Sunday 14 May 2017

Of Mighty Warriors by Lesley Downer

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
‘Where is the steed? Where is the rider? Where is the treasure-giver? ...
How that time has passed away, grown dark under the shadow of night as if it had never been!’

Anglo-Saxon helmet from
the Sutton Hoo burial ship

Many years ago I studied Anglo-Saxon at university. I will never forget my professor with his thick white moustache thundering out the sonorous lines of The Wanderer. He expounded on the Anglo Saxon philosophy and way of life and on the elegiac mood of its poetry - how human life is like a sparrow flitting through a lighted hall, a brief moment of light in an eternity of darkness. Men and women found comfort in the mead hall, lit with candles and tapers. But if you lost your lord you would be thrown out from that bright ring of light, from the warmth and cheer, left to sit alone on the seashore with waves crashing and wolves howling.

Later in Japan I discovered another culture where men had been warriors, where death was preferable to dishonour and where without his lord a man was doomed.
Basho and Sora, straw hats on their backs

In 1689 the poet Matsuo Basho walked through the northern part of Japan, an area now known to everyone after the tsunami of 2011. He kept a poetic diary, interspersing prose with haiku poems, and called it The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He followed in the footsteps of Yoshitsune, a real life Japanese hero, akin to Richard the Lionheart - though, to be accurate, Basho actually travelled in the opposite direction, beginning at the scene of Yoshitsune’s last stand.

Five centuries before Basho’s great walk, in 1185, Yoshitsune had won some amazing victories, one of which involved riding his army on their horses straight down a vertical cliff-face to attack the enemy camped on the beach below, where they mistakenly thought they were safe.

He was a gallant and dashing young man, legendary for his exploits, and by all accounts very beautiful. His problem was that he was the younger brother of Yoritomo, who had named himself shogun and ruled a large chunk of central Japan. (As in the days of Alfred the Great, Japan was divided into several kingdoms.) Yoritomo was afraid that the popular Yoshitsune would try and overthrow him, so he ordered him killed. Yoshitsune fled north with his mistress, the dancer Shizuka Gozen, who was carrying his child. Eventually he had to leave her behind.
Yoshitsune fighting Benkei on Gojo Bridge, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861)

He took refuge in the northern city of Hiraizumi, the capital of a lord called Hidehira. But a couple of years later Hidehira died. He had ordered his son to protect Yoshitsune but his son betrayed him and on the thirtieth day of the fourth month, 1189, made a surprise attack with an army of 20,000 soldiers on the castle where Yoshitsune was. Yoshitsune had only eight retainers. He wanted at least to die an honourable death, by his own hand, not be ignominiously killed by the enemy.

Yoshitsune had a retainer called Benkei who was enormously tall and strong, over 2 metres tall, more than 6 foot 7, a Japanese Little John. There are many stories and legends of how Yoshitsune and Benkei first met, fighting on a bridge in Kyoto. The small, slight Yoshitsune defeated the giant Benkei, who became his most loyal follower.

That day Yoshitsune’s followers all fought bravely, one by one killing themselves so they wouldn’t have to endure the shame of being captured or killed by the enemy when they were too badly wounded to fight on. Finally only Benkei was left. The enemy were all in awe of him. They were sure that if they got close enough to him to try and take a swing at him with their swords he would kill them. So they kept their distance and shot arrows at him but he continued to stand, blocking their path, so they couldn’t reach the castle, thus giving Yoshitsune the time to commit his honourable suicide in peace.
Basho on his travels writing haiku

Benkei stood at the bend of the river with arrows sticking out of him like a porcupine. And still the enemy dared not approach him. Finally one, less timid than the rest, plucked up courage and galloped by at a distance, creating a wind. Benkei swayed backwards and forwards, then fell. He’d died on his feet.

Five hundred years later Basho arrived and saw the bend on the river where Benkei had stood and sat down on his straw hat and wept. Then he wrote a haiku:

Natsugusa ya
tsuwamono domo ga
yumei no ato

‘Summer grasses -
all that remains
of mighty warriors’ dreams ...’

Some three hundred years after that I too was there. I saw the bend in the river where Benkei had stood. There was nothing to see at all, just a grassy slope. And besides Basho’s poignant haiku the Anglo Saxon poem that was engraved so indelibly on my mind also came to me:
‘Where is the steed? Where is the rider? Where is the treasure-giver? ...’

There is a shrine to Yoshitsune on the top of the hill where his castle was. There are also several stories as to what became of him. Some say he didn’t commit suicide at all but galloped north, crossed to Mongolia and became Genghis Khan. You can pick whichever ending you prefer.

Lesley Downer's latest novel, The Shogun's Queen is published by Bantam. For more see her website,


Sue Bursztynski said...

What a wonderful story! Yes, the Japanese warriors would have understood their European equivalents in Saxon society. It was considered wrong to outlive your lord in battle, hence "The Wanderer."

Actually, I'd love to learn more about Basho. He sounds like an intriguing person, taking that trip and writing poems about it!

Just Been To See...Carmen

Lesley Downer said...

Thank you! Well, you could read Basho's 'Narrow Road to the Deep North' (the best translation is by Dorothy Britton) or indeed my own 'On the Narrow Road to the Deep North', on my travels in Basho's and Yoshitsune's footsteps.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I'll have to look that up carefully - there is now an award-winning Australian novel of that title! ;-)

Susan Price said...

Great blog!
I was very struck by this - 'Yoshitsune had a retainer called Benkei who was enormously tall and strong, over 2 metres tall, more than 6 foot 7, a Japanese Little John. There are many stories and legends of how Yoshitsune and Benkei first met, fighting on a bridge in Kyoto.'

How odd that Benkei is 'a a Japanese Little John' but also meets his Robin Hood in the same way, fighting on a bridge.

Lesley Downer said...

Thanks for your comments - though Yoshitsune was more of a Richard the Lionheart than a Robin Hood, being royal and not a rebel (until his brother turned him into one). And yes, was shocked that Richard Flanagan nicked Basho's title!

Sue Purkiss said...

Haunting, that Anglo-Saxon poem, especially the image of the bird and the lighted hall. Interesting parallels, and an equally haunting haiku!