The Battle of the Books in Modern English

by Jonathan Swift, 1704
paraphrased by Leslie Noelani Laurio

This is a fun look at the debate between Ancients and Moderns that originated in France in the 1600's, but found its way to England.

Ancients admired the ideals of ancient Greece and Rome and placed value on humanities and a morality that was rooted in authority and ought not to be questioned. Their driving motto might be, "We see more only because we are dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants." Proponents included Sir William Temple (Jonathan Swift worked for him and took his side), who wrote an essay called "On Ancient and Modern Learning," and Charles Boyle, who translated the "Epistles of Phalaris" from Greek to Latin.

Moderns felt that the invention of the printing press, firearms, and the nautical compass gave them superiority over the Ancients. They valued progress, the scientific method, accurate historical and textual scholarship, and mathematics. Their driving motto might be, "Question authority." Proponents included William Wotton, who wrote "Reflections Upon Ancient and Modern Learning," and Richard Bentley, who wrote "Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris."

Jonathan Swift references these men and their writing specifically in his narrative.

Read more background information about Jonathan Swift and this book at


Satire is like a mirror where those who look into it can recognize everyone's face but their own. That's why it's so popular, and hardly ever causes offense to anyone. But even when it does cause offense, the danger isn't very great, and I've learned from experience that not much trouble results when I provoke offense with my own satire. Even when my satires rouse anger and fury, that only strengthens the body's muscles while relaxing the mind so that the whole thing is quite harmless.

Some minds can only manage to manufacture enough wit to harvest a single crop. Those with that kind of mind should be careful to manage their thoughts with diligent care; they should be wary of venting their opinions to those who are wittier because that will make their entire stock of intelligence bubble up in insolent retorts, and once their thoughts are spent, there's no more where that came from. Wit without knowledge is like cream that rises to the surface overnight and can be whipped to a froth, but once you skim that away, there's nothing left except watery milk that's only fit to feed to pigs.

This is a comprehensive and truthful narrative of the battle that was fought last Friday between the ancient books and modern books in St. James's Library [London].

Part 1: Ancient and Modern Books

Whoever has read the "Annual Records of Time" has come across the comments, "War is the child of Pride," and "Pride is the daughter of Riches." * We can easily agree to the first part, but the second part isn't so certain because Pride is so closely related to Poverty and Deprivation. Sometimes Pride comes from one of those; sometimes it comes from both. Pride is less of an issue among people when everyone has enough to be satisfied. Pride issues tend to be a side effect of the movement from poverty to plenty. The oldest and most natural causes of quarrels are lust and greed, and both of those stem from not being satisfied that one's possessions are enough. ** To use political terminology, we can consider the republic of dogs: in the wild, they live in an institution called a pack, and the whole community is at its most peaceful after a full meal. Civil disputes arise when one of the leading dogs has a huge bone and shares it with a few of his buddies, which results in an oligarchy, or when he keeps it all to himself, which results in tyranny. The same principle is at work when one of the females is ready to mate: there are no property rights, especially in such a delicate case as wooing, and there's so much jealousy and suspicion that the entire community is reduced to a state of civil war, one citizen against another, until one dog who is more courageous or daring or lucky seizes the prize, and the rest are left to look on in envy at the fortunate winner and eat their hearts out. It's the same with nations who are engaged in foreign wars, either as the aggressor or in self-defense -- the same reasoning is at work in each and every case. Poverty and deprivation, whether real or imagined, plays a major role for the aggressor, as well as pride.

* [An annotated copy of Battle of the Books has a footnote that says "Mary Clarke," but the only reference to this quote found online is this poem:
       War begets Poverty, Poverty Peace
       Then people will traffic and Riches increase
       Riches produceth Pride, Pride is War's ground
       War begets Poverty, So we go round.
                     Francis Daniel Pastorius, Bee-Hive (1696)

** [Ecclesiastes 4:4 (NLT) says, "I observed that most people are motivated to success because they envy their neighbours."]

This same idea can be applied to intellectual disputes. The root cause for disagreement between the two major schools of thought -- the Augustans who value ideals of the golden age of classical Greece and Rome, and those who prefer modern thinking -- is no different. But the details or events of this war aren't so easy to guess at. By now, the quarrel is so heated from the hot heads of both factions, and the conceit is so outrageous, that compromise on either side is impossible. I've heard from someone who's been around for a long time that the quarrel started over a small piece of land on the highest point of Mount Parnassus [where the Greek muses inspired poetry and music]. For as long as anyone could remember, this plot of land had belonged to the Ancients, and the mountain nearest to it was owned by the Moderns. But the Moderns didn't like being on the lower mountain, so they sent ambassadors to Mount Parnassus to complain to the Ancients that the great height of their mountain was spoiling their view to the east. They offered them two choices to avoid war: either collect their belongings and move to the lower mountain, or else allow the Moderns to come with pick axes and shovels and chip away Mount Parnassus to whatever level the Moderns preferred.

