Epic Story of the Lion

Victor Hugo (1802-85)

Translated by Timothy Adès

i The Paladin
A lion had clamped its jaws around a child,
And carried it, unharmed, into the wild
Forest, where streams and birds’-nests are at home.
He’d seized it as one plucks a summer bloom,
Not really knowing why, nor even torn
The skin, through tender-heartedness or scorn;
Contempt, or loving-kindness, or defiance.
They’re serious beasts, and generous, are lions.
The little prince was in a wretched plight:
Raw meat and grass his diet, weak with fright,
He cowered in the cave, half-perishing.
He was the offspring of the local king:
The boy was ten years old, with sweet bright eyes.
The king had just the one child otherwise,
A little baby girl of two; and since
He was quite old, his thoughts were with the prince,
The monster’s prey. The country-folk were awed:
A lion more fearsome than their own liege lord!
A hero wandered in. They told the brave
Man what was up; he headed for the cave.
A hollow where the very sunshine paled,
And entered warily, was the cave that held
The giant beast, complete with rocky pillow.
The wood was in a swamp and in deep shadow,
Set with more branches than a cage has bars,
Dense in the Breton style with tangled briars.
This forest was “right worthy of its consul,”
(Virgil) with menhir sacred to Irmensul;
A jagged skyline ended and began it;
The cave was sculpted out of solid granite,
With mighty oaks for stormy retinue.
Caves detest cities, and to pay their due
May harbour some dark instrument of vengeance.
Respect the lion: the oaks intone the sentence.
A savage palace: and he stepped inside.
An air of rapine and of homicide
Hangs on the homes of tyrants: harrowing
Dark shadows. Yes, his host must be a king.
The master lacked for nothing, you could tell
From the bones; soft lighting from a central well,
Where thunderclaps had knocked a skylight through:
For conquerors a blurry haze will do,
An owl’s idea of night, or, to an eagle,
The early dawn; more glare would not be regal.
Well, then, you had a tall and handsome room:
His Highness clearly slept on fronds of broom,
Without embroidered drapes; his drink, it’s true,
Was blood, but then he took pure water too,
Quite simply, with no butler, bowl, or cup.
Enter the knight, well-armed from toe to top.
At once he looked around the lair.
One of the greatest lords was there
That you may see, with huge mane crowned:
The lion, in thought, his gaze profound.
For who can say if jungle beasts
Serve as exalted sylvan priests?
This was a lion that excelled,
Fearsome, big-clawed, not quickly quelled.
The knight moved forward up the room;
His step was loud, bright red his plume.
The beast was sunk in reveries;
The presence-chamber was at peace.
Old Theseus saw in gulfs of hell
Ixion, Sisyphus as well,
Naked by cold Avernus’ wave:
No less forbidding was the cave.
The paladin, whom duty spurred
With “Right, get going,” drew his sword.
Deliberate, and inspiring dread,
The lion slowly raised its head.
“Ho, grisly beast!” the warrior said:
“About your cave a child is hid.
Scanning your insalubrious lair
I do not see it anywhere.
I’ve come to fetch it: we shall be
Friends, if you give it up to me.
If not, I am myself a lion:
You’ll perish, while the royal scion
Rests in his father’s arms once more,
Far from your hot and reeking gore.
That’s what the next pale dawn will see.”
The lion said: “I disagree.”
The knight advanced, and cried “On guard,
Sir!” brandishing his mighty sword.
You might suppose the lion roared:
But no, it smiled. (It almost purred.)
Don’t make a lion smile. The duel
Between two champions was cruel,
As when the Indian jungles bleed:
The man with his extended blade
Against the beast with lengthened claws,
They grapple, and with slavering jaws
Most horribly the monster mauls
The man, one daring, one devouring,
Squeezing the flesh beneath the mail,
Savagely kneading iron and steel,
Crushing to bits cuirass and all:
Just as a child gets purple stains,
Dabbling in blackberries. The remains
Of crested helmet and brassards
One at a time the lion discards,
Until the bones are all laid bare.
And now the splendid cavalier
Is just a messy pulp inside
The thick cuirass. The lion devoured
The hero, went to sleep, and snored.
ii The Hermit
A hermit came: approached the cave,
Rope round his belly, trembling, grave;
Clutching his cross he stepped inside.
There lay the knight, all pulpified.
The lion woke, yawned, opened wide
Its eyes, breathed deeply, and espied
Cord, woolly habit, man inside,
With big black hood; now satisfied,
Showed all its teeth and, full of state,
Spoke like a grinding rusty gate:
“Want something?” “Yes – my king.” “What king?”
“Prince – ” “Who?” “The child.” “Call that a king?”
The hermit bowed. “O kingly one,
Why did you take the child?” “For fun:
Company for a rainy day.”
“Release him.” “No – he’s mine.” “Then say,
What’s next? You’ll eat him up?” “I may
Get hungry.” “Think of his grieving father.”
“Men killed the lioness, my mother.”
