The Cretan Epic Poem in World War II

Bernard Knox, in writing about Moses Finley’s The World of Odysseus, tells the amazing story of James Notopoulos, who got to witness the oral tradition in action in 1953 in Crete.

In 1953 the late Professor James Notopoulos was recording oral heroic song in the Sfakia district of western Crete, where illiterate oral bards were still to be found. He asked one of them, who had sung of his own war experience, if he knew a song about the capture of the German general and the bard proceeded to improvise one. The historical facts are well known and quite secure. In April 1944 two British officers, Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain Stanley Moss, parachuted into Crete, made contact with Cretan guerrillas, and kidnapped the German commanding general of the island, one Karl Kreipe.

The general was living in the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, the house Evans had built for himself during the excavations. Every day, at the same time, the general was driven south from the Villa to the neighboring small town of Arkhanes, where his headquarters were located. He came home every night at eight o’clock for dinner. The two British officers, dressed in German uniforms, stopped the car on its way home to Knossos; the Cretan partisans overpowered the chauffeur and the general. The two officers then drove the car through the German roadblocks in Heraklion (the general silent with a knife at his throat) and left the car on the coast road to Rethymo. They then hiked through the mountains to the south coast, made rendezvous with a British submarine, and took General Kreipe to Alexandria and on to Middle East Headquarters in Cairo.

Nine years after these events, this is how the bard rendered them. Differences between the real story and the bard’s song are in brackets; there are a lot of them.

An order comes from British and American headquarters in Cairo to capture General Kreipe, dead or alive; the motive is revenge for his cruelty to the Cretans. A Cretan partisan, Lefteris Tambakis [not one of the actual guerrilla band] appears before the English general [Fermor and Moss are combined into one and elevated in rank] and volunteers for the dangerous mission. The general reads the order and the hero accepts the mission for the honor of Cretan arms. The hero goes to Heraklion, where he hears that a beautiful Cretan girl is the secretary of General Kreipe.

In disguise the partisan proceeds to her house and in her absence reads the [English] general’s order to her mother. When the girl returns he again reads the general’s order. Telling her the honor of Crete depends on her, he catalogues the German cruelties. If she would help in the mission, her name would become immortal in Cretan history. The girl consents and asks for three days time in which to perform her role. To achieve Cretan honor she sacrifices her woman’s honor with General Kreipe in the role of a spy. She gives the hero General Kreipe’s plans for the next day.

Our hero then goes to Knossos to meet the guerrillas and the English general. ‘Yiassou general,’ he says. ‘I will perform the mission.’ The guerrillas go to Arkhanes to get a long car with which to blockade the road. Our hero, mounted on a horse by the side of the blockading car, awaits the car of Kaiseri [that is what the bard calls Kreipe]. The English general orders the pistols to be ready. When Kreipe’s car slows down at the turn he is attacked by the guerrillas. Kreipe is stripped of his uniform [only his cap in the actual event] and begs for mercy for the sake of his children [a stock motif in Cretan poetry].

After the capture the frantic Germans begin to hunt with dogs [airplanes in the actual event]. The guerrillas start on the trek to Mount Ida and by stages the party reaches the district of Sfakia [the home of the singer and his audience; actually the general left the island southwest of Mount Ida]. The guards have to protect the general from the mob of enraged Sfakians. Soon the British submarine arrives and takes the general to Egypt. Our bard concludes the poem with a traditional epilogue—that never before in the history of the world has such a deed been done. He then gives his name, his village, his service to his country.

This is a fantastic example of how memory and history can work in the absence of written records. (Walter Ong’s over-general and overrated Orality and Literacy makes no mention of it.) Imagine playing Telephone with the history of your people. In brief, here are some of the key modifications:

  1. Fabrication of national hero as protagonist.
  2. Fabrication of romantic foil as plot contrivance.
  3. Elevation of core value of national honor to main motivator of hero and girl.
  4. Pledges of allegiance to family, love, other traditional values on behalf of hero, girl, and villain (universalization of these values).
  5. Additional humiliation of villain.

In other words, the changes built up the Cretan people and the esteem of the hero. The story was grafted onto readymade forms and tropes.

Not that this is in any way disparaging. These mechanisms kick in when facts get lost, mutated, or are otherwise unavailable. It applies to history as it is written today. As the ever-grouchy Christopher Tyerman said when reviewing a few recent books about the poorly documented Crusades:

[The authors] paint landscapes, imagine thoughts, display cultural stereotypes and reduce intricate historical forces to the experience of individuals. Each creates characters to inhabit swashbuckling narratives. [Their views], while accurate and up to date, are as much those of the 1950s and the age of Hollywood as of the twenty-first century and the digital age.