The Ancients replied that they hardly expected this kind of demand from a colony they had allowed out of their kindness and generosity to exist so close to their own mountain. They were the original inhabitants of Mount Parnassus, and they had no intention of moving away or surrendering it to a bunch of covetous upstarts. If their Mount was obstructing the view of the Moderns, that was too bad, but how could they help it? They suggested that the Moderns might consider how they were compensated by the shade and shelter the Mount provided. As far as leveling the Mount, that was an ignorant idea because the Mount was made of solid rock and would break their tools and their strength without even making a dent in the mountain. They suggested that the Moderns might raise their own hill rather than trying to tear down Mount Parnassus. In fact, they offered to help them do this! But the Moderns rejected this idea indignantly. They dug in their heels and insisted that the Ancients either relinquish the mountain, or allow it to be lowered, until there was all-out war. The Ancients held their own by means of their determination and courageous leaders and allies. The Moderns had greater numbers, though, and an endless supply of new recruits to replace their casualties.

Entire rivers of ink have been spent on this battle, and both parties have grown more and more hostile. It must be understood that iron gall ink is the preferred weapon in battles between scholars, and this weapon is shot from a machine called a quill pen. Infinite amounts of ink-filled quills are darted at the enemy by valiant authors on both sides with equal skill and brutality, as if this were a battle between porcupines. This poisonous liquid is a mixture of gall and copperas [also called green vitriol, this refers to ferrous sulfate, or iron], and its bitterness and venom are well suited to encourage the genius of the combatants. Centuries ago in Greece, when two sides wouldn't agree about who had won a battle, they would present a trophy to both participants and the party who had been beaten would have to endeavour to appear satisfied with this -- an admirable custom that has recently been resurrected in the art of war. In the same way, after an especially stinging and brutal dispute, the scholars both display their trophies, too. Their trophies are written accounts of the battle detailing the merits of the arguments and explaining why the victory rightfully belongs to the party that supplied the trophy. These trophies go by various names: disputes, arguments, brief considerations, replies, remarks, reflections, objections, dissertations, comments. For a few days, these are distributed all over for people to look at, and then they're collected and stored in arsenals called libraries in sections assigned to them, and then they're given the label "controversial books."

Each of these books is infused with the spirit of each pen warrior, and when he dies, his soul migrates there to inform them. At least, this is the traditional opinion. But my personal belief is that libraries are the same as other cemeteries, where a certain spirit that philosophers call "brutum hominis" [human animal] hovers over its stone tomb until the body has been consumed by worms and turned to dust and vanished. I think the same thing happens in libraries -- a restless spirit hovers over every book until dust or worms gets hold of it. For some books, this happens in just a few days, but it takes longer for others. Controversial books are haunted by the most unruly spirits, so they have always been confined away from the other books and, to prevent them from assaulting each other, they are bound with strong chains. This practice started like this: when John Duns Scotus [Scottish Catholic philosopher of the late 1200's] published his first books, they were assigned a permanent home in a certain library. Then the author conspired with Aristotle, and the two of them ganged up on Plato and forcibly removed him from his seat among the revered gods where he had lived peacefully for 800 years. They succeeded in usurping his place, and the two of them have reigned in Plato's seat ever since. To prevent such a thing from happening again, it was decreed that all large controversial volumes should be secured with a chain.

This would have been enough to ensure the peace of public libraries for all time -- if a new species of controversial books hadn't arisen recently. This new breed has an even more destructive spirit because of the war going on right now over the plot of land at the top of Mount Parnassus.

When these newer books were first admitted into the public libraries, I commented that I was sure they would cause brawls wherever they went unless preventative measures were taken. I proposed that the best authorities on both sides should be paired, or mixed together, like a chemist blending opposing poisons so that their toxins are spent on each other and they are both neutralized. And it turns out that I was right. It was the neglect of this precaution that was responsible for the terrible fight that broke out last Friday between the Ancient and Modern books in the King's Library [originally at St. James's Palace, until George II donated it to the British Museum in 1757]. This battle is the talk of the town and on everyone's mind, and people want to know what it's all about. Since I have all the qualifications of a historian, and I'm not working for either party, I've decided to supply the public's desire to know by writing down a full, unbiased account of the whole thing.

The guardian of the King's Library [Richard Bentley], an honourable man known for his kindness, was a relentless defender for the Moderns. During one battle on Mount Parnassus, he vowed to knock down two of the ancient chiefs who were guarding a small pass on the higher rock. But his weight encumbered him -- this is a tendency the Moderns are unhappily subject to because, being naturally light-headed, they imagine themselves strong and agile, and think there's nothing too high for them to scale, but this tends to fail in practice. So this disappointed defender held a bitter grudge against the Ancients, and resolved to be revenged by giving advantage to the books of the Moderns in the King's Library. He determined to display the Modern's books in the most prominent places, and hide the Ancient books away in some obscure corner -- and if the book complained about the unfair treatment, he would turn it out to fend for itself in the streets. It just so happened that there was a mix-up with the books about this time. Perhaps a pile of scholarly dust blew off the shelf of Moderns and got into the librarian's eyes. Or perhaps he had a habit of picking worms out of the scholars and swallowing them, and they got into his gallbladder and head, which did neither of them any good. Or perhaps he walked around in the dark library too often and forgot how to get around, so when he re-shelved books, he accidentally put Descartes [Modern] next to Aristotle [Ancient], poor Plato [Ancient] ended up between Thomas Hobbes [Modern] and Seven Wise Masters [Ancient eastern], and Virgil [Ancient] was hemmed in between John Dryden and George Wither [Modern].

