The Mirror and the Mask by Jorge Luis Borges
When the armies clashed at the Battle of Clontarf, in which the Norwegian was brought low, the king spoke to his poet and said:
“The brightest deeds lose their luster if they are not minted in words. I desire you to sing my victory and my praises. I shall be Aeneas; you shall be my Virgil. Do you believe you have the gifts worthy of this task I ask of you, which shall make us both immortal?”
“Yes, great king, I do,” answered the poet. “I am Olan. For twelve winters I have honed my skills at meter. I know by heart the three hundred sixty fables which are the foundation of all true poetry. The Ulster cycle and the Munster cycle lie within my harp strings. I am licensed by law to employ the most archaic words of the language, and its most complex metaphors. I have mastered the secret script which guards our art from the prying eyes of the common folk. I can sing of love, of cattle theft, of sailing ships, of war. I know the mythological lineage of all the royal houses of Ireland. I possess the secret knowledge of herbs, astrology, mathematics, and canon law. I have defeated my rivals in public contest. I have trained myself in satire, which causes diseases of the skin, including leprosy. And I also wield the sword, as I have proven in your battle. There is but one thing that I do not know: how to express my thanks for this gift you make me.”
The high king, who was easily wearied by other men’s long speeches, said to the poet with relief:
“All these things I know full well. I have just been told that the nightingale has now sung in England. When the rains and snow have passed, when the nightingale has returned from its journey to the lands of the south, you shall recite your verses before the court and the Guild of Poets assembled. I give you one full year. Every letter and every word, you shall burnish to a fine gleam. The recompense, as you know, shall not be unworthy of my royal wont, nor of the hours you spend in sleepless inspiration.”
“My lord, my greatest recompense is the sight of your face,” said the poet, who was something of a courtier as well.
He bowed and retired, a verse or two already beginning to creep into his head.
When the allotted period had passed, a time filled with plague and rebellion, the panegyric was sung. The poet declaimed his verses with slow assurance, and without a glance at his manuscript. In the course of it, the king often nodded approvingly. Everyone imitated his gesture, even those who, crowding in at the doors could not make out a word of it.
At last the king spoke.
“I accept this labor. It is another victory. You have given to each word its true meaning, to each noun the epithet bestowed upon it by the first poets. In all the work there is not an image which the classics did not employ. War is ‘the fair cloth wov’n of men’ and blood is ‘sword-drink.’ The sea has its god and the clouds foretell the future. You have marshaled rhyme, alliteration, assonance, scansion, the artifices of erudite rhetoric, the wise alternation of meters, and all with greatest skillfulness. If the whole of the literature of Ireland should—omen absit—be lost, well might it all be reconstructed, without loss, from your classic ode. Thirty scribes shall transcribe it, twelve times each.”
There was a silence. Then the king went on:
“All that is well and yet nothing has happened. In our veins the blood has beat no faster. Our hands have not gone for our bows. No one’s cheeks have paled. No one has bellowed out a battle cry, no one has stood to meet the Viking attack. In one year, poet, we shall gather to applaud another poem. As a sign of our thanks, take this mirror, which is of silver.”
“I thank you,” said the poet, “and I understand and obey.”
The stars of the sky once more journeyed their bright course. Once more sang the nightingale in the Saxon forests, and the poet returned with his scroll—shorter this time than before. He did not recite it from memory; he read it, visibly unsure, omitting certain passages, as though he himself did not entirely understand them, or did not wish to profane them. The verses were strange. They were not a description of the battle, they were the battle. In the warlike chaos of the lines there stirred the God Who Is Three Yet One, the pagan noumena of Ireland, and those who would war, centuries after, at the beginning of the Elder Edda. The poem’s form was no less strange. A singular noun might govern a plural verb. The prepositions were foreign to common usage. Harshness vied with sweetness. The metaphors were arbitrary, or so they seemed.
The king exchanged a few words with the men of letters assembled about him, and he spoke in this way:
“Of your first hymn I was able to say that it was a happy summation of all that has been written in Ireland. This poem surpasses all that has gone before, and obliterates it. It holds one in thrall, it thrills, it dazzles. It will pass over the heads of the ignorant, and their praises will not be yours, but the praises of the few, the learned—ah! An ivory chest shall hold the only copy. From the pen that has penned such a lofty work; we may expect one that is more elevated yet….”
Then he added, smiling:
“We are figures in a fable, and it is only right that we recall that in fables, the number three is first above all others.”
“The three gifts of the wizard, the triads, and the indubitable Trinity,” was all that the poet dared allow himself to murmur.
The king went on:
“As a token of our thanks, take this mask. It is of gold.”
“I thank you, and I understand and obey,” the poet said.
The anniversary returned. The palace sentinels noticed that this time the poet did not bring a manuscript. Not without dismay did the king look upon the poet: he was greatly changed. Something, which was not simply time, had furrowed and transformed his features. His eyes seemed to stare far into the distance, or to have been rendered blind. The poet begged to be allowed to speak to the king. The slaves cleared the hall.
“Have you not composed the ode?” asked the king.
“I have,” said the poet sadly. “Would that Christ our Lord had forbade it.”
“Can you recite it?”
“I dare not.”
“I charge you with the courage that you need,” the king declared.
The poet spoke the poem. It was a single line.
Unable to summon the courage to speak it again aloud, the poet and his king mouthed the poem, as though it were a secret supplication, or a blasphemy. The king was no less astounded and cowed than the poet. The two men, very pale, looked at each other.
“In the years of my youth,” said the king, “I sailed toward the setting sun. On an island there, I saw silver greyhounds that hunted golden boars to their death. On another we were feted with the fragrance of magic apples. On yet another I saw walls of fire. On the most remote of all, there was a vaulted river that hung from the sky, and in its waters swam fish and sailing ships. Those were marvels, but they do not compare with your poem, which somehow contains them all. What sorcery has given you this?”
“At dawn,” said this poet, “I awoke speaking words that at first I did not understand. Those words are the poem. I felt I had committed some sin, perhaps that sin which the Holy Spirit cannot pardon.”
“The sin the two of us now share,” mused the king. “The sin of having known Beauty, which is a gift forbidden mankind. Now we must atone for it. I gave you a mirror and a golden mask; here is the third gift, which shall be the last.”
He laid in the poet’s right hand a dagger.
Of the poet, we know that he killed himself when he left the palace; of the king, that he is a beggar who wanders the roads of Ireland, which once was his kingdom, and that he has never spoken the poem again.
Borges, J., & Hurley, A. (2013, January 1). Jorge Luis Borges: The Mirror and the Mask. Retrieved January 19, 2015, from http://www.en.epopteia.gr/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10:jorge-luis-borges-the-mirror-and-the-mask-&catid=1:the-dawn-of-literature&Itemid=7
Painting Borges @ J. Wayne Stark Galleries – Maroon Weekly. (2012, September 12). Retrieved February 3, 2015, from http://maroonweekly.com/painting-borges-j-wayne-stark-galleries