The Epic of Lacplesis

My recent switch to the active Army caused me to undergo some leadership training. One of my fellow trainees was a magnificent Soldier from Latvia. While planning a PT session, I had occasion to check out the national epic of Latvia – Lacplesis. This heroic epic may be of interest to the guests in this Hall, and I found it inspiring. You can read it at Project Gutenberg here (the translation is into assonant verse; if you’re familiar with the Song of Roland it’ll have a familiar feel), or at least part of a later translation here.

Lacplesis – his name means “the bear slayer” – was raised by bears, and himself had a huge pair of hairy, bear-like ears. These ears were to Lacplesis was Samson’s hair was to him – the source of his strength. The epic traces his destiny as discussed by the pagan Latvian gods, then his heroic deeds and death.

Two events especially impressed me. The first was Lacplesis’ combat with the Estonian giant Kalapuisis. The Estonian Army is invading Latvia, and Kalapuisis is also ravaging the countryside (but separately from the army). Lacplesis sends his trusted friend to raise an army against the Estonians, and goes to face the giant himself. Kalapuisis knocks him from his horse, but he fells the giant with a single blow – and then shows mercy. They make a sworn covenant that Latvia and Estonia will never fight again, and that Kalapuisis will instead help to guard both countries against the coming invasion by the Germans.

Unlike Gilgamesh, Lacplesis does not seek out his opponent to win glory for himself – I don’t see any of that in his character – but simply to save his countrymen. And he has the foresight and the strategic sense to think beyond simply killing his enemies. When a deadly enemy is down, you cut his throat or help him to his feet, and sometimes the latter is the best (or the only) course. Lacplesis speaks to me in a way that some heroes of legend do not. This may in part be because the epic was composed in the 19th century and I haven’t read the earlier legends on which it was based – I know the Arthur of Excalibur is more understandable to a modern viewer than is the Arthur of Mallory, and if I knew Tennyson’s version I would doubtless think the same.

The other event that impresses me is the death of Lacplesis. A Latvian traitor who has sold his soul to Satan learns Lacplesis’ weakness through black magic, and gives the information to a German, who picks a witchborn black knight (and confirmed ravager and villain) to make use of it. The knight visits Lacplesis’ hall as a guest, takes part in a tournament, breaks Lacplesis’ sword, and cuts off both his ears – thus robbing him of his superhuman strength. Lacplesis, undaunted, makes an end like Sherlock Holmes’ – he wrestles his enemy over a cliff and into a deep river, where both sink from view. The tale ends tragically, as the Germans then overrun Latvia, but there is hope for the future – Lacplesis can be seen in the river, still striving with the knight, and someday he will prevail and his country will be free (as, indeed, it is today).

Some heroes of legend rely entirely on their god-born powers – and their “heroism” seems to consist mainly of crushing out lesser beings who don’t stand a chance against them. Now I believe in fighting the good fight with every unfair advantage possible; but what Lacplesis understood was that, when all that’s gone and your enemy has the upper hand, the choice still lies with you: to keep fighting or not. And you can see that he had something greater than mere power; he had the heart to fight when everything else was gone.

I commend this heroic tale to all.

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