Meanwhile, some of the books that sided with the Moderns selected one from among them to go through the entire library, assess the numbers and strength of their party, and come up with a plan. This scout was very industrious. He brought back a list of fifty thousand books. Most of them were lightly armed horsemen, heavily armed foot soldiers, and mercenaries. The foot soldiers were mostly scantily armed and their armour in bad shape. Their horses were large, but out of shape and spiritless, but a few of the soldiers had traded with the Ancients and were therefore well armed.

While the scout was poking around, contention grew very heated. Harsh words were exchanged on both sides, and ill-feelings grew. One solitary Ancient who had been misplaced with a whole shelf of Moderns offered to mediate the dispute and show evidence that the Ancients had the most right because they had been in possession of the Mount for so long, and out of respect for their wisdom, age, and the benefit they could offer to the Moderns. But the Moderns objected. They seemed surprised that the Ancients placed so much honour on their antiquity when it was plain that the Moderns were the more ancient of the two. They decidedly rejected the idea that they were under any obligation to the Ancients. They said, "We admit that a few of us have stooped low enough to borrow resources from you, but the rest of us -- and that means most of us, especially the French and English -- never did such a thing. Until now, most of us have never passed six words between any of you. We bred our own horses, forged our own weapons, and sewed our own uniforms." Plato happened to be on a nearby shelf and noticed the ragged condition of many of the uniforms, weariness of their horses, and rusty weapons. He laughed in his pleasant way and said, "I can believe that!"

The Moderns hadn't been very quiet about their doings, so the Ancients knew that some kind of trouble was afoot. The Moderns who had started the quarrel by disputing who was most ancient had talked so loudly about it ending in a battle that Sir William Temple [who had considered himself a Modern] overheard them. He passed this intelligence on to the Ancients, and they collected their scattered troops together to make an effective defense. At this, several of the Moderns defected and joined the Ancients -- including Temple himself. He had been educated among the Ancients and had frequent talks with them, so the Ancients respected him, and he became their greatest champion.

Things were at this crisis when something happened. A spider was living in the corner of a high window, grown fat from all the flies that had flown into his stringy fortress. Their bodies lay around his gates like human bones around the cave of some man-eating giant. The path to his dining room was guarded with pathways and trails in the modern style of fortification. After passing several rooms, you came to the center, where you could view the lord himself resting in his private lodgings. He had open windows with a clear view of each pathway, and hallways to venture out for hunting or defense. He had lived in this stately fortress, enjoying peace and plenty, for some time. There was no danger from birds outside, and he was high enough that no broom could disturb him. On this day, he happened to trap a bee who flew in through a broken pane of glass out of curiosity and got caught in the outer part of the spider's citadel. The bee was heavy, and the web sagged to its very foundation. The bee tried to shake himself free and only managed to shake the center of the web. The spider felt the convulsions and thought at first that it was an earthquake, or else that Beelzebub, the lord of the flies, and all his legions had come to take vengeance on him on behalf of the thousands of his subjects that he had slain and devoured. Finally, he decided to brace himself and meet his fate head-on. The bee, meanwhile, had broken loose and was sitting safely at a distance removing the tattered remnants of the cobweb from his wings. The spider saw the huge hole in his fortress and was furious. He ranted and stormed until he was ready to burst with rage. Finally, he spotted the bee and realized at once what had happened.

"Curse you!" he shouted, "look what you've done to my home! Why don't you look where you're going? Do you think I have nothing to do but mend and make repairs after you?"

The bee had finished cleaning himself and was in a light mood. "Friend, you have a point. I give you my word never to come near your home again. I was never so tangled up in my life!"

"Sir," said the spider, "if it wasn't for the tradition of my family to never go abroad in search of an enemy, I'd come and teach you some manners!"

"Be patient, or you'll expend all your strength," said the bee, "and you're going to need it to repair your fortress."

"You may be a a vagrant," replied the spider, "but you should have more respect for someone whom the whole world regards as your superior."

"I daresay," said the bee, "if it comes to comparisons, that will be very amusing. Please, humor me with all the reasons why the world holds you in such high regard."

The spider had puffed himself up, as people do when they're ready for a battle of wits. He was resolved to be abusive and angry, to spout off all the reasons without giving the bee a chance to respond or object, and he was fully determined to clasp his spider mind around the conviction of his own rightness.

"I don't want to demean myself by comparing myself with such a rascal as you," he began, "You're nothing but a wandering beggar with no home, no resources, no possessions. All you have to call your own are a pair of wings and a musical pipe. Your entire livelihood comes from plundering nature, despoiling fields and gardens. You'll steal anything, from a nettle to a violet. But I am a domestic creature, and I have all the resources I need within my own body. This impressive fortress is all built with my own hands, from materials I created myself."

The bee said, "I'm glad to hear you admit that my wings and my voice belong to me rightfully. I credit God alone for giving me flight and music. He would never have given me two such precious gifts unless he intended them for some noble use. It's true, I do visit flowers of all kinds in fields and gardens, but what I collect benefits me without harming their beauty, their scent, or their flavor in the least. I don't know anything about your skill in engineering and architecture, perhaps it cost you some labour to make that fortress. But I do know from experience that your construction materials are worthless. Your fortress might look nice, but it doesn't hold up! You brag about not being obliged to anyone because you draw out and spin all your resources from your body. If I judge your insides by what comes out, I'd have to say you're made of nothing but dust and poison. I don't mean to belittle either one, but I'm not so sure that they don't come from a little outside help. The dust you spin from doesn't come from sand you sweep off the ground. Your poison and the dust you spin from come from destroying other creatures. Which of us is the nobler of the two? The one who spends his entire life contemplating the world from a four-inch web, trapping and consuming other creatures and converting them into excrement and venom to produce nothing more than a cobweb to trap flies? Or the one who travels the world, seeking, studying, making sound judgments, and discerning things, and comes homes with honey and wax?"

