I am speaking, of course, of the bow.
As long as there have been bows, there have been legends associated with them. It makes perfect sense: at heart, the bow is an impossibly miraculous weapon. It puts the rich man in armor on the same playing field as the peasant with good aim and access to a yew tree. It ensures a certain amount of protection for its wielder - a good archer can get rid of a lot of foes before they get close enough to hit him back. Legends can't ignore the bow; they're full of archers, most of them crack shots. But no one can quite make up their mind about what the weapon says about the wielder.
Mostly, anyway. There is one true cowardly archer: Paris of Troy. In a culture where courage is measured by risking life and limb in a chariot melee, the pretty boy who shoots arrows from behind his city walls is never going to get much respect. When Paris and Menelaus fight their duel over Helen, it's implicit that the bow is not an allowed weapon: real men fight face-to-face, not bow-to-shield. Paris's slaying of Achilles is hideously ironic - the greatest warrior of the age, a man who physically attacked a river and won, is killed with the weapon of a coward. It's deliciously karmic that the Greeks turn Paris's own weapon against him; his killer, Philoctetes, inherited from Heracles the bow and poisoned arrows he uses to take out Paris. But that very act takes some of the sting out of the taunting of Paris as a fraidy-cat archer. He may sleep around with another man's wife while his brothers die in the dust, but his archery was something not only to be feared, but to be emulated. Even when it's the coward's weapon, a good bow is worth having on your side.
|Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, Warner Bros.|
Eventually, nobility is allowed to use the bow. One of the engagement challenges for the hand of Princess Yasodhara requires her suitors to string and bend a massive bow. Siddhartha, the future Buddha, calmly fires off an arrow as well, when no other suitor had even managed to string the weapon. Similarly, Odysseus is the only man who can use his own personal bow; his reclamation of kingdom and queen truly begins when he completes Penelope's impossible challenge. But the nobility is still weird about archery; both instances are the only times we see either hero use a bow, and they're relegated firmly to the arena of showmanship, with no practical side in evidence. Rama is rarely depicted without a bow, but Rama is in a strange fix: undeniably royal, he's also a prince in exile. He may be the only noble to escape without censure from the practical wartime use of a bow.
|Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, Lionsgate|
It's a weird full-circle situation, with the bow slipping off its rebellious pedestal into, if not ill repute, certainly a loss of luster. And it's hard to predict exactly where the bow will wind up next. But it will probably always be the weapon of revolution; its equalizing nature will never change. It will circle back around to pure uncomplicated heroism, and then around again as we remember what long-range weapons do to a gallant charge of heroes. It's a complicated weapon, and it'll probably always make us a little bit nervous.