“There by the banks and in armour bright”

A gentle mouse prince is sitting lakeside, dipping his whiskers in the water, when a frog introduces himself. He tells the mouse that he’s the king; he sings the praises of his people, how they can play in water as well as dance on land. He invites the mouse to his home on the other side of the lake. The mouse reminds the frog king he is a mouse and it’s much too far for him to swim. The king says, hop on my back, I’ll give you a ride. As the waves rush over him, soaking his fur, the mouse begins to have regrets. And no sooner does he think to tell the frog king he wants to go back to the shore than they spot a mutual foe, a water snake. The frog immediately dives down into the water’s depths to escape, thoughtlessly forgetting his small guest desperately clinging to his shoulders. The mouse prince loses his grip; he struggles in vain. From the edge of the lake, his brother has been taking in the scene and shrieks the details to his nibbling clan. The mice nation says there is no question, they must avenge their prince’s death; they arm themselves with shields made from the skin of a cat and don helmets made from nutshells. They send a message to the frogs to prepare for battle. When Zeus, the god of gods and man and mice and frogs, gets wind of the upcoming war, he asks Athena to aid the mice since they are known to dance in her temple. She says, no, she’s had enough of their mischief, spoiling her wreathes, chewing holes in her sacred robes. As for the frogs, she says she won’t help them either. She’s still bitter about the time she returned home, ‘spent with glorious toil,’ and they kept her awake with their noisy babbling. So from the heavens the Olympians watch the battle. The mice are winning—they’re pummeling their amphibian foes; their hero Meridarpax, pride of his sire, and glory of his house/And more a Mars in combat than a mouse, boasts he will single-handedly vanquish the entire kingdom of frogs. It rouses Zeus to intercede. Feeling sorry for the frogs, he can no longer stomach watching them perish; he sends in an army of crabs to turn the war around, forcing the mice to retreat.

O’er the wild waste with headlong flight they go,
Or creep conceal’d in vaulted holes below.

This is the story recounted in the epic poem Batrachomyomachia, or “The Battle of Frogs and Mice.”[1] It comes out of ancient Greece and although once attributed to Homer, it is said to be instead a mock re-creation of the poet’s Iliad. It has neither the intention to mock the original nor the desire to teach a lesson; it’s just “a harmless tale about animals, with no relevance to human society,” one scholar asserts.[2] “An innocent joke” that is presumed to have been written sometime around the birth of Christ, its author unknown.

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[1] The painting shown above of the imagined battle is the work of an obscure British artist, a certain Henry Bright (1824-1876) who should not to be confused with the slightly less obscure landscape painter Henry Bright (1810?-1873) of the Norwich School. The work’s original title in all likelihood was “There by the banks and in armour bright,” as listed by the Royal Academy. See Frederic Gordon Roe, “Henry Bright,” Walker’s Quarterly, 1920.

[2] Ulrich Broich, The Eighteenth-century Mock-heroic Poem, translated by Henry David Wilson, 1990.

Batrachomyomachia translated by Thomas Parnell (1679-1718).

(Image: The Batrachomyomachia by H. Bright, watercolor and pencil on paper, 21 x 35 inches, 1871, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


2 responses to ““There by the banks and in armour bright”

  • Paul

    It is simply delightful to see more attention being drawn to this fabulous poem, since it does not receive by any means the attention it deserves. Two words of warning, if I may be so bold: firstly, while Thomas Parnell’s translation is a joy to read, it does not always reflect the poem in the original language; additionally, Broich most certainly underestimates the poem’s relevance to its contemporary audience.
    I must also thank you for drawing my attention to its portrayal by HB Bright, of whose work I was not previously aware.

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