This dispute was expressed with such passion, sincerity, and eagerness that the two parties of books below stood silent, waiting in suspense to see what the outcome would be. They didn't have long to wait. The bee grew impatient at how much productive time he had lost, and flew out the window to a bed of roses without waiting for a response. The spider was left on his web like an orator who has collected his thoughts and is ready to burst out his speech.

Aesop broke the silence. He had recently been subjected to ruthless treatment by the librarian. His title page had been torn out, half of his pages had been defaced, and he had been chained securely among a shelf of Moderns. When he realized how serious the quarrel was, he tried out all his options, turning himself into a hundred different things. Finally, when he was trying on the form of a foolish donkey, the librarian mistook him for a Modern, but he had just enough time to escape and return himself to the Ancients at the very time that the spider and the bee were quarreling. He listened intently, and when it was over, he announced loudly that he had never in all his life known of two cases so parallel as the dispute in the window, and the dispute happening below on the bookshelves. He said, "The spider and the bee have admirably handled their own dispute. They heard all that could be said on both sides, and exhausted every argument both 'pro' and 'con.' All we need to do is adjust their reasonings to our present quarrel, and compare the labours and results of each of us, like the bee did, and the conclusion will be plain to us all

"Was anything so Modern as the spider with all his pretensions, his twists of logic, and his inconsistencies? He argued on behalf of you Moderns with boastings about his own independent resources and amazing genius. He claims that he spins and creates entirely from himself, and refuses to recognize any obligation or assistance from without. He brags about his great skill in architecture and construction.

"And the bee represents us Ancients. What is his response? He says that if we were to judge the genius or inventions of the Moderns by what they have produced, you wouldn't have any reason for boasting. Describe your projects with as much precision and skill as you want, but if all that comes from within yourselves -- from your own brains -- is nothing but dust, then your fancy creation will end up like a cobweb, ruined quickly and forgotten. If there's anything legitimate and real that the Moderns claim to have created, I'm unaware of it, unless you count satire and wit, which are more like the spider's poison. And even that they pretend to manufacture all on their own, but it comes from feeding on the insects and vermin of the era. But we Ancients are like the bee. We don't claim anything beyond our wings and our voice -- meaning our flights of thought and our language. Anything else we have came from infinite searching and ranging through every corner of nature. But instead of producing dust and venom, we've lined our hives with honey and wax, and with those, we provide mankind with two of the noblest things of all: sweetness and light [i.e., wax candles]."

You wouldn't believe the uproar that arose from the books when Aesop was finished with this speech. Both parties latched onto his parallel, and this increased their hostility so quickly that they decided to go to war. Both armies immediately withdrew to different sides of the library to make their plans. The Moderns were in such a heated disagreement about who should be their leaders that only the impending fear of their enemies could have kept them from mutinies. Most of the dissent was among the horsemen. Every individual wanted to be chief in command, from Torquato Tasso [Italian poet] and John Milton to John Dryden and George Wither. The lightly armed horsemen were commanded by Abraham Cowley [British poet] and Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux [French poet and critic]. The archers were led by Rene Descartes [French philosopher and mathematician], Pierre Gassendi [French philosopher and mathematician], and Thomas Hobbes [political philosopher]. The archers were so strong that they could shoot their arrows out beyond the atmosphere, and rather than fall to earth, they would turn into meteors, like the arrow in the Aeneid. Paracelsus [Swiss chemist] brought a squadron of men from the snowy Rhaetian mountains [in Rome] to throw earthenware grenades. Then came a large number of mounted infantry led by William Harvey [British physician], their military commander. Some of them had deadly scythes, some had lances and long knives steeped in poison, and some had pistols that shot a toxic white powder that killed without making a sound [and these deadly weapons were under the command of a doctor??] There were several troops of heavily armed foot soldiers, all mercenaries, commanded by Francesco Guicciardini [Italian historian], Enrico Caterino Davila [Italian historian], Polydore Vergil [Italian/British historian], George Buchanan [Scottish poet and historian], Juan de Mariana [Spanish historian], William Camden [British historian], and others. The engineers were commanded by Regiomontanus [German astronomer] and John Wilkins [British astronomer]. The rest of the army was a confused multitude, led by John Duns Scotus, Thomas Aquinas, and Robert Bellarmine [Italian theologian]. The men in this troop were tall and sturdy, but they had had no weapons, or courage, or discipline. Last of all came numerous swarms of calones [pamphlets]. They were a disorderly mob of rogues and scoundrels who joined the cause only to plunder, and they were led by Roger L'Estrange [English pamphleteer].

The Ancients had a smaller army. Homer led the horsemen, and Pindar led the lightly armed horsemen. Euclid was the chief engineer. Plato and Aristotle led the archers, Herodotus and Livy [Greek historians] led the foot soldiers, Hippocrates led the mounted infantry, and the allies, led by Gerardus Vossius [Dutch classical scholar] and Sir William Temple followed in the rear.

