"Crete 1941": How to read a modern epic

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[This is a guest post by Bernard Cadogan]

Epic comes from a Greek word for a word or spoken language, epos. Logos is another word like that which we know. The first emphasises articulation, the latter organisation.
Epic features in many cultures and comes in different varieties. China and the Sinitic civilisations lack it, as do the nomadic Semitic and Amazigh peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt had no epic. The hero form involving journeying –  Gilgamesh and the Odyssey and Beowulf – is one form. The most stringent form resembles the Iliad, which is the most perfect epic composed. It consists of multiple actors involved in a single action within the context of a wider struggle. This is what Crete 1941 resembles. There is no single hero. There is no single baddie. The complexity of war is fully invoked as well as the necessity to fight it.

Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem said Cardinal Newman. It was a motto Benedict XVI cherished – a pope my wife and I respected. An epic works from the shadows and images of myth into unmediated truth about power, conflict, atrocity, heroism and the strange grace that is blessing. A modern epic wakes up from myth and delivers from it. The tyrant state is an ancient myth-laden creature in its European form descending from Knossos. It would try and trap us in ideology and myth. Our task is to survive the labyrinth and break free of it. 
A modern epic about warfare must place women at the heart of the experience. It would not be credible to compose a "Boy's own" story.
Crete 1941 is an act of exorcism against the most abominable name of Adolf Hitler, which still afflicts minds and memories to this day. Crete is following the office of Virgil in Dante's Inferno. The Holy Spirit commissions the pagan seer with the authority to act against evil spirits, in a way that is symbolic of the role of poetry itself.
Crete 1941 is a prayer of intercession for the war dead and the victims of the "martyr villages". One war crime was so gross, I just allude to it in passing in Canto IV. In Canto I, I detail an average massacre of " Everyman". I do not report what happened to Crete's Jews because the crime was so gross and stupid. They were placed on board a ship that was sunk. I dealt with the wider problem of the Holocaust and death camps in Canto III.
Crete 1941 is also an act of blessing on Crete, Greece, New Zealand and on the German lands of Germany and Austria. It is also a thanksgiving for Maori valour. This is why it begins with Lieut. Ngarimu's sonnet and ends with the Hölderlin sonnet on the true, and sacred Germany.
The epic does not make NZers into anything they were not. I made it clear on two occasions, we were not intellectually at par with the Germans – first at Maleme airfield over 20-22 May 1941 and then at the first two battles of Monte Cassino. I note war crimes committed on my own side out of scrupulosity, not to balance the score of German crimes (the latter were so depraved and extensive) but I never mention the Maori Battalion massacre of SS at the Monte Cassino railway station, because I too have a hard heart and don't give a damn what happened to the SS, despite my ability to relate to Germans. It is fair to say that by the time of his second reorganisation of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1944, General Freyberg created an instrument with which he successfully orchestrated masterful set piece battles from San Marino up to Trieste.   

A modern epic cannot take liberties with history. I had  to refer to the Greek Communists. The mainland Communist partisans were real Stalinists, read in Marxist literature. Those on Crete were really just peasant communes in arms with priests, monks, bishops and nuns onside, much like in 1821 when the Greek War of Independence began at Sfakia on Crete, which was where Allied forces evacuated from in 1941. I say what I think about the Communists in Canto IV in which I say they are now just a failed and buried god like Zeus. Zeus was the whole problem of Crete – the mystery of his birth and death is that of the tyrant state itself. It is good that Greece did not fall behind the Iron Curtain. General Papagos prevented that, and George II for all his faults was the sign of that perpetual Communist failure.  A door stopper king and not just a revolver-door king.

The experience of reading a complex poem is like listening to new kinds of orchestral music. It sinks in over time. The epic offers "meaning" for the Battle of Crete and the subsequent Occupation and liberation of Maori from second class citizenship. What on earth was NZ doing leading such a fight? Even if we had held the Maleme airfield, General Student would not have waited for Hitler to respond. He would have sent in gliders and crash-landed planes. The narrative is strong enough musically. The imagery is recurrent and highly sensual and light-sensitive, with many features of flora and fauna. The patterning takes hold.
NZers had an Aegean death wish once 1915-44. We even offered to go to war against Ataturk in 1921 over the firing of Smyrna. The Germans had an idealist fantasy of Greece, that made them unrealistic about real Greek villagers.  We are different from the British, in that we are an intense people at best. The British call it "intensity" – some of us call it "passion", but that latter omits the need to suffer. We had an RNZN for instance that turned seagoing craft and vessels of war into kamikaze ships.
Between the ages of 9 and 13 I lived over the road from two Maori sisters close to my age. Their father worked in the same civil service office building in the city of Hastings  as my adoptive father. Their father was a Crete veteran. He named his daughters Crete and Allie (from El Alamein) while giving them formal Maori middle names. This was to give thanks for his survival in his battles and to remember his comrades. He was a profound Maori Anglican.
I hope that this has been a suitable introduction. It is evident from the epic how much I love New Zealand and how much I rue any pusillanimity among us.



