I read a great book this week, ‘In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius’, by the linguist Arika Okrent, and while I really enjoyed it, it did have one unfortunate consequence: it interested me, against my will, in Klingon culture.
I don’t know whether you happen to be familiar with the Klingon founding myth, but I’m going to quote it to you in its entirety:
“With fire and steel did the gods forge the Klingon heart. So fiercely did it beat, so loud was the sound, that the gods cried out, ‘On this day we have brought forth the strongest heart in all the heavens. None can stand before it without trembling at its strength.’
But then the Klingon heart weakened; its steady rhythm faltered and the gods said, ‘Why do you weaken so? We have made you the strongest in all of creation.’
And the heart said, ‘I am alone.’
And the gods knew that they had erred. So they went back to their forge and brought forth another heart.
But the second heart beat stronger than the first, and the first was jealous of its power. Fortunately, the second heart was tempered by wisdom: ‘If we join together, no force can stop us.’
And when the two hearts began to beat together, they filled the heavens with a terrible sound. For the first time, the gods knew fear. They tried to flee, but it was too late. The Klingon hearts destroyed the gods who created them and turned the heavens to ashes. To this very day, no one can oppose the beating of two Klingon hearts.” (Star Trek Deep Space 9, Season 6, Episode 7)
When the first Klingon heart met the second Klingon heart, they had no further need of other beings, and so they destroyed their creators and the place where their creators dwelt.
This myth is read at Klingon weddings; this is Klingon romance. And that makes sense, because the Klingon are a warrior people. They define themselves by their destructiveness towards non-Klingon.
I don’t want to do a deep dive into Klingon, but that founding myth snagged in my mind. Founding myths are how a culture tells itself who it is, and while the Klingon aren’t real, Americans are.
And we also have a founding myth about destroying our creators. Sure, sure, we didn’t obliterate the English and turn London “to ashes”. And, yes, we tend to couch our myth in the language of freedom and democracy.
But our myth is a war myth nonetheless. In fact, many of the pillars supporting our national identity are martial myths: the drive to self-determination of the Revolutionary War, the victory of pure, disinterested abolitionism during the Civil War, the manner in which we selflessly saved the world from the Nazi menace during World War II.
These are all myths – specifically, they are all warrior myths. They tell the story of an invincible people who solve their problem with righteous arms and always fight for good.
I think that this is why the Klingon myth has been banging around my mind since I read it: it reminded me of my own country. Compare these two sentiments:
“’If we join together, no force can stop us.’…To this very day, no one can oppose the beating of two Klingon hearts.”
“Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country that we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us.” – Patrick Henry, Speech at the Second Virginia Convention at St. John’s Church in Richmond, March 23rd, 1775
But, of course, we are neither invincible nor righteous. On our best day, we are a nation with feet of clay (so to speak) like any other. We have our good moments and our bad moments.
But warrior nations must take care, because their bad moments are so often brutal. And their myths give them permission to be brutal – they excuse brutality by hiding it behind God-given indestructibility.
But, as we bomb yet another Middle Eastern country and posture aggressively on the Korean Peninsula, it’s worth asking: must we fight always? Are we so sure that we’re righteous? Why do we greet every conflict with one hand already inching towards our holster?
We might remember instead the Klingon proverb: there are no old warriors.