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In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1940), the English writer W. H. Auden reflects, “About suffering they were never wrong/ The Old Masters.” The work which prompted this reflection was the paintingLandscape with the Fall of Icarus by the sixteenth century Flemish master Pieter Bruegel, the Elder. Bruegel’s painting, and by extension, Auden’s poem, were themselves contemplations on the ancient myth of the flight and fall of Icarus and its relevance to contemporary life, especially the myth’s inherent meaning, which translates (outwardly different but inwardly intact) across the ages about human aspirations and their inevitable failure. The insights that the myths offered, and which the old masters interpreted, remain basically true today—if one has the intelligence to perceive them and the artistry to express them. The same process of perception and expression is quietly, minutely, and triumphantly at work in Zbigniew Herbert’s The King of the Ants.

As spiritual and intellectual leader of the anticommunist movement in Poland and eastern Europe, Zbigniew Herbert used the themes and characters of classical mythology to comment on current events in a pointed but oblique fashion, both evading the censorship of a totalitarian regime and emphasizing the timeless and universal aspects of his writings. Although set in the landscape of myth—the islands of the Mediterranean, the halls of Olympus, the planes of windy Troy—his characters and their actions have immediate relevance to the personalities and events of postwar Europe, especially that period during the 1970’s and 1980’s when the facade of Communist Party power first weakened, then crumbled.

In such a fashion, the book’s opening piece, “Securitas,” is ostensibly about a new deity introduced during the early days of the Roman Empire to safeguard the emperor and the realm. The particular nature of the goddess Securitas was that she was pervasive but unknown; by avoiding publicity and even public worship, she became all the more powerful and interwoven into the affairs of Roman daily life. Her most seductive attribute was that she appealed to those who preferred necessity, however harsh, to the dangers of freedom. She had become a monster with a human face. Read figuratively, this tale about a fictitious Roman goddess tells the terrible truth about life under a totalitarian regime, where “security” is a code name for repression and “safety of the state” an all-purpose rationale for any action (however illegal, degrading, or inhuman) the authorities believe necessary. However, Herbert adds yet another level of meaning to his short piece by suggesting that Securitas finds a home not only in the lands ruled by communist dictatorships but in more ostensibly free nations as well, where she offers relief from the unsettling difficulties of liberty and the daily uncertainties of life. Herbert notes that the enigmatic goddess Securitas is the natural patroness of all those who seek life without struggle.

As can be seen in the varying layers of meaning in “Securitas,” the pieces in The King of the Ants are far from simplistic moral tales with a single, self- evident message. Rather, they are brief, highly intricate works that carry multiple meanings often with apparent contradictions that force the reader into deeper and more thoughtful consideration of the pieces. The book’s title piece is exactly such a story.

Ajax, son of Zeus and Aegina, a river god’s daughter, grows up on a deserted island in the Aegean, which he names after his mother. Solitary and a king without subjects, Ajax prays for a people to rule, promising to be a good and understanding monarch to them. His father Zeus transforms the ants of Aegina into a race of people Ajax names Myrmidons—“the people of the ants.” At first, Ajax is delighted. Then he notices that his subjects, though hard-working, obedient, and unfailingly loyal, are stubbornly resistant to ideas of progress, material prosperity, or intellectual adventure. He tries without success to tempt them through exposure to the material goods of merchants and the abstract ideas of philosophers. The Myrmidons reject both—if, in fact, they even comprehend them—and are content with their hard if simple lives, their underground cities without architecture, and their communal existence. As a result, they have no sense of progress but they do have a great sense of security brought about by perpetual full employment.

So far, the Myrmidons seem another simple reflection of life in a totalitarian country, whether imaginary or actual, since they have reached the state conceived by dreamers such as the classical philosopher Plato or the Bolshevik revolutionary Vladimir Ilich Lenin. They work together, unselfishly, even unselfconsciously, for the common good. Their efforts may not be terribly effective (the installation of a tiny footbridge is a gigantic enterprise, a work passed on from one generation to the next), but these efforts are nonetheless enthusiastic. They have achieved, in an odd sort of way, perfection—all of which is terribly unsatisfying to Ajax, and, despite his subjects’ rejection of materialism and intellectualism, he is determined to force them to embrace progress and growth, no matter whether they desire or can even appreciate these notions. “When someone firmly sets his mind to make humanity happy, it is difficult, unfortunately, to dissuade him.” Finally, in his desperation, Ajax imports revolutionaries who pretend to depose him, then blame some of his innocent subjects in order to foment creative discord and strife. His plan fails because the blameless Myrmidons refuse to make false confessions, thus depriving others of a cause for righteous anger. As a result, the revolutionaries cannot spark revolt and finally leave the island in disgust. Ajax returns to general joy and rejoicing; even his passive role in the deaths of innocent subjects is forgotten. Dying in despair, Ajax is pitied by his father Zeus and granted a management position in the Department of Justice in the afterlife.

