“Flying birds, excellent birds…”

When you keep an eye on the media for references to Charlemagne, the results are sometimes peculiar—for example, this recent leadership profile in, of all places, Investor’s Business Daily—but even I didn’t expect to find Charlemagne in a preview of a video game based on the Lego version of Indiana Jones.

But there he is, mentioned by a writer who lists the scenes he hopes will be included in an Indiana Jones Lego video game:

A favourite funny moment from The Last Crusade… Indiana and his father, Professor Henry Jones, are in a car being chased by a couple of German aeroplanes and end up crashing on a beach. One plane turns through the air and bears down on the hapless pair. Professor Jones suddenly opens up his umbrella, flaps it around and starts clucking like a chicken while advancing on birds on the sand.

Indy looks at him as if he’s saying, ‘WTF?’, but the birds are scared into flight and the plane collides with the flock and crashes and burns. “I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne”, says Professor Jones. “Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky…” What a guy.

The line attributed to Charlemagne by Sean Connery’s character has proven to be remarkably durable. It’s a favorite epigram on quotation sites, .sig files, and MySpace pages, and Wikipedia cites it as an example of Charlemagne’s “cultural significance.”

I’ve never seen any evidence that Charlemagne actually said it.

Granted, I haven’t read every word written about Charlemagne, nor have I read every romance, chanson, or miscellaneous fragment of the Matter of France. However, I have read everything that an inquisitive screenwriter with a Charlemagne fixation might have encountered, such as sources translated into English. But the line cited by Dr. Henry Jones, Sr., isn’t in Einhard or Notker; it isn’t in any of the commonly republished capitularies, annals, or letters; it’s not in The Song of Roland or in popular translations of the Italian Charlemagne stories; and it’s not in the main American source for modern, fictionalized Charlemagniana: Bulfinch’s Legends of Charlemagne.

Furthermore, the line doesn’t even appear in major literary and historical sources that would have been unfamiliar to most non-scholars when the movie was made in 1989. “The Battle of the Birds,” a political allegory by Theodulf of Orleans, sounds like the first place to look, doesn’t it? But Theodulf wrote his poem three years after Charlemagne’s death, and while he does liken flocks of birds to warring armies, he doesn’t much dwell on the rocks and the trees. The Visio Wettini, in which Walahfrid Strabo recounts the deathbed visions of his mentor, also seems like a likely source for philosophical musings, but even though Walahfrid does include a vision of Charlemagne in Hell, the emperor is too busy having his genitals eaten by an animal to utter anything as lovely as the line from the film.

More pedantically, the line quoted by the elder Dr. Jones is a dubious thing for the real Charlemagne to have said. According to Bernard Bachrach, the Carolingian army drew on a pool of approximately 2 million men between the ages of 15 and 55. They had inherited late Roman military tactics, the troops were well trained, and morale was high. Despite the wise observations his scholars sometimes attributed to him, Charlemagne had no pressing reason, beyond accounting for the role of topography and weather in military planning, to speculate about nature either as an aid to military power or as a peaceful, metaphysical alternative to it.

But those aren’t the only plausible readings of the pseudo-Carolingian quote. It might be the cry of a Luddite, the sigh of a nature lover, or the reassuring mantra of a pacifist. It might also be the credo of a Christian warlord who wants God’s creation to be his ally—or who fervently believes that it already is.

In the movie, the bemused reaction of Indiana Jones to the bird episode suggests that we’re meant to see his father’s literal enactment of the line as surprising, even ironic, as if its original context were more solemn or noble. Adding to the allure of the quote is its meter: it’s a pentameter line, but the final four feet are anapests; that many anapests signal formal poetic intentions to the ear of an English speaker. Finally, by attributing the quote to a medieval figure whose name is synonymous with legend—or whose French name is at least a euphonious enigma—the screenwriter cleverly evokes a mystical past while hinting at credible history behind lots of implausible fantasy. By seeming to allude to religion, nature, legend, and poetry, this little line plays right into modern assumptions about things medieval. It seems authentic, even if it’s not.

For centuries, medieval storytellers used Charlemagne to evoke a mythic past, and while it’s fittingly medieval of their modern counterparts to do the same by citing sources that never existed—just like Sir Thomas Malory claiming that “the Freynsh booke makyth mencion” of something that the French book maketh no such mention of at all—I find it charming that the Indiana Jones screenwriter wound up inventing the only Charlemagne “quote” that most people are likely to remember.

