Revising the Old Lie


Photo prompt courtesy and copyright property of J. Hardy Carroll via the Friday Fictioneers event hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Join in and/or find others’ contributions here.

Revising the Old Lie

An ancient man bowed his head, but his words rose like ghosts, “‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.’”

A nearby pilgrim couldn’t bear it. “How many times are you gonna repeat that old lie?”

“But it’s true.” His eyes became grave as his knurled hands glossed the gabbro. “I missed my chance.”

“Life isn’t issued out by your country. It springs from struggle and from death.” The ancient man lifted his head and looked at the scar the monument made into the earth, then the bare trees beside it. “Want the truth? Revise it. Dulce et decorum est mori.”

**Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori is Latin for “It is sweet and glorious/right to die for one’s country/fatherland.” It was originally used by the Roman poet Horace in his Odes, but became known as “the old lie” after Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem “Dulce et Decorum est” about the tragedies he witnessed (particularly the use of chlorine gas). Pro patria, which is omitted in the “revision,” means “for one’s country/fatherland.”

If anyone is willing to submit constructive criticism, I’m most interested in how the conclusion reads. I fear that a reader’s experience may be wildly different than what I experienced writing this, though that surely can have its benefits. (Also, if anyone knows Latin, could you inform me of any grammatical error(s) at the end? I tried to verify its accuracy, but my knowledge is limited.) Of course, any constructive criticism is welcome and appreciated.


24 thoughts on “Revising the Old Lie

  1. I’m confused by the line “Life isn’t issued out by your country”. The old man just said it was sweet to die for your country so what is the other man’s point? I think the second man is saying that the old man is quoting a lie but what then is the second man’s truth? I missed the whole point, I think.


    • Sorry, I think I may have been shooting for too exorbitant of an idea here and things may have become jumbled deciphering it all. The second man is trying to rectify the belief that it is “sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” by saying that life and death are not matters of the state, but simply of being. Changing the phrase to only “It is sweet and fitting to die” was intended to suggest that death does not need to be “in the name of” anything to have its glories; death is an integral step in the cyclical replenishment of the world, after all. I had in mind the Japanese concept of “mono no aware,” which is an awareness of impermanence and an empathy towards all things, but that’s not explicitly expressed in the story and is an aspect that many probably won’t have in mind. Regardless, thank you for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I read it that the second man is saying sweetness and honour is dead. So it made sense to me. I’d take issue with ‘gnarled’ hands though. That’s the second time I’ve read that this week. I know it makes sense, I just think it’s an overworked adjective. Good job with the story though.


    • Thank you. I like your interpretation; war often deprives us of our honors however much they try to suggest it is an honor in itself. “Gnarled” seems to have rubbed a couple people the wrong way, so I’ve made a very minor change to its earlier variant “knurled.” I can see gnarled being overused, but wanted to maintain a possible parallel to the trees in the scene. Fortunately, knurled may make for a more direct association, so I appreciate your suggestion for a change all the more.


  3. Dear ATC,

    Since you offer no translations for the Latin, the story’s lost on me. I did look it up “it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.” Because I follow research threads I did find the Wilfred Owen poem.

    I did like the scar the monument made in the earth. I agree with Sandra on ‘gnarled’…also I’d take issue with his eyes became grave. This feels awkward. You might consider changing the second ‘ancient man’ to old man.

    I would suggest less description of the old man and more play on the poem and translation of the Latin for the rest of us linguistic Luddites.




    • Thank you for the suggestions, Rochelle. I have since corrected the lack of translations and also provided a link to Owen’s poem; sorry to have not had them available earlier for an easier association. I’ve also altered “gnarled” to “knurled” — it’s not a drastic change, but one that may better encourage considering the man in relation to the nearby trees. The awkwardness of “grave” may be due to a failed attempt at developing a consonant rhythm at that particular moment, too far removed from “glossed the gabbro,” but I do like its sense of seriousness/solemnity over possible synonyms.
      As for the last suggestion, I meant to make this about the man’s despairing hold on life, linked to a regret that his death won’t hold any honor, as he believed a soldier’s death would have. A greater attention to the atrocities described in Owen’s poem may have better suited adjusting his mindset, but I was intent on a subdued resolution. Though ending on the quote may appear harsh, I meant to say that death has its purposes in the world’s regenerative life cycle and thereby has its honors.


  4. I knew the quote, and I found the sentence, the country doesn’t issue life very apt. I was a bit confused by the ending though. Was the ancient man changing his mind, or would he rather die now, or was it the pilgrim speaking? Liked the scar, too.


