Hengist wants men, A.D. 449

I was thinking about Mitt Romney the other day. Not much mind you – does anyone think much about failed presidential candidates after election day? I was just thinking about that ‘gaffe’, which wasn’t really a gaffe, where he talked about Britain and the USA’s shared Anglo-Saxon heritage.

This was seized upon in some quarters as racist ‘dog-whistling’, as if by mentioning the Anglo-Saxons he was really subtly saying ‘Vote for me and I’ll look after the white man’. Which was a bit unfair, really. All he really meant was that he wanted to shift American foreign policy away from dealing with all countries equally through the UN and other such bodies, and towards the strengthening of traditional Cold War and Bush era alliances – the UK, Israel and Poland. But I digress.

What was odd about what Romney was saying was to talk about Anglo-Saxon heritage at all, shared or otherwise. Hardly anyone does. Anglophiles in the USA tend to like Britain because it represents the past (think Downton Abbey); America lovers in the UK tend to be neophiles, who love the newness the US represents against our staid, class-ridden culture (think Tony Blair). Few talk about both cultures as part of one continuous tradition stretching back to the dark ages, probably because the American strand of that tradition defined itself against the English strand, but also because of British guilt about the empire, perhaps about the very idea of an English ‘race’ at all. No such restrictions on foreigners of course – and Jorge Luis Borge’s, Argentina’s foremost Anglophile (and Germanophile, and short story writer, and poet among other things), traces the line of the Anglo-Saxon race from its obscure beginnings to its colonial and cultural conquests, in ‘Hengist wants men, A.D. 449’.

Hengist and Horsa were, of course, the mythical invaders, invited over from the Northern reaches of Germania by the native Britons to defend Britain them from the Scots of Northern Britain, who taking a fancy to the green and pleasant land, decided to settle here for good, pushing the Britons west. They probably never existed, although the Britons really did invite Anglo-Saxons over to help defend the land. The extent to which the English, let alone Americans, are descended from Anglo-Saxon invaders is a moot point. But that doesn’t matter, Hengist stands for the brutal, conquering spirit of the English . And in the poem, he wants men.

Hengist wants men.

They will rally from the edges of sand which dissolve into broad seas, from huts filled with smoke, from threadbare landscapes, from deep forests haunted by wolves, in whose vague centre Evil lurks.

The ploughman will abandon the plough and the fisher-men their nets.

They will leave their wives and children, for a man knows that anywhere in the night he can encounter the one and engender the other.

Hengist the mercenary wants men.

He wants them to subdue an island which is not yet called England.

Cowed and vicious, they will follow him.

They know him always to have been the first among men in battle.

They know that once he forgot his vow of vengeance and that they gave him a naked sword and that the naked sword did its work.

They will try their oars against the seas, with neither compass nor mast.

They will bear swords and bucklers, helmets in the likeness of the boar’s head, spells to make the cornfields multiply, vague cosmogonies, legends of the Huns and the Goths.

They will conquer the ground, but never will they enter the cities which Rome abandoned, for these are things too complicated for their primitive minds.

Hengist wants them for the victory, for the pillaging, for the corruption of the flesh and for oblivion.

Hengist wants them (but he does not know it) for the founding of the greatest of empires, for the singing of Shakespeare and Whitman, for Nelson’s ships to rule the sea, for Adam and Eve to be banished, hand in hand and silent, from the Paradise they have lost.

Hengist wants them (but he cannot know it) so that I may form these letters.

Jorge Luis Borges, transl. Alastair Reid, 1977 – First Published in ‘the New Yorker’, June 20th 1977


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