We live in times of peril. Brexit. Terrorism. Civil war in Syria. White supremacists now in charge in Washington, where global warming denial is set to become a national policy.
What hints can folklore offer for meeting such a time?
We tend to think that resistance to injustice must always be heroic. Certainly, heroic activism has protected what rights we still enjoy and has prevented swathes of Earth from unhealable damage. But what are the trans-heroic possibilities for fomenting change? What do the old stories say to those of us desiring to help but not called to direct intervention?
Let me tell you a story….
One day the heroic Finn MacCumhaill, chief of the Fianna, came home worried to death. He had been boasting about overcoming Benandonner, a legendary giant who had challenged Finn to a fight.
Finn disregarded the gossip about his opponent’s prowess (“He flattened a thunderbolt and put it in his pocket!” “His jumping causes earthquakes!” etc.) until he saw what seemed to be a large hill on the other side of the causeway. The hill was Benandonner, waiting for him.
Fighting giants was one thing, but fighting a hill-sized giant quite another, even for the head of the finest warriors of Ireland.
When he came home, his wife Oonagh perceived his distress and asked him about it. Ashamed, he finally told her his troubles.
“He is coming,” Finn stated. “He will be here by tomorrow. If I run away I’ll disgrace myself. If I fight him….”
“Leave him to me.”
Oonagh opened the door after Benandonner’s spear butt nearly beat it in. “I’m looking for Finn MacCumhaill,” rumbled the giant.
“He’s away hunting, but would you like to come in and wait for him?”
First, though, she asked, would he mind picking up the entire house and turning it out of the wind? Finn always did that when it got cold.
After an uncomfortable pause the giant put his arms around the house (barely) and, with a great heave, managed to turn it out of the wind. He stood up panting.
“I appreciate it. Now would you mind doing me another favor? You might have seen that pebble lyin’ at the bottom of the hill over there. We’ve had dry weather and little water, but Finn says the rock covers a fine spring. He was going to break open a space for the spring but he’s not here. Would you be able to do it?”
She took him down the hill and showed him. To his dismay he beheld a huge slab of solid stone. With a mighty effort he opened a gash (now called Lumford’s Glen) but cracked his right middle finger doing it.
“Thank you ever so much. Won’t you come in now?”
The sweating giant entered the hall and looked around.
“Go ahead and put down your spear over there next to Finn’s.” She pointed to a tall fir tree topped by a boulder. He shuddered.
“What is this?” asked Benandonner, pointing at a block of oak as large as four chariot wheels.
“Finn’s shield. —Have a seat at the table here and I’ll bring you some of the griddle cakes I make for him.”
The giant rested from his labors and aches and scratches while the sizzle of cooking bread and fat wafted from the kitchen. Soon Oonagh appeared with a plate of cakes and set it on the table.
Benandonner eagerly bit into one and howled in pain.
“I’m so sorry,” she replied courteously. “Finn likes his bread rather chewy.” The cake concealed an iron griddle cooked inside it. He found the bacon no easier, perhaps because it was nailed to a block of timber.
“I see my baby is awake. I had better feed him.”
She gave the “baby” a cake with no griddle baked into it. To the giant’s surprise, the large mouth beneath the charming blue bonnet ate the entire cake at one go. A thumb replaced the cake.
Suddenly Benandonner seemed eager to leave. Oonagh showed him out. The sooner I’m back home the better, the giant thought. He thanked her for her hospitality.
As a salve to his pride, Finn stripped off bonnet and sheet, dashed outside, and threw a handful of earth at Benandonner’s retreating back. It missed, but when it landed it created the Isle of Man. The hole left by Finn’s scooping hand became Lough Neagh.
Many lessons could be drawn from this Irish tale. To focus on one: the story presents possibilities for what we might call passivism as both alternative and supplement to activism (including pacifism). The strongest, bravest hero does not always win. But the cleverly passive-aggressive often do.
Throughout history, governments have fallen and armies been beaten by accumulating acts of quiet passivism: peasant farmers keeping more of their own crops than their oppressors counted on; soldiers abandoning their posts and going home to be with their families; citizens refusing to spend money at financially crucial times; false rumors of oncoming massive revolts…. The history books are full of Carlyle’s famous men, but in truth the course of events has often been changed (as when the presence of wolves changes a river’s) by foot-dragging, dissimulation, desertion, pilfering, false compliance, feigned ignorance, slander, humor, seduction, delayed payments, and plain screwing off.
For the most part, this passivist resistance has played out unorganized. But what if it were planned with a cunning like that of Oonagh? How long could the morale endure of a potentate given to making bigoted statements if his driver, his tailor, some of his bodyguards, his hair stylist, and various pedestrians, reporters on TV, and servers and cooks in restaurants all treated him with avuncular, low-key disapproval? How long would a crooked bank stand if even half its customers withdrew $30 all at once and announced it online? What if, instead of taking the risk of going on strike, the employees of a corrupt company all showed up one day an hour late? What if they all decided to do less work while pretending to do more?
These moves by themselves won’t bring down a political or financial giant; but they aren’t intended to. They work more like mosquito bites, swarming character attacks, or paper cuts. They get attention, they open opportunities for even larger moves, they rally the non-heroic, and they remind us all that ordinary people, not leaders or institutions, hold the real power.
Craig Chalquist is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of Immanence Journal.