“His father’s royal, like you.” “Not true;
His voice is just a man’s; if you
Hear mine, I’m the lion.” “If he has
To lose his son?” “There’s still the lass.”
“Not much for a king.” “My family
Is the wild crag, the greenwood tree,
The lightning overhead: these three.”
“Have mercy on a royal highness!”
“There is no mercy – only sadness.”
“What about paradise? I can
Get God’s blank signature – blanc-seing…”
“Remove yourself, old holy man!”
The hermit went away.
iii The Hunt and the Night
The lion, alone,
Filled with a wild beast’s great oblivion,
Went back to sleep, and down came perfect night.
The menhir stood in moonbeams’ ghostly light,
The pond became a shroud, the path a lie,
A dream the mystic dark locality:
The cave was still, the holy stars strode toward
The dawn; the moles and crickets in the sward
Lay safe; the lion’s calm and rhythmic breath
Cheered the small creatures of the woods and heath.
Suddenly dogs were baying, there were shouts
Of men, the blare of brass: one of those routs
That sends the forest reeling drunkenly,
While nymphs in bed lie listening nervously:
The din of a tremendous hunt, that filled
The whole lake, shadow, mountain, forest, field,
Troubling that vast, untamed, and dreaming world.
The undergrowth was red with trumpery
Of flickering lights, mixed with the hue-and-cry;
The dogs were howling loud in search of prey,
And shadows danced about each open way.
A noble noise, whose triumph went before:
You would have said an army – which they were:
Soldiers the king had sent to storm the lair,
Rescue the prince, his only son and heir,
And bring the lion’s blood-stained hide back home.
Out of what darkness does rebellion come?
From man, or beast? He knows, who said I AM:
All things are numbers, he is the total sum.
The soldiers were well-fed and fit and tanned,
Well-armed, with bows and hunting-spears to hand,
A proud and gallant captain in command.
Some had been fighting in a distant land,
And all were tested and courageous men.
The lion could hear the ill-intentioned din;
His baleful eye was open, but his head
Stayed on its rock, the pillow of his bed;
Only his great tail stirred and fidgeted.
Outside the spacious cave that gave no sound,
The tumult of the angry host, all round,
Was like a buzzing swarm of bees, that hound
A spider, or assault a netted bear:
The regiment of hunters simmered there,
Drawn up in battle order, well aware
The monster was gigantic, one who ate
A hero as a monkey eats a nut;
So lordly that his eye stared down the eagle;
Beyond the tiger’s cunning, still more regal:
And so with formal siege they paid respect.
With hatchet-blows the tangled scrub was hacked;
The troops advanced, close-ordered; every tree
Tugged at their bowstrings, flexed their armoury.
They made no sound, because they hoped to hear
The lion tread dry leaves, if he was near.
The dogs – they know when silence is required –
Moved noiseless, open-jawed. The torches flared
In the green shrubs, and threw their elongated
Light on dense foliage, that the wind vibrated.
That’s how a skilful hunt is organised.
Amid the boughs the cave was scrutinised,
A shapeless mass, deep in the ruck of trees,
Gaping, yet silent, with an air of peace,
Dreamily heedless of the martial throng.
Fire in a hearth makes smoke, the belfry’s song
Swells from a town besieged; no glimmer here,
No echo; they observed, with nameless fear,
With hand on bow or pike, the eerie quiet
Of the tremendous cave; I don’t know quite what
The dogs were muttering; we’re less afraid
Of thunderclaps, than horrors in the shade.
Their task, to hunt the beast: they pressed ahead,
Scanning the fronds, in hope and yet in dread.
The scouts were looking sharp, each had his lantern:
They watched the yawning threshold of the cavern.
The trees were mute, and shuddered, looking on;
The march was orderly, a thousand strong;
Possibly more, keeping a steady pace…
Suddenly, look! The lion’s fearsome face.
At once it all seemed hopeless. All the trees
Loomed bigger; strong men trembled at the knees.
In spite of that, the valiant bowmen drew,
And landed arrows on the lion, who
Was riddled with a squall of darts. The storm
Cannot shake Snowdon, or excite Cairngorm;
With like solemnity the lion frowned,
Shook nearly all the arrows to the ground.
Others in whom so many darts had stuck
Would probably have fled, not pushed their luck;
Blood streaked his flank; he stood there, face to face
With the army; they, not fancying the place,
Reckoned the monster might be god or demon.
The dogs, abashed, slank back behind the spearmen.
Silence. And then across the great outdoors
Of woods and sleeping marsh, the lion roars,
One of those black and monstrous roars, that scares
Us more than all that’s holy; even dares
The Thunder, which half-wakes, and wants to know,
From highest heaven, Who thunders there below?
It was the end. They fled, and took the fray
With them, as when the wind blows mist away:
The army broke, and scattered to the four
Points of the compass, at that dreadful roar.
It took one moment: soldiers, chiefs and all
Thought themselves in some supernatural
Place where the mighty wrath of nature brews:
Destroyed and crawling, shaking in their shoes,
They hid, they vanished. “Mountains, forests, see!”
