al sanctuario de Thomas Beckett en Canterbury. Los cuentos de Canterbury ha sido escrito en inglés medio, es decir, en la lengua de aquel tiempos y todavía se puede comprar esta versión además de las traducciones al inglés moderno.

¿Y las credenciales militares de Chaucer? Pues participó en la Guerra de los Cien Años, y fue capturado (y rescatado) durante el asedio de Rheims en 1360.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616)

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Last but by no means the least; for is there anybody who hasn’t heard of Don Quijote? It was penned at the beginning of the seventeenth century by a Spanish soldier who had fought – and had been maimed – in the Battle of Lepanto (1571).

Cervantes’s comic masterpiece describes the addle-brained adventures of a self-appointed knight and his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza, up and down in the Spanish province of La Mancha. The impact and influence of Don Quijote was so great that Spanish nowadays is often called ‘the language of Cervantes’.

Pues seguramente no hay nada nuevo que puedo contar sobre Cervantes a vosotros hispanohablantes, ¿no?  🙂 

If you wish to add to this - by no means exhaustive - list, feel free to leave a comment below.

Si quieres añadir a esta lista que no exhaustiva de ninguna manera, déjame un comentario aquí abajo.

Ode to Santorini

This summer it’ll be five years ago that I visited Santorini for what then I thought was the first but now suspect was also the only time. I didn’t know the poetry of Odysseas Elytis then even though he had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1979 and I did – twice! – graduated in literature. Admittedly, neither of those degrees was in Greek literature but you don’t study literature, in any language, in a vacuum, and my ignorance of a Nobel Prize winning poet seems preposterous in retrospect.

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The Battle of Salamis: Retold in Poetry II

While Byron chose to tell the story of the Battle of Salamis short and sweet in The Isles of Greece – which, by the way, is part of a much longer poem, Don Juan -, the Athenian playwright Aeschylus wrote an entire play based upon it.

ὦ παῖδες Ἑλλήνων ἴτε
ἐλευθεροῦτε πατρίδ᾽, ἐλευθεροῦτε δὲ
παῖδας, γυναῖκας, θεῶν τέ πατρῴων ἕδη,
θήκας τε προγόνων: νῦν ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀγών.

O children of the Greeks, go,
free your homeland, free also
your children, your wives, the temples of your fathers’ gods,
and the tombs of your ancestors: now the struggle is for all things.

Aeschylus: The Persians

The Battle of Salamis According to Aeschylus

Can you imagine telling a story, with your audience hanging upon your every word, breathless with excitement or moved to tears – although they had heard the story many times before and know the final outcome? Because that’s exactly what Ancient Greek playwrights had to do; and Aeschylus pulled it off beautifully with The Persians.

Continue reading “The Battle of Salamis: Retold in Poetry II”

Dark Earth’s Far-Seen Star: Delos Through the Eyes of Pindar

There is a line by Pindar, a fifth-century-B.C. Greek poet, in which he describes the island of Delos, one of the most barren and inhospitable of all Greek islands, as ‘the dark earth’s far-seen star’:

Hail, god-reared daughter of the sea,
earth-shoot most dear to bright-haired Leto’s children,
wide earth’s immoveable marvel,
who of mortals art called Delos,
but of the blessed gods in Olympus the dark earth’s far-seen star…

Dark earth’s far-seen star – the island as seen from above by the gods, glowing with light in the dark sea – is one of those memorable phrases that turned the famous Roman poet Horace into one of Pindar’s life-long fans. Sadly, not much else of this Procession Song survives today (you’ve just read half of what there’s left).

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The Mighty Dead or Does Homer Matter?

Why Homer Doesn’t Matter

Now that’s a heading that nobody should have been expecting from me, given how I go on and on about Homer whenever I have nothing better to do. But I have finished reading The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson, and put it down with the feeling that sadly, it failed in what it set out to do: namely to convince skeptics that Homer mattered, that Homer should still be read, perhaps even studied, because he’s relevant to our lives.
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From Ransome to Keats to Homer

When I was ten, I read Swallows and Amazons and in the course of that, Arthur Ransome introduced me to English poetry. One of the characters, Titty (I still wonder what sort of a name is that for a girl), was much given to recalling random lines of poetry that they had taught her at school.


The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.


… like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

These lines spoke about adventure and unknown worlds in pulsating rhyme. I’m not surprised that they stuck in Titty’s head; they certainly stuck in mine. Ransome  – and not my literature teachers – made me read Keats; and Keats made me pick up Homer again, many years after I left school.

Continue reading “From Ransome to Keats to Homer”