By J.A. Coburn
The Warrior Poet, Bardic Warrior or Warrior Bard while a romantic concept, popularized by Role Playing Games such as D&D first published in 1974 by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR) and since by many movies, videogames as well as a mountain of fantasy novels. This is in reality a misnomer, leading to many misunderstandings in the real world of each, which in reality are brothers. The very concept of a Warrior Bard is in reality an insult to both the Warrior and the Bard implying that neither is worthy of note on their own. Now while this common misperception might be substantiated in lore if one chooses to ignore the descriptors given of each in the tales themselves, this cursory substantiation does not accurately describe the true depth of these heroes. For the sake of argument if this character or rather caricature, were real he would hold nothing over either and find himself lacking the skills that would lead him to a place in the legends of our people.
First, I shall lay out many examples of “proof” that the Warrior Poet did indeed exist and enjoys a long and intricate history throughout our many tribes ranging back to ancient history and prehistory. Along the way I will explain in a cursory manner as to why this is an inaccurate description of these heroes, and I shall end with describing why this description is unfair and unjust to both the warrior and the bard by describing what they were by describing the expectations of both as well as the dedication required of each to achieve the requisite proficiency within their given field. Finally, I will end with some basic questions to which most “experts” seem to lack the knowledge to provide a satisfactory answer to.
So, to start. Yes, there are tales of warriors dueling while uttering poetry to prove a point such as the Icelandic tale in Egil’s Saga. A tale where a Swedish Berserker named Ljot the Pale crossed over into Norway challenging wealthy landowners to duels and claiming their land after each victory for himself. Egil Skallagrimsson then challenged Ljot to a duel due to extraneous circumstances involving family friends and of course a woman as every good heroic tale does. During this duel there were many bouts or rounds during the time between the fighting he describes himself as taunting the Berserker with scathing poetry as to the character of his opponent while heralding his own virtues depending on which version(s) you might read. At which of course the hero Egil Skallagrimsson dispatches his opponent proving his great heroism.
This however does not prove him to be a great poet of the land besides his own description of himself. As a warrior, which he clearly was, having fought in many military campaigns and partaking in many Viking raids he does however prove warriors are not incapable of poetry or writing or any number of other pursuits. The same is true of a Bard, however. Bards are very capable of becoming proficient fighters in many regards as the world is and always has been a rather rough place and the ability to fight is often quite the boon to ones continued existence. The question of specialization is all that is really in question here. After all there is a world of difference between a warrior and a bard though their drive and passion often derive from the same place though specializing in different expressions and potentially having some overlap. The reason for describing Egil Skallagrimsson as a warrior that performs poetry as opposed to a poet that wars or a warrior poet which would indicate not being great enough at either to take down a Berserker who had much combat experience having already taken down several landowners who themselves would have been hardened by the field of combat.
But what about the Spartans? You might ask. The Spartans after all were known to march into battle playing drums and pipes while singing merry tunes. Legends also tell they were known to bellow out poetry often made up on the spot to both encourage their brothers in arms as well as insult the enemy. In addition, they were also renowned warriors and soldiers! Indeed, this glorious example exemplifies the spirit of the hyperborean people which is echoed all across our lands proving the Warrior Poet to be true. The depth and dedication to war of this particular tribe while not well documented directly are the stuff of myth and legend worthy of gods! The notion of this is best illustrated in my opinion in the movie 300 directed by Zack Snyder, released in 2006 based off the 1998 comic by the same name by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley in which Leonidas played by Gerard Butler on the way to the battle of Thermopylae and the battle of the Hot Gate meets with the garrison of Athens and their leader at which point they have a heated discourse centered around the number of men brought by each in the defense of Greece.
During this exchange King Leonidas having been insulted by having his dedication to the task brought into question by the number of warriors he brought with him, asks a soldier of Athens what he does for a living to which the man responds, “I am a potter” King Leonidas nods appreciatively then asks the same of another who responds, “Sculptor sir” he then asks a third that responds “blacksmith”. He then smiles and nods to himself turning to his own men bellowing “Spartans! What is your profession?” to which they respond “Haroo, Haroo, Haroo!” while brandishing their spears and shields indicating that their profession is the field of battle and only the field of battle.
These men were warriors born of the blood of Hercules, born to fight, born to die, born to live and love while they might! Trained from a tender age to fight individually, and to fight in a unit as though they were one body living and breathing. These men were trained to be war incarnate. One might wonder why then they were also taught music, poetry, history and much more. Why for war of course! But the details of these things are best left for later so as not to diminish the bard who truly is the brother of the warrior.
