The Bow and the Warrior
In The Magic Skin, the French novelist Honore de Balzac tells a maddening tale of a young man named Raphael who desires the power of a mysterious magic skin, a talisman, which grants its owner every wish; yet each time Raphael uses its power, the magic skin shrinks in size, diminishes until it becomes pejorative and confines him to a life of despair, isolation, and anxiety where he dreads wishing for anything, even consciousness, in order to continue to possess the power of the skin. His blessing becomes a curse, a fatal talisman, that initially offers the power of wealth and seduction and a way into high society, but ultimately contains the seeds of Raphael's eternal agony.In the beginning of Balzac's short story, Raphael asks the old merchant, "Is it a jest, or is it an enigma?"
The old man replies, "I don't know how to answer you. I have offered this talisman with its terrible powers to men with more energy in them than you seem to have; but though they laughed at the questionable power it might exert over their futures, not one of them was ready to venture to conclude the fateful contract proposed by an unknown force."
He held the lamp close to the talisman . . . and pointed out some characters inlaid in the surface of the wonderful skin. . . .
POSSESSING ME THOU SHALT POSSESS ALL THINGS.
BUT THY LIFE IS MINE, FOR GOD HAS SO WILLED IT.
WISH, AND THY WISHES SHALL BE FULFILLED;
BUT MEASURE THY DESIRES, ACCORDING
TO THE LIFE THAT IS IN THEE
THIS IS THY LIFE,
WITH EACH WISH I MUST SHRINK
EVEN AS THY OWN DAYS.
In Homer's Iliad, the master of the bow also faces this kind of enigma, for his weapon offers him great power, yet becomes a fatal talisman that leads him toward despair and feebleness. For instance, Pandarus (in the pursuit of glory) dimwittedly uses the bow in Book 4 to break the truce between the Greeks and the Trojans. In Book 5 he will curse the bow just before Diomedes takes his life in battle: "But if I get home again/ and set my eyes on my native land, my wife/ and my fine house with a high vaulting roof,/ let some stranger cut my head off then and there/ if I don't smash this bow and fling it in the fire" (lines 236-240).
In Book 8, Teucer the Greek archer, Ajax's half-brother, whips arrows off his bow at the Trojans but cannot bring the mighty Hector down. Agamemnon is thrilled as Teucer's arrows drop corpse after corpse; the King praises Teucer as the first of the Achaeans after himself, a position characteristically offered to warriors like Achilles. But the Trojan war in Book 8 is defined by an atmosphere of moral decline. Agamemnon wishes to kill every male Trojan, to commit male genocide, even if the Greeks must kill "the baby boy still in his mother's belly" (Book 6, line 68). The war goes awry, descending into an abyss of horrific savagery where heroism means thrusting a bronze-pointed spear deep into the womb of a pregnant woman. Teucer will live. But Hector hurls a jagged rock at him, snapping the bowstring, and bringing the archer to his knees. The bow slips from his hand.
According to epic tradition, Achilles receives his death wound from an arrow shot by Paris. After Achilles' death, there is a dispute between Ajax and Odysseus over Achilles' armor--a divine mark of prowess. After hearing a speech from each warrior, the Greek assembly awards the armor to Odysseus; Teucer's great brother Ajax goes mad with resentment and kills himself--he falls on his own sword. Later, after the siege on Troy, Teucer will be banished from his homeland by his own father because he holds him responsible for Ajax's death. The death of the best of the Greek heroes is associated too intimately with the fatal weapon; consequently the old man is ashamed of his son the archer, who is known throughout the land for using the fatal power of the bow in war.
The heroic code, based on honor, defines the warrior's behavior; those who follow the code are bound by obligations and forbidden to perform certain acts that are shameful. Human dignity is the test. And even though the heroic code takes the best of men and leaves the worse. so to speak, the authentic Homeric warrior aspires to live up to the ideals of true excellence and claim the respect of the people. In favor of immediate gratification, the use of the bow often undermines the heroic outlook, ultimately and for the most part, making a mockery of authentic heroism. This fact alone can explain why, out of all the mighty warriors present at the funeral games of Patroclus, only two men enter the archery contest--Teucer and Meriones.