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Book Review: William Rome’s Legend of the Great Trek

This is a guest post by Quintus Curtius.

The epic poem can lay claim to being the oldest form of literature. In 1853, the archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam discovered a number of broken clay tablets in what was formerly the great library of Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, Iraq, dating 1300 to 1000 B.C. Pieced together, these fragments came to be called the Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the oldest extant example of imaginative fiction. Like most epics, it is a synthesis of rambling stories that a bard might sing to the accompaniment of music to an audience. It seems likely that other great epics took shape in the same way, as some compiler with a literary bent sorted various folk stories out and congealed them into a finished poem.

Nations in their formative stages seem to need epic poems. The heroic age of development is the first, and most important, age in the movement of a nation’s soul. So Greece has her Iliad and Odyssey; Italy her Aeneid and Inferno; France her Song of Roland; Germany her Nibelungenlied; Spain her El Cid; and Iceland her Eddas. The heroic virtues are those that contribute to nation-building, social order, and the development of morals; yet we tire of them in softer, more comfortable stages of development. This is our mistake, and our loss.

I was recently sent a copy of William Rome’s narrative poem The Legend of the Great Trek by another Return of Kings writer, and asked to write a review. I had no idea what to expect, but I was intrigued. I have never considered myself an enthusiast of long narrative poems. Even the most artful eloquence grows wearisome, and as verse after verse pile on each other, I find myself reaching for the aspirin bottle. As Samuel Johnson said of Milton’s Paradise Lost, “[it] is one of the books which the reader admires and puts down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is.”

The Legend of the Great Trek is different, however. It actually restored my faith in the long narrative poem as a viable, modern literary genre. I was struck at first by the audacity of the enterprise: who in 2014 would dare to publish an epic poem in four “books” totaling over two hundred pages? In the best epic poetic tradition, Rome’s poem is fictional, but loosely based on the historical experience of the Boer migrations of South Africa.

The general story of the poem is that an ancient empire has collapsed under an invasion, and a young prince must lead his people to new lands after receiving a vision directing him to move. This meandering journey—like that of Virgil’s Aeneas—permits the poet to insert many incidents of danger, hardship, and love, in the best poetic tradition.

The poem’s opening lines give a taste of the whole:

In the last year of the Empire’s reign
Over a continent’s every field and plain
There swept out of the Far East a new threat
Unlike any the Empire had met:
Marauders with a fanatical zeal
To plunder anything they could steal
Without any desire to feel
Mercy for those who paid
In blood, sweat, and tears for what they made.
They started in the far flung frontiers,
Looting and killing amongst the fears
Of people defenseless against their might
Because the Empire was slow to fight.
One after another they pushed aside
Any warrior resisting their ride
Further into the Empire’s domain
Until in their wake nothing did remain
Of the civilization that once strode
As a God over every route and road.

In Boer history, there was an event called the “Great Trek” where thousands of Boers packed up everything and set out for the northern frontiers of South Africa. The incidents of this great journey gave rise to a rich tradition of stories and fables, some of which find their way into Rome’s epic. The Boer encounter with the hostile Zulu peoples, and the battles that resulted, all find expression in these lines. We have pitched battles, broken peace treaties, and heroic deeds, many of which are performed by Rome’s hero, a man named Andries. Rome’s verses even rise to worldly wisdom in some passages, as here:

You spoke of empires and kingdoms falling,
How many were the result of your mauling?
You spoke the words of one who is free
But your words are pure hypocrisy!
We’ve closely seen the blood on your hands!
We’ve seen it since entering these lands!
You dare use our fathers of the past
To denounce those wanting peace to last!
Yes our great Empire is no more
But we do not want what was before.
The cost of empire is too much
For any great nation dare to touch:
It drains all of your nation’s treasure
Whether it’s the money you measure
Or the blood of warrior sons
Whose loss leaves families undone;
Into your beloved homeland
It invites every distant band
Of despicable trash and thieves
Seeking what it can before it leaves
Within your beloved home
Bastards and mongrels that roam
In what they seek to destroy
Like it’s an unwanted toy.
Oh we’ve tasted the bitter fruits of empire!
To rule others is not again our desire!

The ability to tell a coherent story through rhyming verse is perhaps the rarest of all literary talents. When we see it, we must acknowledge it, and give praise where it is due. Rome’s verses move quickly, without pretense or affectation, and one never has the feeling that he is being led around by the nose. I enthusiastically recommend The Legend of the Great Trek, and hope that it will be the first of many such efforts by Mr. Rome. He may just find himself the re-animator who breathes new life into an ancient genre.

Quintus Curtius blogs here and is also a columnist for Return of Kings. Check out his book Thirty Seven: Essays on Life, Wisdom and Masculinity.

Read Next: The Legend of the Great Trek by William Rome