"Crete 1941 is published by the Tuwhiri Project, a secular Buddhist publishing imprint.  "Tuwhiri" is a word in te reo Māori meaning to disclose, reveal, divulge, make known, or a clue, a means of discovering or disclosing something lost or hidden, a hint, a tip, a pointer.

The US address of Tuwhiri is La Vergne, Tennessee.

Here is a bit from the flier for "Crete 1941":

Australia has ‘The Great South Land’, South Africa has ‘Shaka Zulu’, Argentina has the gaucho epic ‘Martin Fierro’, and Chile has ‘La Araucana’ as its national poem. Now New Zealand has "Crete 1941", an epic poem about the New Zealand-led defence of Crete during the Battle of Crete between 20 May and 1 June 1941.

Crete 1941 is the only epic long poem in English since Derek Walcott’s ‘Omeros’, with the entry of the 28th (Māori) Battalion as an active combat force providing the culmination of the poem. As geopolitical tensions rise in the Pacific today, it’s timely to look back to when New Zealand last went to war and defended another small nation – Greece – on its last redoubt, in a battle that ended in a Dunkirk-style evacuation.

More than just a war story, Crete 1941 brings women back into the historic struggle for Crete. The poem is a life-changing reflection on the virtue of good small nations, on the contribution of indigenous peoples such as Māori and Cretans to international developments, and on the fragility that both peace and its disruptors share.


Bernard was born in New Zealand in 1961, and is an accomplished poet, philosopher and historian. Since 1996, he has worked as a political advisor and speech writer, in particular as policy advisor to the prime minister, and has been a consultant to the New Zealand Treasury since 2011. He was appointed an honorary advisor to the Māori king in 2015.

Bernard holds a Doctorate of Philosophy degree from Oxford University on the political thought, constitutionalism and racial policy of Sir George Grey (1812–98) in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. He lives in the Cherwell Valley near Oxford, with his wife Jacqueline and their children.

[Thanks to James Fanell]


  1. Jake said,

    November 4, 2021 @ 7:49 am

    How broad is the author defining 'Sinitic', because if Tibet counts there's the obvious example of 'King Gesar'.

    Also regarding the 'nomadic Semitic' bit, the settled ones certainly had epics such as Al-Sirah al-Hilaliyyah.

    Also also, do we actually know that the ancient Egyptians didn't have epics, or have we just not actually found any that got written down?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 4, 2021 @ 9:37 am

    Sinitic doesn't include Tibetan.

    The author specifically distinguishes between settled and nomadic Semitic.

    On Egyptian: absence of evidence does not prove its opposite.

  3. Voon said,

    November 4, 2021 @ 4:25 pm

    Would someone comment about Journey to the West being of the genre?

  4. Victor Mair said,

    November 4, 2021 @ 4:44 pm

    Journey to the West is a vernacular novel.

  5. Voon said,

    November 4, 2021 @ 4:50 pm

    Want to add, I didn't read the author correctly, he must be referring only to epic poetry, and excludes other forms of epic narrative.

  6. Sniffnoy said,

    November 4, 2021 @ 4:59 pm

    This post just starts talking about Crete 1941, as if the reader is already familiar with it, without properly introducing it or explaining what it is or where one can read about it or read it…

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 4, 2021 @ 6:03 pm

    It may well be the case that the fighting on Crete looms larger in the New Zealand national mythos than any other (except for the Cretans, of course), but I daresay that the hitherto-best-known English-language poem referring to it is an Australian one (of non-"epic" length), viz. John Manifold's "The Tomb of Lieutenant John Learmonth AIF." I give below a link to a pdf that not only reproduces the whole text of the poem but includes tips on how to teach it to Australian high school students, for whom I guess it might come up as assigned reading. I first read it when I was in high school myself some 40 years ago, not because it was assigned but because it was included in an anthology of 20th-century poetry that my father had gotten for a college class 25 years previously and that I read and re-read somewhat obsessively.

    The Manifold poem is perhaps interesting by contrast because whether or not there was ever really a common "ANZAC" narrative uniting the experience of soldiers from Australia and New Zealand serving in the World Wars, Manifold leans on very distinctively Australian images ("Swagman and bushranger die hard, die game, / Die fighting, like that wild colonial boy," not to mention "Turned to the hills like wolf or kangaroo") that I think New Zealanders might find rather alien. But to this day, whenever someone I know dies (which happens with increasing frequency as the decades pass) and I feel the need to figure out what to say, I often think of Manifold's opening "This is not sorrow, this is work: / I build a cairn of words …" etc.


