Tuesday, 10 PM - exhausted and fighting
imminent painful death a nasty cold, blogger Bugsie takes a quick look at the handful of links about Plutarch and decides to go to bed instead.
Wednesday, 9 PM - still exhausted but now convinced she'll live to whine about it on the intertubes, blogger Bugsie decides life is too good to be wasted reading about Plutarch and wastes it surfing the internet instead.
Thursday, 8 PM - the time for whining and Plutarch has come, be prepared.
I naturally assumed you were all dying to see the process that led to this post, or at least know the reason for its delay. So now that that's out of the way, and before you have the chance to dispel my egocentric illusions, let's move on to an overdue quote from our favorite eloquent hero:
"Where is your patriotism, your love for Our Glorious Cause? Now is your chance to tell me to return with my shield or on it."--Gone with the Wind, Chapter XXIII
This is one of the lines from Rhett's departing speech at Rough and Ready, and I would argue that as far as advice goes, it is one of his most efficient lines too. For, once she recovers her wits, Scarlett does indeed express a desire to see him - or at least the million pieces of him that survived the encounter with a cannonball, anyway - returning on a shield.
As you probably guessed from my intro, this line has its origins in Moralia, a famous work of the Greek historian Plutarch. But, like some of the other classical references we've analyzed so far, this expression had entered 19th century popular culture to define a certain attitude towards war and sacrifice in general. Like Thermopylae, like the Horace quotes, it was commonplace.
To return "either with this or upon this" was what a Spartan mother told her son when he left for battle, handing him his shield. Or at least that's how the story goes in Sayings of Spartan Women, a section of Plutarch's Moralia. Whether it's true or not, it is hard to tell, for Plutarch is the source for everything we know about Spartan women; we don't have much material for comparisons. And the image he builds with his collection of anecdotes is that of mothers who put country, honor and bravery above their sons' lives, of women that are faithful and virtuous, self-effacing in face of their men, but proud and defiant in front of the enemies.
[If it sounds familiar, I will tell you that a love for Sparta's chief values characterized many societies, and that there were even voices at the beginning of the Civil War comparing the South to Sparta. For
my fellow nerds those of you who want to study the matter further, Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve has an essay called "A Southerner in the Peloponnesian War," in which he attempts a larger comparison of the two wars. You can read it here.]
But returning to our quote, why was it such an important point for a man to return with his shield? The reasons are three, and can be arranged in concentric circles from the level of the individual soldier to that of the entire community. A man who abandoned his shield was most often a coward. Since the shields were large and heavy, those who ran away from the enemy in battle had no option but to leave them behind. At best a man returning without his shield had not been able to defend it, and his honor, from the enemy. But at worst, he was a deserter.
Beyond this disgrace, a man returning without a shield was a man who had squandered an important property of his family, for shields were expensive and so they were carefully passed down from father to son. And finally, losing or abandoning one's shield meant endangering one's comrades and ultimately risking the outcome of an entire battle. The Greek phalanx presented an unbreakable surface of interlocked shields to the enemy. The shield of one soldier served to protect not just himself, but his fellows as well. If he dropped it, the enemies had the means to breach the phalanx.
So now that we dove into the meaning of this phrase, one of the many classical references Mitchell uses in regards to war, I am thinking we could do with a topic for discussion. Assuming you too would want to discuss this further, I would very much like to hear your opinion on one aspect. Do you think Margaret Mitchell wanted us to see Rhett's gesture of joining the army at the last moment as bravery or foolishness? We know how Scarlett sees it, but does the book as a whole support her view?