A few years ago, someone on the Mediev-L listserv asked about this elusive quote. The list archive is offline, but I do remember that the question stumped the scholars who responded. Dr. Jones’s pseudo-scholarly quip may have a genuine source; if so, I’d be pleased if a sharp-eyed scholar could come along to render this blog post obsolete.

In the meantime, I can easily see why a plausible but spurious reference to Charlemagne by an elderly, fictional medievalist has intrigued and enamored so many. Before 1989, this lyrical line didn’t mean anything to anyone, so today you can say it—let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky—and evoke a universe of medieval mystery, while really saying nothing at all.

[January 12, 2008: I’ve posted an update of sorts here.]

28 thoughts on ““Flying birds, excellent birds…”

  1. Here’s a question: would most people who saw the movie even know (really) who Charlemagne was? Or is the very name itself supposed to evoke age and dignity, while remaining nebulous?


  2. Mostly the latter, I think. That’s why the movie can get away with hinting that Charlemagne was a poet or philosopher–even as people who do know who he was can assume that the unfamiliar quote is somehow connected to his literary patronage. If intentional, it was clever; if accidental, it was darn lucky.


  3. Jeff,

    It’s been a long time since I watched that movie, and I did not have my current fascination with Charlemagne at the time. If I recall correctly, Sean Connery’s character had been carrying around an umbrella for scenes on end and just as I muttered something about that annoying prop – its purpose was finally revealed.

    To me, that umbrella was Chekhov’s gun in the story and if they hadn’t fired it, then the filmmaker would have been guilty of a dramatic sin for bringing it on stage in the first place.

    The made up quote was simply an attempt to introduce some kind of characterization showing an academic gleaning some usefulness from his years of studying books that might come in handy while in an action/adventure sequence with his swashbuckling, archaeologist son.

    The nasty side effect of that line of dialog is that it started a cultural belief that Charlemagne actually said such a thing.

    It is not unlike Urban Legends which I deplore. This comes from my own realization after reading the book, “The Mexican Pet” that I had not only fallen for several of the stories mentioned, but that I had helped perpetuate them. Why? Because they were funny.

    Once I realized that I had repeated stories to people that I later discovered were false, I felt embarrassed because I saw it as a knock on my own credibility as a person and my own ability to discern truth from falsehoods.

    I hate being gullible. To me it’s a character flaw.

    I’d like to thank you for your analysis of this Hollywood-created addition to Charlemagne legends. I appreciate it, because that means that I will not have to do any searching myself on the matter *and* I will remember that it is simply a line written to fulfill the needs of a screenplay and not a literal quote to be trusted.


    Viva Snopes.com!


  4. Linda, I’d also bet the script had the senior Dr. Jones carrying around that umbrella because someone really wanted to include a cool scene in which Nazi fighter planes were brought down by a flock of birds, and the quote from pseudo-Charlemagne was concocted to further that. I wish I could write to the screenwriter and pose the question; unfortunately, he died in 2000, and the movie’s other main writer, George Lucas, is nearly as unlikely to return my phone calls.
    I really don’t consider the invention of the Charlemagne quote to be “nasty” at all, since in this case it was done in the spirit of fun. Folding Charlemagne anew into myth and legend has a 1,200-year history, and I consider it a charming bonus to find a spurious quote by him in a movie that also includes a centuries-old Arthurian grail knight who speaks perfect modern English!


  5. Cranky Professor and I saw the film together when it first came out, and had the same conversation. We’re both Carolingianists, and it was totally news to us. The only place I can think of might be a vita that deals with the Saxon conversion (perhaps before the killing of the 4000)?


  6. Hi, ADM! I’d been hoping that either you or he would drop by to weigh in on this question.

    If the line were to turn up in a vita so obscure that academic specialists don’t recognize it, I’d wonder how a Hollywood screenwriter discovered it in the days before JSTOR, the online MGH, and Google Books. That’s why I’m leaning toward the “someone just made it up” explanation.

    Speaking of Google Books, a quick search shows that this quote by pseudo-Charlemagne appeared in a sample humanities test in the Peterson’s 2005 CLEP study guide. Excluding Shakespearean characters, I can’t think of another made-up quote by an actual medieval person that’s had this much staying power.


  7. Jeff,

    Please tell me that it was one of the foils and not the answer in that question on the CLEP study guide.

    Otherwise it truly is a case of legends coloring our history.

    It makes it hard to separate truth from fiction when people parrot things they’ve heard before without following the footnotes to find the original source.

