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Rebecca West - Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

Updated on December 12, 2011

Battle of Kosovo

Yugoslavia is gone. It was torn apart almost 15 years ago, and exactly one day before I finished reading Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, another rift was formed. It is such a long book that by the time I finished, Kosovo had broken away from Serbia and the remnants of old Yugoslavia, declaring its independence. It seems that the Battle of Kosovo continues.

Written in the late 1930s as an amalgamation of three journeys to Yugoslavia by West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was originally published in 2 volumes in 1941. A new paperback released in 2007 by Penguin Classics combines the volumes into one and adds an insightful introduction by Christopher Hitchens, noted opponent of organized religion, which is interesting given the fact that Yugoslavia was a land of religion.

Among those who have read this book, there are wide areas of disagreement. Critics argue about her biases, if she's biased, against whom she is biased... They argue whether she simplifies history by drawing broad conclusions based on her fleeting encounters. Indeed there are plenty of examples of bias contained in the 1180 pages of this book, which will give present day readers a challenge as they decide how they will view this book.

Is it a travelogue, a history book, a work of philosophy, or all of the above?

June 28

June 28. The book does not dwell on the date, but it is one that is inseparable from Serbian culture. The ethos of the Serbian people is formed on June 28, 1389 on the battlefield of Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds, as about 15,000 Serbians, Croatians and others stood ready to battle an invading Turk force of 40,000. According to popular myth, Tsar Lazar, the powerful Serbian leader, was visited the night before the battle by St. Elijah (Elias), in the form of a gray falcon. In his beak he bore a letter from the mother of God, telling Lazar that he could choose either an earthly kingdom and capitulate to the Turks, or choose a heavenly kingdom and fight.

From Jerusalem, the holy city,
Flying came a swift grey bird, a falcon,
And he carried in his beak a swallow.

But behold and see! 'Tis not a falcon,
'Tis the holy man of God, Elias,
And he does not bear with him a swallow,
But a letter from God's Holy Mother.
Lo, he bears the letter to Kosovo,
Drops it on the Tsar's knees from the heavens,
And thus speaks the letter to the monarch:
"Tsar Lazar, thou Prince of noble lineage,
What wilt thou now choose to be thy kingdom?
Say, dost thou desire a heav'nly kingdom,
Or dost thou prefer an earthly kingdom?
If thou should'st now choose an earthly kingdom,
Knights may girdle swords and saddle horses,
Tighten saddle-girths and ride to battle--
You will charge the Turks and crush their army!
But if thou prefer a heav'nly kingdom,
Build thyself a church upon Kosovo,
Let not the foundations be of marble,
Let them be of samite and of scarlet....
And to all thy warriors and their leaders
Thou shalt give the sacraments and orders,
For thine army shall most surely perish,
And thou too, shalt perish with thine army."

When the Tsar had read the holy letter,
Ponder'd he, and ponder'd in this manner:
"Mighty God, what now shall this my choice be!
Shall I choose to have a heav'nly kingdom?
Shall I choose to have an earthly kingdom?
If I now should choose an earthly kingdom,
Lo, an earthly kingdom is but fleeting,
But God's kingdom shall endure for ever."

"We die with Christ, to live forever," he told his troops the next day, and he is killed in battle as the Serb forces fall to defeat and 500 years of Turkish rule. It is believed by Serbs that the treachery of a few Serbs led to their defeat. From this battle, they learn the value of unity and its role in preserving the Serbian people.

In 1914, on June 28 (St. Vitus' Day), Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated by Gavrillo Princip, sparking World War 1. On the same day in 1919, the Treaty of Versailles ends the conflict. On the 600th Anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, Slobodan Milosevic delivers the infamous Gazimestan Speech, which many believe foreshadowed the ethnic violence of the 1990s. On June 28, 2001, Milosevic is deported to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes.

In the Gazimestan Speech, Milosevic brings the Serbian nationalism he had been cultivating to a head.