Everything seemed to be leading violently to a battle. Fame, who once had her own room in the library and still made regular visits, went straight to Jupiter and told him what was going on between the two parties. She always tells the truth when she's with the gods. Jupiter was concerned and called a council of gods to meet in the Milky Way. When they were convened, he told them his concern. A bloody war was about to break out between two armies of ancient and modern creatures called "books," and it involved the gods. Momus [Greek god of satire and mockery] was the patron of the Moderns. He made a speech promoting their cause. Pallas [foster sister of Athena], the defender of the Ancients, gave a rebuttal. The council was divided, and Jupiter commanded the Book of Fate to be laid open before him. Mercury brought three large volumes in folio format containing accounts of all things past, present, and future. The clasps were silver, the cover of Turkish leather, and the pages were of a kind of celestial paper that might pass for vellum here on earth. Jupiter read the decree silently and closed the book without saying a word.

Arranged around this meeting were vast numbers of quick, nimble gods who served Jupiter in ministering his will on earth. They travel together in a caravan, and are linked together like galley-slaves with a light chain that is attached to Jupiter's big toe. When he gives them their commands, and when they deliver their messages to him, they must remain at the lowest step of his throne, and whisper to him through a large hollow tree trunk. These messenger deities are known on earth as "accidents" or "events," but the gods call them Second Causes. Jupiter delivered his orders to some of these messengers, and they immediately flew down to the roof of the library. There, they consulted together for a few minutes before entering the library unseen, and began attending to their various assignments.

Meanwhile, Momus feared the worst. He remembered a prophecy that boded ill to his children, the Moderns. So he headed towards the region of the malignant deity called Criticism. She lived at the top of a snow-covered mountain in Nova Zembla ["New Land"]. Momus found her laid out in her den, resting on top of the ruins of numberless volumes of books, half devoured. At her right sat Ignorance, her father and husband, old and blind. At her left, Pride, her mother, was clothing her with scraps of paper she had torn from the books. Her sister, Opinion, was there, nimble, deluded, and obstinate, but also fickle and constantly changing her mind. Criticism's children played around her: Noise, Rudeness, Daft, Vanity, Forceful, Dogma, and Disrespect. The goddess herself had claws like a cat, a head and voice like a donkey, missing teeth, and eyeballs turned inside out to look only at herself. She fed on the overflowing bitterness of her own bile. Her gallbladder was so large that it formed a lump, and she was nursing a litter of ugly monsterlings. The amazing thing was that her gallbladder was growing faster than the sucklings could diminish it. Momus approached her. "Goddess, how can you sit idly by while our devoted worshipers, the Moderns, are on the verge of entering into a cruel battle? Even now, they might be lying dead at the feet of their enemies. And then who will be left to build altars and sacrifice to our divinities? Quick! Hurry to the British Isles and try to prevent their destruction. I'll try to cause division among the gods and win some of them over to our side."

Once Momus had delivered his message, he left without waiting for a response. The goddess Criticism rose up, enraged, and did the customary thing that's done on these occasions: she delivered a soliloquy. "I'm the one who gives wisdom to infants and idiots. It's through me that children grow smarter than their parents. It's through me that dandies become politicians, and schoolboys become flippant judges of philosophy. Through me, high schoolers debate and make hasty conclusions about the profound depths of knowledge. By my instinct, coffeehouse wits correct an author's style and pick apart his minutest errors without ever understanding a word of his content. It is through me that youths squander their judgment, in the same way they squander their inheritance, before it's even in their hands. I'm the one who replaced wit and knowledge in their poetry. Should I allow a few upstart Ancients dare to oppose me? Come on, aged parents, and you, my dear offspring, and my beautiful sister. Let's depart in my chariot and hurry to assist our devoted Moderns, who are even now making a bountiful sacrifice to us, as a I gather from the grateful smell reaching my nostrils."

The goddess and her family piled into her chariot, which was drawn by tame geese, and flew over many regions, spreading her influence [a critical spirit] over every place as she passed. They arrived at Britain and hovered over its metropolis, casting blessing upon Gresham College [home of the modern scientific Royal Society] and Covent Garden [theaters, operas, coffee houses where journalists would congregate]. Finally, they reached St. James's Library just as the two armies were about to meet in battle. Criticism landed her invisible caravan on a case of bookshelves where the virtuoso books normally lived, but the shelf was now vacant. She parked there to observe both armies and assess the situation.

She cast her eyes on William Wotton leading his group of Modern archers, and felt a mother's tender concern because the fates had predicted a very short life thread for him. Wotton was a young hero. He was the child of an unknown father who had had an affair with Criticism, and she loved him more than any of her other children, so she determined to help and comfort him. She needed to change her shape so that her actual form wouldn't dazzle his mere mortal sight and overwhelm him. So she gathered herself up and shaped herself into an octavo [a 6" by 9" book made of large paper folded into eight pages]. The thick parts of her body became the cover, the thin parts became the pages. Her family skillfully strewed ink made from gall and soot into letters and words. Her head, voice, and gallbladder kept their original form. In this disguise, one couldn't tell her apart from Richard Bentley, who was Wotton's closest friend. She marched towards the head of the archers. "Brave Wotton," she said, "why are our troops standing here idly, wasting their eagerness, strength, and best opportunity? Let's head over to meet our generals and urge them to attack!" Then she took her ugliest monsterling child who had just fed from her gallbladder and invisibly stuffed it into Wotton's mouth. It went straight up to his head, squeezed out his eyeballs, which gave him a distorted look, and addled half his brain. She ordered two of her children -- Daft and Rudeness -- to protect him during the fighting. Then she vanished in a mist, and Wotton realized he had been visited by his mother.

