Recently, this author began to listen to the Swedish power metal band Sabaton. I am a little late to the game, since several of my fellow writers enjoy listening to and have mentioned them, but that does not matter. This group was worth the wait.
For those who are not familiar with these performers, Sabaton writes songs about historical events and the heroes – or villains – who participated in them. They praise the courage of individuals and military units caught in famous conflicts. From the Swiss Guard’s last stand in the Vatican in 1527 to the Screaming Eagles eventual victory over the Nazis in Bastogne in December of 1944, they memorialize those who have done great things under difficult circumstances. At the same time, they scorn history’s villains for dismissing the humanity of their enemies or who violently oppress free peoples, as shown in songs such as “Inmate 4859” and “Uprising.”
They are, quite honestly, a God-send for history “geeks” like yours truly. Hearing stories of courage, honor, horror, and cowardice set to metal music (what could be more perfect for war songs?) is truly stimulating. Most of the time, this is helpful with choreographing battle and fight scenes. Having power metal blasting in one’s ears while describing cannon balls, bullets, or magic spells flying on the page is a good method for setting a tempo and keeping it going.
But Sabaton’s songs do more than simply help write a good descriptive sequence for combat. Combining stories of heroism and grace with the pounding power of heavy metal reminds one of the courage exhibited by those the band sings about. It is no easy feat to fly a B-17 through flak while the other bombers are blasted from the sky, or to stand against a thousand men flanked by one hundred forty-six fellow Swiss Guards.
Yet these men have stood and fallen amidst the horror and sorrow of war over the centuries, to be enshrined forever in collective memory. We cannot help but salute the likes of Sergeant York, Franz Stigler, and the warriors of Shiroyama when their stories are told to us. Sabaton does a great service by making their memory accessible to so many in a manner that is easy to digest. Listening to their songs, one is inspired to “go, and do likewise” in his or her own life.
And that brought this writer to a poignant realization. Numerous authors have lamented time and again the general trend of unheroic protagonists and fiction, but they rarely step outside of our forte when discussing this. When confronted with the argument that heroism is unrealistic and therefore a foolish subject for our stories, few of us respond, “Then what about the one hundred forty-seven Swiss Guards who willingly died protecting Pope Clement VII? What about the five hundred samurai who died at Mount Shiroyama in an effort to preserve their country’s traditions? What about Witold Pilecki, who snuck into Auschwitz and confirmed that the Nazis’ were exterminating the Jews, before breaking out of the prison to join the Polish underground? Are they ‘unrealistic’ as well?”
Too often writers fall into the trap of arguing about fiction by using fantastic examples to counter another’s statement. It is an understandable habit; we are storytellers, and the worlds of fantasy are our primary areas of expertise. Nevertheless, this is a great handicap. Since nothing within these areas occurs “in the real world,” our case – no matter how well reasoned or passionate – may simply be dismissed on the basis that “it’s all fiction anyway.”
It is much harder to reject the idea that heroism, honor, and courage ought to be included in fiction because it occurred in this world. If Franz Stigler could escort Charles Brown’s wounded B-17 Flying Fortress to American lines after the bombing of Bremen, why may a fictional hero in similar circumstances not make the same decision? If the Winged Hussars could arrive to save Vienna from the Ottoman Turks in time, how can one dispute the arrival of the cavalry in the heroes’ hour of need? And if a relative handful of Greek warriors could hold back the superior Persian forces long enough for their brethren to escape, why can’t our characters do the same?
Obviously, the argument that the heroism demonstrated by Luke Skywalker, Captain America, Robin Hood, King Arthur, and others are “unrealistic” lose their potency when compared against their factual inspiration. Fortitude is real, and so including it in fantastic tales is realistic. Despite the horror and deprivation of war, the constant death and destruction, men can and often do find within themselves the grace and strength to perform unbelievable feats of valor. These enormous actions ring down the years to be heard, however dimly, by their descendants.
This brings me to another modern trend in fiction that Sabaton ably counters. Everywhere one turns, today’s stories focus on the terror and repulsive aspects of warfare. This is not wrong in itself – war is undeniably horrible. From the ancient practice of throwing the conquered’s male children off of cliffs to the Nazi death camps, one does not have far to look for evidence of the depravity man is capable of visiting upon himself. Peacetime has confirmation of this as well; even when nations do not do battle with one another, men and women find excuses to maim, rape, and murder. Including these observations about war in one’s story is therefore necessary and right.
However, making them the first and last word regarding national combat is wrong. Sabaton’s records reflect this fact well. War is filled with horror, true, but it is also a time when the glory of a human spirit united to grace shines forth. Sabaton highlights this in their songs, reminding listeners that amidst the destruction of war, beauty and courage flower and grow to great heights. Whether it be the everlasting fame achieved by Leonidas and his Spartans or the unsung heroics of Witold Pilecki and Lauri Törni, war can bring out the best in men at the same time it brings out their worst aspects.
From the time this author could listen to stories, she thrilled to tales from history for precisely this reason. Although they are fictional, it is also why she appreciated heroic (also called Superversive or Noblebright) fiction. The ultimate tribute to the heroes of the past, this type of creative writing is the best compliment an author can give to those who fought and died for the good of others.
If you seek inspiration of any kind, readers and future writers, begin with Sabaton and a good history book. The past is not dead; it exists in the present and flows into the future through us, the children of those who came before. The bravery exhibited by men and women in the past remains within our grasp and veins, waiting only for us to exercise it.
So seek out heroic protagonists about whom you can read and write. Honor your valiant ancestors by remembering that heroism does exist. They are sure to appreciate it.
3 thoughts on “Courage – Timeless Inspiration for Every Age”
“What about Witold Pilecki, who snuck into Auschwitz and confirmed that the Nazis’ were exterminating the Jews” – That’s a “half-truth”. When Witold Pilecki (a faithful Catholic) willingly came to Auschwitz Germans exterminated also there the Polish elite (foremost – the Catholic priests). As he wrote in his famous Report “to the Sonnerkomando there went in that period all Jews, priests and some Poles”. Moreover, as Pilecki noted, when he was later persecuted (and killed) by the Commies – Auschwitz was a “trifle” – compared to the Soviet barbarity.
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Few could say Auschwitz was a “trifle” compared to Soviet barbarity without being accused of exaggeration. Witold Pilecki was one of those few, God rest his soul. Thanks for the comment, vrs.
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Whether they recognize it or not–and I think they might–Sabaton is doing a public service. Remembering these concepts is the first step to understanding them; placing them in an easy to remember format, one which is easily accessible (to those with a high tolerance for loud noises), is a godsend.
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