The monster cried aloud: “One lion free
Outweighs a thousand men in slavery.”
As lava from volcanoes is the cry
Of beasts: one outburst soaring to the sky
Normally calms them. Lions may be more cool
Than gods. Beneath the old Olympians’ rule,
“Suppose we did it,” said the Herculeses,
“And strangled all the lions and lionesses?”
The lions said: “Let’s shower them with mercies.”
This lion, though, was sinister and sombre,
Black nightfall’s child, the type whose rages linger,
Not quickly calmed, ferocious in his anger.
A beast at sundown is intent on sleeping:
Dogs are a nuisance if they come a-creeping;
This lion had been the butt of scouts and spies;
The generous woods had borne indignities.
He climbed the mountain, reared upon its crest,
Gave voice again; and, just as sowers cast
Seed far and wide, he spread his mighty roar
Down to the city for the king to hear:
“King! You have shamefully assailed
Me, though I have not harmed your child;
I tell you this from far afield:
At dawn tomorrow I’ll arrive
In your city, with the boy alive.
I invite as audience all your valets:
I shall eat your son inside your palace.”
All night, the streams went running through the grass,
And the clouds strayed beneath the splendid stars.
How did the city greet the rising sun?
Dawn and the desert; people on the run,
Crying for mercy, terrified, soon gone,
While through the streets the mighty beast came on.
iv The Dawn
The populace, aghast, was in the basements.
No use resisting. No-one on the battlements;
The gates yawned wide. They are so awe-inspiring,
These demigods, brute beasts of black despairing,
So grim and grand their cave, it is unwise,
Wrong to be there when they materialise.
The palace had a massive dome of gold,
To which the lion, slow and thoughtful, strolled,
Still bristling with the darts, which he ignored:
An oak-tree doesn’t die because its hard
Husk has been battered. Archers he saw none:
The people quailed and left the beast alone.
The lion, calm, came on without a pause,
Holding the child unconscious in its jaws.
A little prince is human, as you know;
The sight made tears of blessed pity flow.
His body stagnant in the jaws of death,
The tender captive drooped in two beneath,
Pallid, but still unpunctured by the teeth.
Gagged by his prey, the lion couldn’t roar,
Which for a monster is a fearsome bore:
His calm was furious and he glared the more.
No glint of missile at embrasured slit:
They may have feared an arrow’s fatal hit,
Shakily aimed at the triumphant monster,
Might miss the lion and despatch the youngster.
Keeping his mountain promise, he rejected
The city as unwholesome, and directed
His steps towards the palace. Being sated
With dread, he hopefully anticipated
Finding a person to converse with. Lo,
The door like windblown reed swung to and fro.
He entered. Was there anybody? No.
Well, the king, shedding tears for his lost one, had fled
Into hiding. My goal is survival, he said:
For the people’s well-being I’m needed, it’s clear. –
Wild beasts are sincere, don’t take kindly to fear,
And the lion, so large when a man is so small,
Felt the shame. In the dark of his leonine soul
He said: Wretch of a father! I’ll feast on the son.
From the courtyard, through corridors, wandering on
Under fine golden ceilings, he came to the throne,
Which was empty; then chambers, red, yellow, and green,
Wide open, deserted, a desolate scene:
Through hall after hall went the terrible beast
In search of a suitable place for his feast.
He was hungry. He suddenly came to a stop.
In an alcove near the garden
Was a poor wee thing, forgotten
In the panic, rocked and cradled
By the big plain dream of childhood,
As the sun poured through the arbour,
Yes, the little girl was waking;
She was all alone, half-naked,
She, the king’s own daughter, singing:
For a child sings on, no matter
Whether all around is silent.
A voice more soft than a lyre to be heard,
A little mouth with a great big smile,
A cradle, an angel in a tall toy-pile,
A crib for a Jesus, a nest for a bird,
Two eyes blue and deep, mysteriously bright,
Feet, arms, tummy, neck and legs all bare,
Covered to the navel by a vest of white,
A sunbeam in April, a sky-high star,
A lily-bud from heaven, to earth come down:
That was the infant, sweeter than dawn.
That’s what the lion had seen.
He came through the door, things were shaking on the floor,
Where the toys were on the table, he reared his mighty head;
He had the sombre majesty of monster and of emperor,
The prey in his jaws made the horror even more.
And the child, she saw and she said:
O! my brother! My brother! O! my brother!
Standing pink in the light she was numinous and warm
And she gazed at the super-enormous form
Of the jungle giant with his eye defiant
To give Og, Gog and Magog a terrible fright
And to put them to flight.
Who knows what goes through those godlike heads?
She stood up tall by the narrow bed
And she wagged her finger at the monstrous head.
The lion by the cradle of silk and lace
Put her brother down before her face,
As a mother might do with her arms across,
And he said, “Here you are now. Don’t be cross!”
Translation: Copyright © Timothy Adès

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