When speaking of the Warrior Poet many images come to mind usually stimulated by pop culture and may take many forms however these wonderful and romantic ideas are completely unreasonable as you will soon see. Perhaps not impossible but definitely not the common or uncommon nor even rare but the exceptionally rare that might occur once every several generations. To show why this is so we must first go into all of the glory and dedication required by each the Warrior and the Poet, brothers of war!
The Bard, More than a Sexy Lute Player
Let us begin with the Poet or Bard if you prefer, perhaps you prefer one of the other myriad of titles given to one of this profession depending on the language. That is fine as they all indicate the same profession and profession is the key to his description. Not hobby or pursuit but profession. In the world of modernity this might mean one of many pursuits, professions, or specialties. He might be of the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien or any number of other popular and undeniably skilled writers and poets. Perhaps a famous musician, such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton, or Jeff Beck, perhaps comparable to Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, or Antonio Vivaldi. The list goes on. An actor! An actor in today’s world might be considered a bard of great renown whether he be from stage or cinema or even serials. How about a world class dancer. Surely, they are among the great entertainers and yes, you would be correct.
However, none of these are bards. Poet perhaps if that is precisely what they do however in the traditional and now antiquated sense. I must respond with a resounding no. A bard to truly be considered a bard was to be in possession of the most exquisite skill and knowledge in both performance and range. This is not to belittle or demean the modern or even not so modern performers but to truly herald the skill and dedication of the true bard of antiquity!
Imagine one that dedicates his entire life, every fiber of his being not simply to one skill which may take a lifetime to master but many. Mastering one or many instruments as well many classical and modern performances from the most complex of musical pieces for the entertainment of the rich and elite, to the bawdiest of tunes fit for the drinking rooms and countryside celebrations. Now in addition you must be able to recite the grandest of epics with a moment’s notice in which some take days to tell in their orations! As well as being able to recite many a folktale and rhyming story as to which might appeal to the more common among us. As if this is not enough you must then also be an actor, a playwright, a historian, a dancer and performer of many arts, a comedian, capable of reading and writing official documents drawing up letters and proofs of nobility in combination with remembering which noble line is connected with which families where. To recite and document great battles of great heroes of both the past and the present. Then as if all of that is not enough after a lifetime of training and honing your skills, you must now become a teacher.
Now bear in mind this is in addition to being able to translate the material at his disposal into many different languages and dialects in addition to witnessing and possibly partaking in negotiations between leaders of varied clans as well as lands. A Bard is truly a great man capable of so much more than many give him credit for. A true Bard cannot live merely for himself but must dedicate himself to something so much greater than he himself could ever be! Do not demean the Bard by also demanding he become a warrior as his own path requires an amount of time and dedication few would choose to pursue even for all of the fame and riches the world might provide.
The Warrior, More than a Burly Meathead
Then there is the Warrior who is much more than a mere fighter with a shield made of the barn door and his father’s wood axe in his mighty grip. While most people envision a warrior as being a killing machine leaving the corpses of his enemy in the wake of his fury, he is indeed far more than this. Gaming and other works of fiction are in part responsible for this vision as it conjures to the imagination the mindless and savage barbarian swinging his great ax with chest bared in defiance or the heavily armored “tank” standing steadfastly before hordes of enemies and in some cases the crazed and lethally swift duel wielding maniac bringing whirling death with his passage. As romantic and exciting as these images are, they remain just that, fiction. It is true the warrior must be a competent combatant, but he must be more, much more. He must be cunning, a commander, a general, a soldier capable of not only following orders but seeing the larger picture and making decisions for himself. He must be capable of complex thought and reason under even the most intense pressures which he will certainly come under during the heat and confusion of battle. He must be capable of great nobility as well as sacrifice both of himself, and that of others, capable of the most terrible of triages while buried under the pressure of emotional and mental stresses which would certainly break most men. If that were not enough, he must be willing and capable of weighing on the fly the cost benefit ratios of any given scenario and most importantly be willing to live with the price of his decisions and all that means. All of these things and more is at the heart of being a warrior. A lifetime of training and learning, contemplation, and a development of his body, mind, and spirit are required to be capable of bearing the weight of these responsibilities.