On one hand, The King of the Ants is a fable about life under communism or any other totalitarian system which saps the individual of freedom and a sense of possibility. Mindless solidarity may not be personally fulfilling but it is seductively comforting. The goddess Securitas need not always be named to be worshipped. On the other hand, as Herbert refashions the myth, the Myrmidons have qualities that are precisely opposite to those traditionally found in the residents of totalitarian states. They are not fearful because they instinctively know themselves to be guiltless; if terrible things happen, such is the fate of human beings (even human beings derived from ants) in this world. They reject progress not from consciously developed intellectual conclusions but from an inherent understanding that

naked feet walking in a circle are more natural than a march following in the steps of a dreadful giant who triumphantly strides toward goals hidden behind the horizon, along a straight line that comes from nothing and leads to a better, radiant nothing.

In a sense, the Myrmidons have set themselves outside the artificial systems of politics, sociology, anthropology, and philosophy. By doing so they have casually and cheerfully confused what is traditionally regarded as top and bottom, good and evil, and, above all, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s inexorable movement of “thesis-antithesis-synthesis.”

Such human intractability in the face of logic defeats Ajax. It nearly defeats the hero Heracles in the piece “Antaeus.” The son of Poseidon, god of the seas, and Gaea, goddess of the earth, Antaeus is a lonely, brute figure who wanders the landscape of western Africa challenging everyone he encounters to a wrestling match. The inevitable result is death for the challenged since Antaeus is so powerful he simply cannot be defeated. Heracles, passing through on one of his legendary twelve labors, is accosted by Antaeus, and they enter into a life-or-death struggle.

Instinctively, Heracles realizes that Antaeus draws his strength from the earth—so long as he touches the ground, he waxes more powerful, aggressive, and dangerous. Recognizing this, Heracles sees he must abandon traditional wrestling tactics and overcome the deeply rooted concepts of high and low—of the victor rising and the defeated falling. Holding to the “truths” of tradition and logic would mean death for Heracles; accepting a new situation, with implications that run counter to history and convention, is his only chance of victory—indeed, of survival. Granted, the mental and moral flexibility that Ajax lacks, Heracles does not: He can shift his point of view. Thus, Heracles wins and lives; Ajax, defeated, dies. Herbert’s sly fables are cautionary tales warning that all human beings—heroes, political leaders, philosophers, and the rest of humanity alike—share at least one truth. People hold on unthinkingly to traditional points of view at a risk.

Through these philosophical fables, with their characters and actions drawn from classical myth, Herbert can approach fundamental truths about human existence in an oblique and allusive fashion: Everything old has become new again. Sometimes this return comes in a lower, even sordid but no less dangerous fashion, as when Ares, the ancient god of war, becomes the modern associate of conspiracies, gangs, and terrorist organizations. Sometimes the ancient and modern parallels are higher and nobler, as when Thersites, the only warrior in the Greek army to speak up against the stupidity of the Trojan war, is made the representative of rebellion by the helpless who deserve admiration and respect precisely because their revolt is without hope of success. A figure such as Hecuba, the queen of Troy who has seen her city conquered and ravaged, her sons killed, and her daughters carried off to slavery, can stand for an entire gallery of refugees and wanderers, dispossessed by war and violence from the time of ancient Mycenae to modern Bosnia. For Herbert the figure of Atlas, uncomplainingly upholding the heavens for all eternity, is a symbol of much, if not most, of humanity, bearing burdens mutely and unceasingly.

Told simply and straightforwardly in a format that evolves into an engaging combination of short story, prose poem, and essay, the pieces in The Kingdom of the Ants are outstanding examples of a literary art that opens an entire world of meaning through indirection and insinuation and by reference and suggestion. Such an art is immediately accessible to the reader but difficult for the writer to create. Similar in a number of ways to Italo Calvino’s Le cosmicomiche, 1965 (Cosmicomics, 1968) and his other fantastic fictions, Herbert’s parables create (or re-create, since these are drawn from shared, ancestral myths) a world which is both immediately familiar and unceasingly foreign. The reader intuitively understands them even if he or she is unable to translate the meaning into specific words. Perhaps Herbert himself shared that same predicament: Faced with ineluctable truths about human conditions but prevented by the official censorship of the state or the inherent shortcomings of language from stating those truths in words, he resorted to the common storehouse of myths to express those truths that cannot be said but which must be known. As retold by Zbigniew Herbert, the myths, like Auden’s old masters, are never wrong about suffering as part of the human condition.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (February 1, 1999): 957.

Kirkus Review 68 (January 1, 1999): 19.

Library Journal 124 (February 1, 1999): 87.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (April 4, 1999): 7.

Publishers Weekly 246 (January 25, 1999): 73.