    And that is what I find so “nasty” about the unintended consequences of screenwriters creating a quote to go into a characters mouth who attributes it to an historical figure when it could instead have been handled differently. I fully understand that their purpose is simply to create an entertaining movie by whatever means possible.

    Historical accuracy is of little or no importance whatsoever to them. Depending on the genre of the movie they may employ historical consultants, but if the suggestions detract from the director’s overall vision – they will be disregarded.

    However, this quote should be a good teaching moment for those in your class. Bring up this example and mention how it appears to have no historical basis in fact. Then use it in one of your tests and see how many of your students paid attention (or came to class that day.) Those who are simply going by popular culture are likely to get the question WRONG.

    Let us know if you decide to do something so devious to your students and how many people fell for the foil and not the real answer.

    (Big Evil Grin.)



  8. Hi Jeff,

    Interesting discussion. I’m a total non-expert on Charlemagne, of course, but I am a movie buff, and I can tell you that that scene from the movie is the only one I remember.


  9. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was written by George Lucas, Menno Mevjes, and Jeffrey Boam: Three of Hollywood’s most prolific writers. The use of the quote only serves as a plot device. There is a big “What if” though. It would not be at all apparent to millions of people watching the movie but only to a very few who actually study the truth behind Grail Lore. Lucas may have been reaching at revealing just such a truth. Indiana and Henry searched for the truth but in their own different ways. Charlemagne sat on the thrown of the disposed Merovingian Dynasty. The Merovingian kings claimed lineage back to the Nazarites of whom Jesus Christ was a member. It may be that Lucas was revealing that the real Bloodline of the Holy Grail was actually the Merovingian Dynasty.


  10. I just finished Derek Wilson’s book on Charlemagne. I’m not medieval expert, but it seems to me like part of the “fun” of Charlemagne is that everyone and anyone “quoted” him for their own advantage.

    I think that evoking Charlemagne in a film very much about succession and relics and myths (of which Charlemagne has no shortage) was a very intentional, astute thing. It tapped into an almost unconscious connection because so much of the things we associate with the medieval world and even conspiracy theorists (the Freemasons are out to rule the world!) are tied to Charlemagne. How COULD you make a movie about knights and myths without adding a little to the Charlemagne myth?


  11. I know this entry was from quite a while back but I was looking for the quote online and came here and thinking about the quest for the truth about the quotation I thought I might my first thought into the melting pot if it’s alright.

    I was wondering about the fact that since the character of the Dr. Jones Snr. in the film is that of a learned man who often says profound things and lines from great literary works (or something) maybe he was, knowing that ‘the rocks and the sea and the birds of the sky’ featured in Charlemagne, saying his own sort of profound and intellectual line like that with those key features in it so it was more of his own self-quoting than quoting original Charlemagne dialogue.

    I don’t know much about it but thought I’d add to the discussion anyway.


  12. Matt (#1) – I was 9 years old when I saw the movie (opening weekend!) and I knew who Charlemagne was. I would hope that most people seeing the movie would have some vague idea of who he was…


  13. the writters used charlemagne as syn. for motto he said MY, as in dr jones sr was thinking it was his lifes motto. i think dr jones sr was thinking im sean connery, i played james bond for christs sake, now im running around this beach with a ruddy umbrella making dumb F@#% chicken sounds. saying to himself could somebody get me another bottle of scotch so i can go home and smack my wife.


  14. Alternative quote for any future film buffs: “Let my armies be two million men between the ages of 15 and 55. I will feed them and train them to standards that would make Roman legions proud. Then I will put our enemies to the sword.”


  15. Re: #5, about the screenwriter (Boam) being dead, and #9’s ellaboration that Menno Mevjes and Lucas himself were the other writers, let us not forget that Tom Stoppard did an uncredited “polish” on the script, receiving a $100k bonus from Speilberg when the film was a success.

    From Wikipedia: ‘Spielberg states that though Stoppard was uncredited, “he was responsible for almost every line of dialogue in the film”.’

    So, Jeff, it may be the very much alive Tom Stoppard that you should be emailing.


  16. I have always been fascinated by the line in question and have sought authentication. Although I am not suprised it is probably not authentic, the quote is quite meaningful to me. I interpreted it as being from a insightful general, taking advantage of all available resources, even those that are not obvious, to fight and overcome one’s enemy.