    • I’d like to believe that the ancient man is beginning to change his mind when he lifts his head to the pilgrim’s words and takes his focus off the names on the monument’s wall, focusing instead on changes in the world itself. I’d also like to believe that change brings relief to the ancient man, which may be in the form of accepting death. It wasn’t deliberate, but re-interpreting ansumani’s reading, I believe the pilgrim may be seen as Death, if that helps. Not as a trickster, but as sagacious.
      And thank you for finding the line about country apt; it seems to have been one of the major points of contention with this piece. I’d be curious to know whether that’s a matter of patriotism, prevalent global issues, the awkwardness of the statement, or some other factor. As for the scar line, the designer of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., Maya Yang Lin, once explained that she “wanted to work with the land and not dominate it. [She] had an impulse to cut open the earth…an initial violence that would in time heal. The grass would grow back, but the cut would remain.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think it’s a matter of patriotism. I think no one should have to fight, kill, and die for countries and ideas. But on the other hand, there are things that are worth defending and dieing for. Only, the line can’t be drawn as clearly any more. In WWI and II The line between good and bad guys was clearer. Now, not any more. War is dirty and soldiers know it, some harden and lose their humanity, others suffer, and I think that aspect should be honoured a bit more, and less the often dubious glory of the ‘dulce et decorum’. There really is no glory in war even if it appears to be unavoidable in some cases. And that’s why I thought the line was apt. I also thought about the shield quote of the Spartan mothers and wives. Nationalism is never the answer.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Wow! Thank you for such an impassioned response.
        Patriotism can have its merits so long as you don’t conveniently dismiss gruesome truths and remain capable of individualistic thought that does not adhere to blind loyalty. Unfortunately, people take the concept to detrimental extremes and abandon rationality.
        I had to look up the quote you mentioned (“Come back with your shield – or on it”). That is a rather disturbing sense of duty. It’s incredible how much “honor” used to mean (and how it was earned) throughout many previous cultures, some not so long lost. Looking up information on Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum est,” I never knew that the phrase was actually being used to recruit soldiers for World War I.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. C – Having a latin translation as a note below would help those who are lazy to google. I agree with Tracey’s comment above.

    My interpretation of the story is this : death(the old man) tries to trick someone into dying saying it’s sweet to die for your country – but once the myth of that lie is busted – death says you have to die anyway…since that’s the truth.

    Its a great take at the prompt if we ignore that one line: “Life isn’t issued out by your country.”


    • Thank you for your notes and interpretation. I’ve since added a translation and a bit of explanation about the phrase, sorry for any issues you may have had prior to their inclusion. I rather enjoy your interpretation, but I would reverse the roles and consider the pilgrim as Death offering some relief to the ancient man who regrets the thought that his dying will be without honor. (This wasn’t the intention, mind you, but a theory based upon your reading, which adds a great deal of layers to the characters.)
      If you don’t mind my asking, are there any particular issues with that specific line? I don’t think it’s inherently anti-government or anything of the sort, but a realization that life doesn’t have any immediate obligations outside of simply being part of the life cycle. Well, that’s my interpretation of it anyway; it would seem you’re not alone in thinking otherwise, so I’d deeply appreciate any further input you’d be willing to share.


      • Reversing the roles as you say in the conversation makes it very powerful! Love that! The line about “Life isn’t issued out by your country…” : I don’t think it’s anti-government and I agree and like your explanation.

        But somehow this line : ““Life isn’t issued out by your country. It springs from struggle and from death.”” does not convey the explanation you have given.
        Maybe saying : Life isn’t a passport issued out by your country” would be better a image to convey that thought. Again, this is my subjective opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for the extra input. That passage likely isn’t all it needs to be; I may have been trying to leave open the notion of political criticism, but that doesn’t excuse the second half of it. The notion is too grand in scale to simply gloss over in seven words. And the thank for submitting a possible remedy; your “subjective opinion” is just as credible as my own and immensely appreciated.


  6. hmmmm. I think the line “Life isn’t issued out by your country. It springs from struggle and from death” is a comment on the behaviour of the superpowers and the wars in which they are involved.
    Deep stuff. Look forward to your responses to all of this.
    Bet you wish you had stayed in bed.


    • I can certainly see why it may be interpreted that way, especially since the scene is set at a war memorial, and was left open to such readings. My interpretation, however, was less contentious and rooted in the belief that life is meant entirely for your own making. Of course, there will be external influences that will be set upon you as early as possible, but commitments to social structures such as country are not inborn; patriotism is not genetic. The only certainty is that life is cyclical and dependent upon death.
      I’m glad to hear that some depth resonated in this for you. It would seem that I stayed in bed for long enough as the need for responses piled up a bit.


  7. Appreciate the ambition in this piece. However, I don’t like the Latin phrases. Personally I don’t want to have to Google anything – the story should stand or fall by what your words alone.


    • Admittedly, it may have been a bit too ambitious to revise a long-established phrase in a matter of 100 words. Sorry for originally not including translations; that issue has since been resolved. I know stories must have their own merit, though I’m prone to depending on allusions to develop a greater sense of depth in such short pieces. Regardless, thank you for reading and I apologize for any unwanted encouragement towards Google’s services.


  8. It’s suggested in writing to put the meaning in italics after the original, but as this is a flash, in an explanation before might work better as word count is key.

    I like the phrase, but not know what it meant took me out of the story, until I googled it.

    I was confused by this statement – “Life isn’t issued out by your country. It springs from struggle and from death.” did the pilgrim say this?
    Then a an new paragraph should be started with the ancient man’s response.

    “It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country.” I agree it is a lie, death has never brought peace, no matter how many have died, we are in and surrounded by war!


    • Thank you for the suggestions, and sorry for the confusion. I’ve used the parenthetical/italicized approach to translating in essays, but generally tend to use something of a glossary for creative writing. I was irresponsibly lazy in not including the translation when this was originally posted.
      And yes, all of the quotations in the last paragraph are the pilgrim’s words. The paragraph is divided by the ancient man’s actions to suggest they are reactionary in the moment instead of wholly after the pilgrim’s speech.
      Bloodshed is truly a devastating thing, especially when drawn in the name of any sort of social structure.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. With the constraint of 100 words, using Latin without a translation probably isn’t a good plan. I was distracted by trying to translate it with my school Latin, got it wrong, and therefore the point of the story was lost.


    • Thank you for the note. It’s probably not wise to use anything else that requires translation, but if I do (and the truth is I’ll certainly be tempted to do so again) perhaps I’ll provide translations in a foreword instead of footnote. I’m sorry that the story was rendered lost for you.


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