When the mighty Genghis Khan was busy conquering half the world and the Vikings were spreading their genes far and wide, you can be sure they were ably assisted by some pretty deadly metal. It seems unlikely they sent a polite note first, asking if the inhabitants could be sure to be in on Wednesday between nine and four.
Vlad the Impaler may well have possessed razor sharp prose and a wonderful way with a metaphor, but it was the thought of something long and sharp where the sun don’t shine that really brought tears to the eyes of his victims.
There is a reason that Alexander the Great’s less successful brother, Anthony the So-So, is less well known. Although admired for his neat handwriting and the skilful flourish of his quill on parchment, he was pretty shit with a scimitar and sadly lacking when it came to hacking.
So it was throughout the ages, men with sharp pointy weapons made their mark, writing their stories across the pages of history in blood. Occasionally they even used eyeballs for punctuation, a flourish that seems a little outré by modern standards.
Most of us are familiar with folks dropping by, wanting to have a word about Jesus. Once the ‘word of god’ was writ, people just couldn’t resist spreading the news, however unreliable its sources or diabolical its content. Of course back in the day, a polite no thanks was not an option, and disagreeing could entail a long stretch in a dungeon, in more ways than one. It seems odd to bring a message of your god’s love and try to spread commandments like thou shall not kill, on pain of torture or death, but then the religious were never noted for their logical consistency or tolerance.
To be sure the pen has had its role amid a lot of suffering and carnage, signing orders that sent men and women to their deaths in ever greater numbers. Even in more informal settings, the written word certainly has the power to provoke. One can only guess at the result of crude toilet graffiti insinuating Attila the Hun’s lack of manhood, or mocking Ivan the Terrible’s funny walk. To inflame the anger of your average psychotic alpha-male was sure to bring terrible consequences for whoever may be next on their To-Do list of places to sack and pillage. Not that their original plans were ever likely to include a few rounds of backgammon and some mint teas with the local population, but still, it probably didn’t help.
Whatever the power of words on a page, parchment or tablet, it was the swords and spears, and later the various endlessly ingenious varieties of explodey-things that gave words a terrible substance.
Ultimately the pen may yet emerge the victor in this ancient struggle for dominance. Words shape our personal and collective narratives, we need to understand this and find ways to harness their immense power for the common good. We also need to learn how the powerful and the greedy manipulate us through words, to buy shit we don’t need and fight wars that no one can win.
Perhaps some day a few scrawls of ink on a page will seal an unprecedented new agreement, one that will save the lives of countless millions and herald a new era of global peace. Maybe it will be the day when we finally decide we’ve had enough of the swords, or their deadly modern-day counterparts. But I guess we shouldn’t hold our collective breaths, we know from long experience that men are very fond of playing with their weapons.
Boys will be boys, (and these days girls too get a share of the action on the battlefields) but maybe if we taught them all the value of cooperation and conflict resolution and found better ways to weed out the psychopaths it would be a start. If all kids learned early on to slay their rivals with words rather than blades or bullets, we may yet achieve a more profound peace and a greater respect for life.
Personally I’d much rather be sliced with a sharp sentence, or routed by a ribald rant. But please don’t insult my mother…
..Cos I’m tooled up to the teeth like an alliterative ninja, one cut from my rhymes and you’re fatally injur(ed), ‘ain’t got no knife, but my tongue is still sharp, disrespect me and I’ll show you my collection of ancient Etruscan writing implements.*
Copyright Jason Lennick 2015 All rights reserved.
*With humble apologies to rappers and rap fans everywhere