  17. ‘Last Crusade’ is probably my favorite movie of all time so I’ve seen it several times to say the least. Anyway, this line interested me as well (which is why I’m here) and reading these posts from people more familiar with Charlemagne reinforces my own personal theory which is that it’s a subtle reference to Buddhism.

    George Lucas describes himself as part Methodist and part Buddhist which is reflected in the film, on the surface is Christianity and underneath is Buddhism (i.e. the hidden spiral staircase in the castle, and the red circle with the daggers and swords on it in the fire place/dinning hall in the castle where they see Donovan again [Dharma Wheel?] and the Republic of Hatay flag which is flying over Dr. Schneider’s head after Kazim is killed, but is not the correct flag at all but actually a Rub el Hizb [aka Star of Lakshmi], and of course the swastika throughout the film).

    But about the quote…

    Charlemagne is partially remembered for defending Europe from Muslim invasions during the 8th century and upon remembering Charlemagne, Jones Sr. causes an airplane with a swastika on it to crash into a mountain, defending the status quo, in other words. (“Sacred Mountains of China”)?

    Rocks in the context of armies could be a reference to “Mani stones” or “Mani walls”.

    Birds could be a reference to Prince Aśoka carrying out the advice to the Cakravartin king given in the Cakkavattisīhanāda-sutta (DN.26) that a good king should extend his protection not merely to different classes of people equally, but also to beasts and birds, or perhaps the Chinese practice of “fang sheng” which is a demonstration of Buddhist piety

    Trees could be a reference the “Bodhi Tree” which is associated with the Buddha.

    So perhaps its some sort of universal comparison between Prince Asoka and Charlemagne, or just the perpetual movement of human history which the film covers amply.

    This is all very speculative of course, but it is something that might explain a nonsensical quote that Lucas and crew would probably know was not from Charlemagne.


  18. I forgot to add that it could also be a reference to the metaphysical realm and that a person should not get too attached to the physical world. Because your reward is in heaven in Christianity, and in Buddhism suffering is caused by clinging (Upādāna).


  19. Catapolts were in use during that period perhaps the quote refers to trees used to build the catapolt the rocks used for ammunition and that they fly through the sky.


  20. A great essay on a great scene in one of my favorite films ever.

    Discovering, after so many years, that Henry Jones might either be senile or a playful fibber, is amusing and adds more depth to an already fascinating fictional character. Being old enough to find my synapses create strange connections in my brain, I can sympathize.

    What Is most shocking to me, though, is not discovering “the Charlemagne hoax” as it were, but finding an 8-year-old post with a title such as “Flying birds, excellent birds…” and not a single Peter Gabriel reference.


  21. Thanks for checking in from Argentina, Emilio! This blog post may be eight years old, but I’m glad people still read it and comment on it. My hope is that one of these days, someone will have a more conclusive answer to the question of where the quotation came from. (As for Peter Gabriel, the title was the Peter Gabriel reference, of course!)


  22. My take:
    Dr Jones sr is doing a little historical name dropping in an attempt to impress his son. He knows that the quote is inaccurate. He’s hoping Indy won’t. It seems to work, too, by the looking Indy’s face.


  23. Where does “Henry say” that “CHARLEMAGNE ” said that? It is your HUMAN MISPERCEPTION. Did MOSES “see GOD” as a “burning BUSH”. Nowhere does it say THAT. He saw SOMETHING that “appeared” as “a burning bush”, that BURNED BRIGHTLY and “never consumed itself”. We now UNDERSTAND that MOSES came out of an EGYPT in POLITICAL TURMOIL when “Tutunkahton” restablished the MULTIPLE GOD SYSTEM and became “Tutunk-AMUN”. THERE WAS NO “MOSES” in Egptian hieroglphs…there were MANY “THUT- MOSES”. What burns “like” a bush and NEVER “consumes itself is THE AHTON..
    What HENERY was saying was that HE REMEMBERED the INDOMITABLE CHARLEMAGNE but HE ( Henry ) will use them damned gulls as “his own armies”. Read some BIBLE STUFF as though you were INDIANA JONES. (ie Matthew 13:13) By the way…why do those THIRTEENS fall at so many CRITICAL VERSES in THAT BOOK and WHO jiggled the numbers so that they do? “And now you want to know the secret, but you’re never watching closely & you don’t want to spend the time…you WANT to be FOOLED? …”THE PRESTIGE”.So maybe Henry had read Sun Tsu? Lao Tsu? or studied Je-Tsu? GENESIS 11


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