“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.]

“Painted in a corner, and all you wanna do…”

They sound familiar, but I haven’t said them in ages: names like Prismacolor, Pigma, and Bristol, old friends in their enigmatic way, back in the days when we drove halfway to Newark Airport to scope out the metal shelves and breathe in the chemicals we hoped we could turn into art.

Two hundred miles south, the store may be different, but the sights and scents are the same. The blank sheets of vellum shine with promise, the tubes of fresh paint reek of unexploded energy—but fifteen years later, sneaking through aisles of markers and paper and pens feels like driving past the house of an old girlfriend. Besides, I’m here for mats and frames, which are easy, not inspiration, which is hard, especially when every drawing board resembles the piles I’ve shoved into storage, and each color marker is a reminder that some things dry up when you just can’t be bothered to use them.