I’ll give you a minute on this one. It took me several minutes to stop laughing when I first read it.…
This was in an essay on (you have probably guessed) Henry V. My student is referring to the scene on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, a moment when, according to another student, the king visited his troops, going “from tent to tent calling them brothers and fiends.” Now, “fiends” is a problematic word, all right. I was in a staged reading in December, a radio script about an attempt by Satan to do away with Christmas: the actor playing the devil kept reading the word “fiends,” which was in the script, as “friends,” which most decidedly was NOT in the script and which added a note of pathos to the author’s intention of gleeful malevolence. My student did the opposite transposition, thereby vilifying the English in the eyes of their own king. But just as my actor friend’s (not fiend’s) word choice was an accident of the eye, I know my student’s was an accident of the fingers on the keyboard; no need to discuss motivations and intentions, or even suggest a subconscious assessment of subtext.
But THIS sentence is something else. Of course I knew what she meant, as anyone who knows about the battle or Shakespeare’s play does: the English forces at Agincourt were woefully outnumbered, and the odious boastful condescending overconfidence of the French noblemen/officers in their scene is completely understandable, if odious nevertheless. Henry’s visit to his soldiers’ tents was absolutely necessary if he wanted them to find the heart to go into combat, since everything about the situation spelled certain defeat. The English army have been fighting, and besieging, and slogging over the muddy autumnal French countryside for some time; they are undernourished, footsore, heart-weary, and, in their own minds, doomed. Henry can’t give them rest or food, but he does give them heart—armed with which, plus the longbow, they stun the French and delight themselves and their king with a decisive victory the next day.
For Shakespeare, and for the English ever since, and for me whenever I sing the Agincourt Carol or teach the play, the event is a source of pride and joy.
But my student’s sentence turns all of that into helpless laughter. If only she had said “The English army,” then “1/5 the size of the French” could have gotten by, since then it would be describing a collective entity that could be compared with another collective entity, the French (“army” implied). Her phrasing doesn’t permit that, though: we’re talking Englishmen, and so “the French” has to mean Frenchmen, and we’re therefore comparing stature of individuals.
Now, if literature and population descriptors can be trusted, the Welsh do tend to be short (Dylan Thomas described himself as “five foot, six and a half—tall for a Welshman”); but surely the men fighting with Henry (Irish, Scots, English, Welsh) could not possibly be 1/5 the size of the French: either the French were about 5′ 10″ and the English were 14″ tall, or the English were about 5′ 10″ and the French were 29′ tall. If you haven’t already been picturing a battle between two such forces, do take another minute and do it now. Only Jonathan Swift could have made it work.
Obviously my student did NOT take that minute. Part of me takes the red pen and suggests better wording for her; another part, though, is still laughing at the picture of those TEENSY WEENSY English clambering over mud mountains, shooting their teensy weensy arrows. Perhaps like Achilles, the French were vulnerable in the heel, the only part of their body those arrows could reach…
TODAY’S SPECIAL SURPRISE: As I have inched my way into this world of blogs, I have met some wonderful writers and fascinating people. One of them writes a blog as “Year-struck.” In the course of leaving comments back and forth with each other, she invited me to write on her blog as a guest. Since many of her own posts share moments of her childhood—very good reading, you should take a look—I indulged in some reminiscence of my own. I invite you to go over to “Year-struck,” either by connecting through the listing on my blogroll (look to your right) or by following this link, and read my post (and some of hers too!).