A little while back, somebody quoted a line from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to me. I was thinking what a marvelously prissy name “J. Alfred Prufrock” is, and then it struck me — how the heck did a name like “Alfred” slide to a place where it evokes images of skinny gentlemen (“But how his arms and legs are thin!”) with weak chins and pince nez?
To a guy like me, who spends a lot of weekends as a hobby reenactor, dressing up as a Viking and whacking (and being whacked) with blunt swords, the name Alfred has very different associations. Alfred (c. 849-899) is the only Anglo-Saxon king to whom we apply the descriptive “the Great.” A mighty and shrewd warrior, he prevented the subjugation of his country by the Danes (known to us reenactors as “our guys”), forcing them to accept Christian baptism and the partition of the country after whomping them at the Battle of Edington.
This was not a man who measured out his life in coffee spoons.
It’s odd, when you think about it, that names considered effeminate today are almost uniformly ones originally made famous by big, pugnacious men who as often as not had human blood caked under their fingernails.
Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) was a much tougher character than his portrayal in Braveheart would suggest. He changed sides more than once in the wars of Scottish independence, but always with the consistent purpose of furthering his own claim to the throne by any means necessary. Educated as a knight, he became a master guerrilla fighter, achieving the humiliation of England’s Edward II, and everlasting fame, at the Battle of Bannockburn.
His name is a Norman one, passed down from a fighting, mail-clad ancestor who sailed over the Channel in a longship with William the Conqueror.
But you have to purse your lips to say the name, so it’s considered sissy today.
Or (while we’re on the subject of pursing) take “Percy.”
The Percys also came over with the Conqueror, and they weren’t typists or dishwashers in the army. From the 14th century they were earls (later dukes) of Northumberland, and they kept the servants busy washing blood out of their surcoats as a result of their involvements in the Welsh wars and the Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare’s Harry Hotspur in Henry IV, Part 1, was a Percy.
But the name includes the syllable, “purse,” and we all know what that means. (This is a sore spot with us Vikings, by the way. Our tunics have no pockets, so we wear purses [we prefer to call them pouches, thank you] on our belts, just as everybody did up to the late 18th century, when somebody had the bright idea of sewing his purse [all a pocket really is, after all, is a built-in purse] inside his pants.)
But this doesn’t help the Percys of this world. Their name says “purse,” so they’re branded as sissies. And since our degenerate laws discourage lopping the heads off people who insult you, there’s little they can do about it.
It’s the price of fame, I suppose. When you’re famous, people name their kids after you, and those kids don’t always live up to the appellations they’ve squatted on. Then the names go out of style, and the young folks associate them with funny-looking old people, and suddenly a name that once frightened strong men is a joke, or a Modernist poem.
And when the name requires you to make a kissing motion with your lips, or to think of ladies’ handbags, hope is pretty much lost.
I think there’s another reason as well, though.
Ever since around the end of World War I, our culture has been leery of heroes. We crave them and we need them, but once we’ve got them we obsessively dissect them, like biology students with frogs, or the English with William Wallace, and the heroes don’t come out much better than the frogs or Wallace once the operation is done. (Come to think of it, “Wallace” is a pretty respect-free name today too.)
C. S. Lewis, in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” quotes an unnamed English politician who said, “A democracy does not want great men.” It wasn’t always that way. The original dream of the American founders — and of all classical liberals — was the vision of a world where every man would be a philosopher and an artist and a warrior. But people are lazy. We’ve discovered — to our immense relief — that equality is much easier to achieve through just cutting the big men off at the knees.
From Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to “Spamalot,” we’ve taken a lot of pleasure in reducing our heroes to the level of their faults. “We’re just exposing hypocrisy,” we say. “If these so-called ‘heroes’ were really all they’d been advertised to be, we wouldn’t be able to find flaws in them.”
Strangely enough, though, we rarely subject ourselves to that kind of scrutiny. The wonderful thing about having no ideals is that you can never fall short.
Legend says that Alfred came in for a little of this kind of treatment in his own lifetime. He’s supposed to have hidden in a peasant cottage while on the run from the Danes, and the peasant’s wife is supposed to have scolded him after he agreed to watch some cakes baking, and absentmindedly let them burn. With the magnanimity that goes with greatness, he did not murder the old lady. He had Danes to fight.
And fight them he did. He successfully resisted having his kingdom overrun by a foreign people, thereby preserving English culture, religion and language.
Come to think of it, I’m not surprised he gets no respect today.