Now the hour of destiny arrived. The war was on! Before I detail the battles, I'm going to follow the example of other authors and ask for a hundred mouths and pens to help me tell about this battle, but even that wouldn't be enough.

History goddess, tell me who advanced first to attack!

Paracelsus [Modern], at the head of his squadron, saw his enemy, Galen [Ancient], leading his mounted infantry, so he threw his javelin at him. It hit Galen's shield and the tip broke off, and wounded him. Hic pauca [here are a few] . . . desunt [lacking; these Latin phrases with ellipses indicate gaps in the ancient manuscript].

The wounded commander was carried away on his shield to his chariot . . . Desunt [lacking] . . . Nonnula [query]
. . .

Then Aristotle [Ancient] saw Francis Bacon [Modern] advancing with a terrible expression on his face, so he shot his arrow, but it missed and went flying over Bacon's head -- and hit Descartes instead. The steel point hit at a weak spot in his helmet and pierced through his leather cover, wounding him in the eye. The pain made him whirl around and around like a higher star, until he was drawn into his own vortex. Ingens hiatus [a huge chasm] . . . Hic in MS [this in manuscript] . . . Homer appeared at the head of his cavalry, mounted on a furious horse that even he could barely manage. He rode into the enemy's ranks, striking down everyone as he went.

Goddess, tell me who was slain first, and who was slain last!

Gondibert [Modern; a poem written in epic style with renaissance elements] advanced against Homer. Gondibert was clad in heavy armour and riding a gentle horse known, not for speed, but for kneeling tamely to let its rider mount or alight. Gondibert had made a vow to Pallas not to leave the field until he had destroyed Homer and taken his armour. He didn't realize what a mad scheme that would be! Homer, with his tremendous bulk and strength, overthrew Gondibert and his horse together to the ground, where they were trampled and choked in the dirt. Then Homer slew John Denham [English-Irish poet], a sturdy Modern whose father was descended from Apollo [perhaps alluding to his poem Cooper's Hill, which refers to Greek themes?]. Denham fell to the ground. Apollo took the divine part of him and made it a star, but the mortal part of him remained wallowing in the dirt. Then Homer's horse kicked Sam Wesley [English poet, father of John, Charles and Samuel Wesley] and killed him. He lifted Charles Perrault [French writer of fairy tales] out of his saddle and hurled him at Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle [French science writer], killing them both.

At the left side of the army, Virgil appeared in close-fitting armour riding a dapple-grey horse with a slow but strong pace. Virgil assessed the enemy to find a target worthy of his valour and spotted a soldier crashing out of a thicket on a huge chestnut horse. But this pair made more noise than speed, because the horse was old and bony, and bounced its rider so that his armour clashed loudly, making a fierce racket. The two cavaliers approached one another to parley. When the stranger lifted his visor, it turned out to be John Dryden [English poet; translator of Plutarch]. This shocked and disappointed Virgil, who had anticipated a worthier foe. Dryden's helmet was nine times too large for his head, like a mouse ridiculously dwarfed under a magnificent royal crown, and he had a weak, remote voice to match. Dryden tried to flatter the Ancient Virgil, calling him father and relating genealogies to show that they were relatives. He proposed that they exchange armour as a show of goodwill between them. The goddess Hesitation cast a mist before his eyes to confound him, and Virgil consented to the exchange, even though his own armour was pure gold, and Dryden's was rusty iron. But Virgil's valuable golden armour suited Dryden even worse than his own! Then they agreed to exchange horses, but it when it came to it, Dryden was afraid of Virgil's horse and unable to mount it. Alter hiatus [another opening] . . . in MS [in manuscript].

Lucan [Ancient Roman poet] appeared on a fine-looking, spirited horse, but the horse was obstinate and bore its rider wherever it wanted all over the enemy field, so Lucan made it an advantage by slaying Moderns wherever he went. Richard Blackmore [English epic poet], who was a Modern but fighting with the mercenaries, tried to stop him by throwing his javelin at him, but it missed and landed in the earth. Then Lucan threw a lance at Blackmore, but Aesculapius [ancient god of healing] invisibly stopped him. "Brave Modern" said Lucan to Blackmore, "I recognize that some god must be protecting you because my arm never deceived me before. Can a mortal like me fight against a god? Let's not fight anymore; instead, let's exchange gifts." So Lucan gave Blackmore a set of spurs, and Blackmore gave Lucan a bridle. . . Pauca desunt [especially lacking] . . .

Thomas Creech [English translator of classical texts] appeared on the battlefield, but the goddess Daft appeared to him coming out of the clouds in the form of Horace [Roman poet] armed and on a horse. Creech was eager to fight a flying foe, and pursued him with threats until the chase led him to the peaceful bower of John Ogilby [Scottish translator of Virgil and Homer], who disarmed him and told him to rest.