  8. Victor Mair said,

    November 4, 2021 @ 7:25 pm

    From Thomas L. Mair:

    Before reading this I was unaware that New Zealand participated in the Crete Campaign, or that the Maori fielded a battalion during the war. Nearly my entire knowledge of that dreadful episode comes from having read "The Sword of Honor" trilogy, which deals with Evelyn Waugh's wartime experiences. The second volume of the trilogy, Officers and Gentlemen, is set during the debacle on Crete.

    The books are naturally written from a British perspective, and I don't recall any mention of the Kiwis or Maoris. I should have known that whenever the Australians (or the Commonwealth, probably) fought, the New Zealanders fought with them. Collectively the Australian/New Zealand military forces are known as the ANZACS. It is widely believed, whether or not it's true, that the British treated the ANZACS as cannon fodder, as at Gallipoli in WW1.

  9. R. Fenwick said,

    November 4, 2021 @ 9:38 pm

    Tangential to the topic at hand, the term "epic" has historically relied heavily upon Homer for its definition in English, so with respect, to state that the Iliad is "the most perfect epic ever composed" strikes me as largely begging the question. In addition, I should imagine that Georgians would take exception at the idea in view of the ვეფხისტყაოსანი Vepxist'q'aosani of Shota Rustaveli, which Marjory Wardrop described as "in a unique manner the book of a nation for seven hundred years".

  10. Rakau said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 1:32 am

    @JW Brewer. I am a Pakeha New Zealander. Many of my generation don’t call ourselves kiwis. We are New Zealanders and now there is a growing trend to say we are from Aotearoa, the traditional Maori name for NZ. Regarding bushrangers and swagmen. Both are part of our tradition. Our most infamous bushrangers were the Kelly gang (unrelated to the (in)famous Australian bushrangers Ned Kelly. Our Kelly gang were hanged in Nelson. We had swagmen too. The last of them was an itinerant who wandered around the lower North Island’s Manawatu district during my lifetime. The Maori battalion is revered here by Maori and Pakeha alike. Casino is known by my generation. My mother’s brother fought there. There are very many Maori born during and after WW2 who have battlefield names. Some examples I know are Egypt, El Alamein, Casino, Lance Corporal, Tunisia, Libya, Karipori (transliteration of Gallipoli), Crete, Athens. There are many others. We also preserve those names in other ways. The boarding school I attended in my high school years had all of its dormitories named after battle sites. We celebrate our losses more often than we do our victories. Crete and Gallipoli are etched into our collective memories of heroes and wars. Both were defeats.

  11. bukwyrm said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 6:01 am

    What even is this? The first part reads like a contrived stream of consciousness, then there is a —– line, and at the end "[Thanks to James Fanell]", although the post began with "[This is a guest post by Bernard Cadogan]" – please make it more clear who is writing what here.

    The hallucinogenic beginnings' narrator is Bernard? It reads like the narrator fought in '41, but the bio later puts his birth in '61.

  12. David Marjanović said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 6:59 am

    What even is this?

    I gather that Bernard Cadogan wrote "Crete 1941", calls it an epic poem, and interprets it here. It took me a while to figure that out, though, because it's so completely unexpected on this blog.

  13. AntC said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 7:02 am

    Aww I think it's reasonably clear:

    From "[This is a guest post …]" down to "finis" is the guest post.

    dashed line then blurb from the publisher.

    dashed line then biog of the author of the epic = author of the guest post.

    Yes I find the style of the 'guest post' rather … emm … cumbrous. From the publisher's website you can 'Download a free taster', which similarly launches in media res.

    It reads like the narrator fought in '41,

    It's unlikely Homer fought at Ilium, what with them being blind and/or a woman, maybe "lived up to 500 years after [the Trojan War]" [wikipedia]. That doesn't preclude the epics putting you right in amongst the action.

    Art, 'innit. This example isn't to my taste.

    Fewer footnotes than 'The Wasteland'. (That isn't a recommendation.)

  14. maidhc said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 6:36 pm

    Isn't the Pentateuch a Semitic epic? It seems a very narrow definition if it's not.

  15. AntC said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 7:09 pm

    I think 'epic' implies a coherent style and contiguous narrative over events in a focussed period of time. So for example it's a demerit that Book X of Iliad is a later insertion by a different poet.

    There's plenty of other words to describe sagas/histories/mythologies/legends/heroic poems/narratives/…

    The Pentateuch is too long and straggling of a narrative, with different authors in different styles/ages, editted down by 'redactor's/rabbinical scholars.

  16. Phil H said,

    November 6, 2021 @ 2:48 am

    I love the first line of that Manifold poem:
    "This is not sorrow, this is work:
    I build a cairn of words…"
    For everyone who works with language, it is both our primary medium of expressing our feeling, human selves, and a professional tool over which we (try to) maintain a cool control and distance. That line really resonated with me.

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