"Six centuries later, now, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet. However, regardless of what kind of battles they are, they cannot be won without resolve, bravery, and sacrifice, without the noble qualities that were present here in the field of Kosovo in the days past. Our chief battle now concerns implementing the economic, political, cultural, and general social prosperity, finding a quicker and more successful approach to a civilization in which people will live in the 21st century."

A Microcosm of Europe

In his own mammoth 3000 page tome, Rising Up and Rising Down, William T. Vollmann describes the Balkans as a perfectly analogous to Europe as a whole. It is a place where East meets West, where Christianity and Islam crash headlong, and a place where Catholics fight Orthodox Christians. After reading West's book, it is clear why Kosovo is so important to the Serbian worldview, but it is unclear why the territory has been so abused by Serbs in the 20th and 21st centuries.

As I read the book, I could not help think about West's travel style and how it would compare to that of most readers. A member of the British aristocracy, West toured Yugoslavia as a dignitary, guided by her friend Constantine, a Serbian Jew who transitioned from well-known poet to government official. It seems that even in the remotest corners of the large nation, Constantine knows people and is known by people. His notoriety gives West unprecedented access, both to the official and civic aspects of life, as well as the daily existence of Yugoslavian peasants. Having such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide no doubt made Black Lamb a better book.

At times it is difficult to decide what type of book you are reading. For twenty pages the action may be a travelogue, and the sight of a statue might prompt another 20 pages of religious philosophy, followed by an autobiographical episode that sheds light only into the soul and character of West. Her prose is beautiful, uttered by smart and cultured people, but it leaves the reader wondering how much is contrived, as the speakers soliloquize for pages on end. How could she have remembered these conversations so vividly?

I came to this book in my search for an objective analysis of Balkan history. As a late-twenties American of Croatian heritage, I have of late been feeling guilty of my lack of understanding of the root causes of the Slavic and Balkan strife. Of course I have heard the arguments from both sides, the debate over unity versus secession, unity in the face of oppression. I have read the accounts of war crimes and yes, they were committed by Serbs and Croats but from the facts one can see that one side was more dedicated to ethnic cleansing than the other. I suppose the murkiness and the clear lack of delineation between right and wrong are what led me to bury my head in the sand on the issue. Needless to say I did not find the objective and journalistic answers to the modern Balkan problem in this late-1930s book.

While I did not find an objective analysis, I did come closer to understanding the roots of the inter-Balkan conflicts. Although many believe she is biased towards one group, she never glosses over the rough patches, letting the dialogue of the characters she meets expose the underlying nationalistic feelings and biases. It is a testament to her writing that she allows the reader to see through her personal views and gain a deeper understanding of the nation of Yugoslavia. Her oft-remarked intelligence is evident, because surely she is smart enough to know that readers would notice her prejudices.

To hear Rebecca West tell it, Serbia was the frontline in the centuries-old clash between East and West, Christianity and Islam. One is left with the idea that the whole of Europe was saved by the bravery of the South Slavs, who have given all so that Europeans can live under liberal democracies. For West, it seems that the Serbs were also the Balkan heroes of World War II, protecting their Croatian and Slovenian brothers against the fascist invasion.

I have traveled Croatia and seen its churches, vineyards and beaches, but I have never had much of a desire to see the rest of the Balkans. However, West's flawless descriptions of Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia left me with a newfound wish to see the golden minarets of Sarajevo, the great plain of Kosovo, and the poor Muslim settlements that can take you back to the Ottoman Empire and how those living in the violent fringes of an empire can learn to know and accept suffering.

It should certainly be said that I have found something in this piece of work.


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    • marriedwithdebt profile image

      marriedwithdebt 6 years ago from Illinois

      Hey Steve - this book is a large undertaking, but a very rewarding read. One of the best works of nonfiction I've ever read. Thanks for reading my Hub.

    • steveamy profile image

      steveamy 6 years ago from Florida

      Very, Very interesting. Your Hub makes me add another book to the huge pile of things I want to get to .... soon.