Then Pindar [ancient Greek poet] slew five people, including John Oldham [English satirical poet] and the nimble Aphra Behn [female writer and translator]. Pindar made twists and turns to confound the enemy, making a terrible slaughter among the Modern's lightly armed infantry. When Abraham Cowley [English poet] saw him, his generous heart was inflamed and he approached the Ancient head on, imitating his mannerisms and pace as well as he could. When they were close enough, Cowley threw a lance, but it missed Pindar and fell to the ground in the middle of the enemy. Then Pindar threw a javelin that was so heavy, a dozen Moderns in our degenerate days couldn't even lift it. But Pindar threw it easily and skillfully. It would have killed Cowley if he hadn't been using a shield given to him by Venus. Now both heroes drew their swords, but Cowley was so disoriented that he dropped his shield and tried to flee three times. Finally he begged Pindar, "Please spare my life! I'll give you my horse and armour; you can take me prisoner, and my friends will pay you a ransom when they hear that I'm alive!"

"You dog!" shouted Pindar. "Your friends can keep their ransom! I'm going to kill you and leave your worthless carcass for the birds and beasts." And he raised his sword and cut the wretched Modern in two. Half of Cowley lay on the ground, panting, and the other half, still mounted, was borne away by his frightened horse. Venus took that half of his body, washed it in ambrosia, and tapped it three times with a sprig of amaranth. Its leather cover began to change, becoming rounded and soft, its pages turned into feathers, and its gold gilding tipped the feathers until it became a dove, which Venus harnessed to pull her chariot. . . Hiatus valde de-- [open high de--] . . . Flendus in MS. [weep into manuscript]

Part 2: The Episode of Bentley and Wotton

The day was waning and the Moderns were just about ready to retreat, when one of their captains came forward from his squadron of heavily armed foot soldiers. It was Richard Bentley, the most deformed of all the Moderns. He was tall, but shapeless and unattractive, and he was large but not strong or well-proportioned. His armour was patched together from a thousand scraps of metal, and it made a noise when he marched as if the wind had blown off the metal roof of some church steeple. His helmet was made of old rusty iron with a brass visor, but his breath was so foul that the brass had corrupted into copperas [the ferrous sulfate they made ink from]. In fact, his breath was so full of gall that whenever he was heated from either work or rage, black ink would dribble out of his mouth. In his right hand he held a whip so that he would never be without an offensive weapon. In his left hand he carried a bottle of sewage.

Being completely armed in this way, he advanced slowly and clumsily to where the Moderns' leaders were consulting about what to do next. As he drew near, they laughed at his crooked leg and humped shoulder that were made even more ridiculous by his armour. The generals liked to keep him around because of his skill in mockery. As long as they kept him on a short leash, his talent was a tool they often used for their cause, but he was sometimes apt to do more mischief than good. He was easily slighted and would vent his hurt feelings on his own leaders like a wounded elephant. At this moment, Richard Bentley was upset that the enemy was winning and blamed everyone but himself for letting that happen. He humbly informed the generals of the Moderns -- with great submission -- that he considered all of them to be a pack of cheats, fools, confused blockheads, ignorant dogs, and ridiculous villains. If he had been in charge, those presumptuous Ancients would have been beaten long before this. "You just sit around doing nothing," he said, "but when I or any other Modern soldier kills an enemy, you're ready to take credit and seize the spoil. I refuse to march one more inch until you promise that if I kill anyone, I can keep his armour."

Joseph Justus Scaliger [French religious scholar] glared at him. "You depraved babbler," he said. "You're only eloquent in your own eyes. Your jokes have no wit, or truth, or maturity. Your evil disposition has corrupted your character. Your education has only made you more of a savage, your study of humanity has made you more inhumane, your time spent reading poetry has only made you more cowering, slimy, and dull. All the learning that makes others more civilized has only made you more insulting and stubborn. Spending time at court has taught you rude manners, and polite conversation has made you more dogmatic. In addition, your cowardice makes you a burden to our army. But don't despair -- I promise that whatever spoil you take will belong to you, though it would be better for that enemy carcass to be eaten by birds and worms."

Bentley didn't dare reply. He left, half choked with rage and bitterness, and fully resolved to perform some great heroic deed. He took his best friend, William Wotton, as his friend and support, and they set off to see what they might do to some outlying part of the Ancients' army. They marched over the bodies of their fallen comrades, and then to the right of their own army, and north until they came to the tomb of Ulisse Aldrovandi [Italian naturalist], and passed that on the west. They arrived near the enemy's outer guards with fear in their hearts, and they kept their eyes open for any wounded stragglers or soldiers sleeping off by themselves -- anyone who was unarmed and remote from the rest of the army. They were like two mongrels when their natural greed and hunger motivates them to hunt together by stealthily invading a sheep fold night after night with their tails between their legs and their tongues hanging out. As the moon shines on their guilty heads, they don't dare bark when they're startled by its reflection. One of them surveys the area all around while the other scouts the plains to see if there's a half-eaten carcass lying away from the sheep fold after the wolves or vultures have had their fill of the meat. This loving pair of friends were just like that -- fearful and watchful.

They spotted two suits of armour hanging from a tree branch while their owners slept nearby. The two friends drew straws to see which of them should pursue this adventure, and the lot fell to Bentley. His accomplices were Confusion, Surprise, Horror, and Panic. When he drew near, he saw that the two sleeping heroes were Aesop and Phalaris. He would have loved to kill them both. He crept closer and aimed his whip at Phalaris's chest, but when both sleepers rustled and turned over, Panic intervened. She caught Bentley in her ice-cold arms, and dragged him away from the danger. Phalaris had dreamed that some bad poet had ridiculed him severely, but he had cooked him in his large metal bull. And Aesop was dreaming that a wild donkey had gotten loose and was kicking and trampling in the faces of the Ancients as they lay sleeping on the ground. Bentley left them there on the ground and stole their armour.