To these ends he must cultivate many skills which may at first not seem to have anything to do with combat. Or war. But anyone who has been in the heat of it. Those who have experienced friends and kin dying and bleeding all around them. Smelled their blood and foul. Tasted this horror in the air as men scream in agony and fear all around them. Begging for help or mercy. During which, the entire time the enemy is trying to push into their ranks with no sense of mercy, intent on killing not only you but those you care for most, these people can surely attest what I tell you is true. I am trying to let you, you who have never dared to dream of this experience, blocking it from your mind as any sane person surely would, this is the reality of war I share with you. These things and more are why veterans of wars do not freely share their experiences with civilians, whether friends, loved ones or the odd adoring fan of soldiers. Simply put the average person cannot understand nor comprehend no matter how much they might wish to, until they experience it themselves.
The warrior must become unbreakable. Not for himself but for those around him. Psychology, philosophy, medicine, butchery, husbandry, ecology, biology, chemistry, history, tactics, and strategy. In many ways the warrior must be well-educated. Not a specialist in these things but quite familiar with them as his specialty will be war and combat, but rather how these things apply to his specialty that they are a part of. Through his training he would learn to completely destroy his enemy if he must or even if he must. However far more important than these things, he must learn to see beauty. The reason to fight far beyond his natural ability to endure.
To this end warriors were introduced to and encouraged to participate in the arts often taking up such things as dance, musicianship, singing, poetry, carving, metalwork, painting, to not only teach him how the beauty is created and with no expectation of mastery, as mastery requires the total commitment of one’s entire life, but to appreciate the beauty created by those who may. In addition, the warrior is shown the intangible and frail nature of beauty. Its fleeting moment and how easily this is shattered.
A baby bird fallen from a nest, nursed by his own hands only to have it slowly grow cold and fail, the moment the sun breaks the horizon and the flare as it bursts to life or sinks into night. How the cry of the baby fades into the laughter of a child, to then turn into the cry of sorrow or delight in the adult, to finally pass from this world altogether. Those moments of beauty always seen but rarely noticed. The beauty of the fluttering wings of the butterfly and the intricacy of the web into which it flies to be followed by the methodical way the spider wraps his prey in his web only to consume his meal later.
He already knows his own strength as he has been tested again and again by those who would teach him, those who train with him and even life itself, as his training is anything but safe. He is taught the value of beauty so that he might better understand his place. To protect and defend as many of these moments as he may. He has learned not only what beauty is but that it is frail, and it might be destroyed by interfering with it or by not interacting with it at all. The value of life is in its beauty and its frailty and so while he adds to it as he might his purpose is to protect, encourage and value that beauty to the end of his days.
The children screeching as they play, the old passing on a lifetime of stories and songs, the lamenting sigh of the young lover and the banter of friends passing time round the table late at night. These things are all that is good in the warrior’s life, war is just a necessity he must endure to ensure that the beauty of his loved ones, his home, his people continues and so he does. If he must go take beauty from another he will, if he must kill another so that he might feed, cloth or shelter those under his protection he will and he will do so with no reservation or regret so long as the beauty he values so dearly might continue. He has come to understand peace is only purchased. It only has one cost which cannot be negotiated. Peace is purchased in the blood of another. Whether that is the cow or rabbit, the tree or the flower, the fish in the brook or the blood of men. The eternal price must always be paid, and no amount of tears or denial will refute that price. This is why the bard, the artisan, the mother, and the farmer are so dearly held in high regard by the true warrior. He is the sacrifice they will pay for their moment of peace whether they acknowledge it or not.
The Warrior and Bard are Brothers
The Bard. The Warrior. These two men are brothers as they have strode nearly every battle ever fought, together. The witness and the sacrifice. The bard knows should he fail in his duty; whether in recounting or should he flee before all is lost and he is sent away, then his brothers sacrifice may very well go unrecognized and so be forgotten to the mists of time as so many before him. For this reason, he will often play heroic songs or recount great deeds to inspire his brothers as they march to war, through it and if all goes well home once again. To ensure these men they will not be forgot if he might have his way.
The warrior too will defend this brave man with his dying breath knowing that should the bard fall not only he will be forgotten but so will his brothers in arms and no chance at immortality in the memories of men will be his. No beauty created in his name. And so, this comes to near the end. To make claim of the warriorbard or warriorpoet is in reality to slander both. It is to claim the sacrifice, dedication, and the ability of either the warrior or the bard to be inadequate, unworthy of memory. While well intentioned and often uttered with awe these claims are made by those people who understand neither war nor beauty and its true cost.
Beware the weeping warrior for you surely threaten all he holds dear and precious, this will without doubt be your undoing for at this moment he is without mercy and shall accept no recompense except in your blood.