Programming / Tales
This tale comes from Plutarch, when he tells in the Life of Lycurgus how the children of Sparta were raised.
So if you like pretty, cute tales that bring up a tear of tenderness, don’t read this one.
Sparta is not the city of tenderness.
From Plutarch to us, the tale has grown – of course.
Here is a version that could be put on a stage.
We are in Sparta. Lacedaemon. The city simple. The city which set up in absolute values the courage, the control, the asceticism. The city where children were taught to endure mockery and jokes – a Spartan learns to laugh at himself, and this is surely one of the most difficult things to learn, and to achieve.
In Sparta, my grandfather used to say, we would go for a day’s work in the olive groves with an onion and a few olives – and that was enough to feed you. He used to say that when he tried to make us sail for a day with an onion, bread and olives. In the end, he would add an army cookie – you know those square cakes that make your teeth fall out when you bite into them – and water – we were not Spartans.
In Sparta, your body is your treasure. You must sharpen it as others sharpen their weapons. It must become harder than brass. Faster than the beast. More enduring. You fear neither heat nor cold.
And you are solely responsible for it.
You don’t inherit a Spartan body. You create it yourself.
It is from childhood that you will learn this.
The skirts of the mothers of Sparta are not famous for their softness. Their arms were not supposed to know how to console – it was their eyes that forced you to stop complaining. How? you cry? aren’t you a child of Sparta? – and the mortified child held back his tears.
Gorgô, queen of Sparta, wife of Leonidas, replied one day to a young woman who marvelled at the fact that Spartan women are the only women in the world to govern their men: We are the only women to give birth to men.
The children of Sparta, boys and girls alike, were brought up to deserve their life, to wrest it second by second from hunger, pain, fear and death.
Are you in Sparta?
Then now you can hear the story of the child and the fox.
This child promised to become a great warrior of Sparta.
He was enduring to the pain and the only tears that we saw running down his cheeks were those of his forehead which was struggling in the sun.
He was as beautiful as a summer landscape, when the heat crushes the white rocks, lizards and scorpions hidden under the stones.
He was the pride of his mother, when he fought every day without bending his knee.
He was the pride of his father, when he fought, every day, against people much bigger than him.
One day, on his way back from the olive fields, he came across a very young fox.
The animal was beautiful and had courage in his eyes.
They were two children, facing each other.
But the fox could no longer run – its hind leg was broken.
So he faced him, with all the courage of a little fox.
He would fight, yes, before he died.
The Spartan loved the fox’s courage.
He reached out his hand.
The fox bit it – to : blood.
The child did not move his hand.
No anger arose in him.
He did not take his eyes off the fox.
He was neither afraid – nor angry.
The fox loosened his grip.
The child left his hand in the animal’s mouth.
There was, like a smile in the fox’s eyes.
Like a laugh in the child’s eyes.
Aren’t you afraid? I am not either.
You are not in pain? No, I’m not in pain either.
Would you be like me?
These two young beings, born to wrest every second of their lives from death, did not love each other – but they understood each other.
The fox wrinkled his eyelids – he had given his trust.
The child wrinkled his eyelids – he showed his trust in return.
There were at that time in the countryside of Greece all the wild animals that we hunted later – because we love nature – but in fact not at all.
There were those wolves that would kill a good-sized dog with a bite in the throat – those bears that roamed around looking for easy prey. Those wild cats that kill you with one paw – those lynxes that slit your throat.
What could the wounded young fox do against these predators?
Fight and be eaten.
The child of Sparta knew this.
But the laws of Sparta were inflexible – no useless mouth. No misplaced affection.
No tenderness for your enemies.
So the child got up, and set out for the city.
The blood had dried from his bloody hand.
But in his head, he had the kind of smile of a young fox, who would fight and die and who would no longer be on his road the next day.
He was heading towards the city, his bare feet rolling the stones of the path.
Behind him, he heard the cries of crows.
He understood that the first to kill the young fox would be those black birds.
Their cries were atrocious – high-pitched, cruel, stupid.
The child turned back.
He ran back to the fox
Black feathers were falling on the place where they had met, there in the thicket of thorns under the olive tree.
He killed some birds with stones – a few ravens, driven mad by hunger, fought him for the prey, and the child’s naked body was covered with sores – but he was not afraid and he was stronger. Crows are strong but recognize those stronger than they are. They flew away.
On the ground, covered with blood and feathers, fur torn, eyes shining with anger – the fox was still alive.
The child knelt down.
Above him, the pack of ravens turned in black circles.
The fox trembled with pain and rage. The child moved his hand forward. The fox bit it violently and blood ran down into his mouth.
The child left his hand again, without moving it – without fear, without anger.
Once again, the fox loosened his embrace – he squinted his eyes.
The child then took him in his arms and stood up.
He led him to the stream – oh, it wasn’t a huge stream, it was a trickle of water sliding down sharp pebbles.
The child bent down – the fox still in his arms, and washed the wounds, the fur soiled with dirt and feathers.
The animal let him do so and drank eagerly from the small spring. How long had he been injured on the road?
What was the child thinking about when he went back down to Sparta, the wounded fox hidden in his arms?
Probably to put him in a straw shelter – he would bring him water, some pieces of poultry – and as soon as the animal was healed, he would go back on the road.
No doubt the child dreamed of finding him, on the paths around Sparta and between the two of them they would be the best hunters – the animal’s nose, the child’s spear.
He would not really betray the law of Sparta – the animal would not be a useless mouth.
But when he arrived a few steps away from the city, the child saw in the distance the dust of men returning from battle.
So he quickly donned his tunic, the fox hidden beneath it, and advanced toward the center of the city – to welcome the returning warriors.
He stood with the other children, upright, motionless, ready to welcome these men who not only went off to fight without fear, but above all knew how to come back even straighter, even more impassive, than they had left, despite the open wounds, despite the torn limbs.
The child waited – without moving – that was the rule.
The scrapes caused by the crows bled – but that was so ridiculous compared to the wounds of the warriors.
The fox licked a wound in his lower abdomen. The child felt the raspy tongue pressing on his wound. The claws of the front paws were shaking. The pain surely became stronger, as if he was being devoured by the liver.
But he did not move.
The warriors arrived, the slow step of those who are not afraid.
The blood spurted from under the tunic. The child did not let go of the fox, who was going mad with hunger and was now devouring him.
When the child fell, he was dead.
The story ends there.
It has no moral.
Morality isn’t always useful, is it? After all, wildlife knows neither good nor evil.
The story was told on the walls of Sparta, was transmitted to Plutarch who told us in turn.
We come out of it with our heads full of questions. But why? Why didn’t he throw the fox away?
Why didn’t he kill the animal that was killing him?
It has been said that he had been afraid of the laws of Sparta – to the point of preferring to die.
It has been said that he understood the laws of Sparta so well that he agreed to die for them: you knew you should not misplaced your pity. You knew that you alone were responsible for your actions.
Perhaps he also assumed his act of generosity to the end: he had chosen to save the animal – if his life was to be the price, it would be the price.
We will not know the reasons – we will not know why this child lived this martyrdom. We will only know how to ask ourselves questions – and that is what is essential.
I warned you: the stories of Sparta are not cute. They have the hardness of stones and the beauty of the wild world.
So if you are ever disgusted to have read this, you know what the child of Sparta would tell you? Too bad for you. But it’s still a really beautiful story.
Featured Image : from Spartan Race of Sparta – 2017