William Wotton, meanwhile, had been wandering around in search of some adventure. He came to a creek whose water originated from a nearby fountain that mortal men called Helicon. He was thirsty, so he stopped to take a drink. Three times he tried to lift some water to his lips with unholy hands, and the water kept slipping through his fingers. So he lay down to lap up the water, but before his lips had even touched the water, Apollo came. He stood in the creek, holding his shield down to form a dam, blocking the flow of water, so that Bentley could only collect mud from the bottom. The holy water of the clear Helicon flows over slime and sediment when it runs along the ground on earth so that those who try to drink it with unhallowed lips will only get mud as punishment.

At the head of the fountain, William Wotton could see two heroic figures. He couldn't tell who one of them was, but the other he recognized as Sir William Temple, the general of the Ancients' army. His back was turned and he was drawing out water straight from the fountain with his helmet to drink as he rested from his hard day of battle. Wotton watched him with shaking knees and trembling hands, and thought to himself, "If I could just kill this one man, the leader of the enemy army, the chiefs would respect me! But what Modern dares to meet him face to face, man against man, shield against shield, lance against lance? For he fights like one of the gods, and Pallas and Apollo are always close by to help him. But, Mother, if Fame has been telling the truth, that I am truly the son of a goddess, then help me to strike Sir William Temple with my lance and allow me to kill him so that I can return safely and in triumph, carrying his spoils." His mother and Momus persuaded the gods to grant his first request, but the second part was scattered into the air by a wind that Fate sent as a prank.

William Wotton grasped his lance. He brandished it three times over his head, and then hurled it with all his might. His mother, the goddess Criticism, added strength to his arm. The lance went speeding towards its mark with a hiss. It lightly grazed the belt of Sir William Temple, and then fell to the ground. Temple didn't feel the lance touch him, nor did he hear it hit the ground. Wotton might have fled and escaped to his army with the great honour of having hurled his lance at a great foe and living to tell the tale, except that Apollo saw what had happened. He was infuriated that a javelin flung with the assistance of a foul goddess like Criticism should have polluted his fountain, so he took on a disguise and approached Charles Boyle -- the second hero with Temple whom Wotton hadn't recognized. Apollo pointed to the lance, and then he pointed to the Modern in the distance who had thrown it, and commanded Boyle to take revenge immediately. Boyle was clad in armour that the gods had given him. He advanced towards Wotton, who trembled and fled for his life, and the chase began.

It was like a young lion in the Arabian desert whose aged father sends him out to hunt for prey. So the young lion scours along, hoping to meet a ferocious tiger, or a furious wild boar, or an enraged bear. If he happens to hear a wild donkey braying, he may not think it worthy enough to sully his claws with such vile blood. But if the foolish nymph Echo repeats the braying much louder, he is finally so annoyed that he decides to get rid of the donkey as a favor to the forest.

In the same way, William Wotton fled and Charles Boyle chased him. But Wotton was slow and had the weight of his heavy armour, and had begun to slacken his pace, when his good friend Richard Bentley met him with his prize of two suits of armour stolen from the sleeping Ancients. Boyle spotted him and recognized that one of the helmets and shields belonged to his friend Phalaris. He had just been polishing that very armour with his own hands. Rage glinted in his eyes. He forgot about Wotton and went after Bentley instead. He would have preferred to kill both of them, but they fled in two different directions.

It was like a woman in a little hovel who barely makes a living by spinning -- if her geese escape and scatter all over the countryside, she's forced to range the fields from one side to another, catching stragglers as she can to get her flock back together while they cackle and flutter all over the place, trying to elude her.

In a similar way, Charles Boyle pursued the two Moderns who had separated. But Wotton and Bentley finally realized it was useless to run, so they joined together and tried to form a phalanx of the two of them. Bentley threw a spear as hard as he could at Boyle, but the goddess Pallas came invisibly and replaced the tip with a lead weight while the spear was still in the air. So it crashed with a thud against Boyle's shield, and dropped to the ground. Then Boyle picked up his long lance, took aim for the two friends who were clustered together side by side, and hurled it with all his might.

Bentley saw his fate approaching. He crossed his arms over his chest, hoping to shield his body, but the lance passed through his arm and side, and still kept on going until it had also pierced the valiant Wotton, who hoped to help his friend, but only ended up sharing his fate.

Just like a cook who dresses a pair of chickens by piercing them both with an iron skewer, these two friends were pinned together. They fell together. As they were joined in their lives, they were also joined in their deaths. In fact, they were joined so closely that when Charon came to ferry them over the river Styx on their way to Hades, he thought they were one person, so they only had to pay half the fare. Farewell, loyal and loving pair. You shall be happy and immortal if my wit and eloquence can make it so.

And now . . . Desunt caetera [the rest is missing].


AmblesideOnline's free Charlotte Mason homeschool curriculum prepares children for a life of rich relationships with God, humanity, and the natural world.
Share AO with your group or homeschool fair! Download our printable brochure