The Mistake

Greek vase

THE TITANS were always there, of course, but we were the bosses. Our job was to keep them in their place, which involved all sorts of battles, contests, schemes, feuds and the like. In the end we always won. After all, we were the gods, and it was our job to win. There were many ‘final battles’ and so on, all over the place. Each of them resulted, after skirting the edges of doom, in our victory. But the victories were also losses, there was always something truncated, there were always the dead to be mourned, and the battles also always signified, somehow, the passing of the age.

The Titans were big guys. I suppose that’s why we called them Titans. They acted big, they thought big. It was, of course, they who built all the great stone walls, raised the megaliths and so on. We were pretty big, too. We were big enough to beat them. We used thunderbolts and stuff like that. And courage, skill and treachery. The usual for a war. We liked to do tough stuff like riding chariots and wrestling—after all, we modeled ourselves on Earthly kings. Or was it the other way around? Whatever.

There was one particular Titan whom we called Iapetus. He was fond of finding things out. He was a weaponer, and many other things beside. For a while it was my task to counter his mischief. I first met him on a battle ground. He wasn’t much of a swordsman. Cut slash stab, and it should have been over. But it wasn’t. When I thrust forward, there was a jarring clang as though I’d hit a stone. It completely blunted the point of my sword, too. In the furore he got away. Turned out he’d invented iron, and made iron breastplates which were harder than bronze.

I caught up with him again years later. I was on a quest for better weapons and had been referred to a smithy that was built into the bottom of a cliff where a mountain reared up out of a forest. It was an isolated spot but it had all the necessities of a forge: the mine, which delved into the cliff, the wood, and even a good bed of clay for all the things clay is good for.

Journeying through the forest, I came upon a place of desolation. The silence of birds lay everywhere. The trees were felled as far as the eye could see. Ahead of me the mountain reared up like a raised fist.

A great smoke came from the smithy in a cave at the cliff base. The smell of burning pervaded everything. The cave was lit from inside by the fire of the forge, and by its red and changing light I could see a powerful bear pounding at the anvil with a great hammer. The bear sniffed and looked at me, and when his eyes met mine I knew it was him, for though his form was that of a bear, the eyes were those of the very Titan who I had met in the field. It was he who had nicked my ear in that battle, before he had vanished into the churned up dust.

I at once became a lion, and with a great roar I sprang upon the enemy. A mere bear was nothing to me. I had torn rhinoceros apart with my teeth and nails. The bear smiled and changed himself into a flock of sparrows, which flew through and around my attack. Each bird had his eyes. I became an eagle, and rent his flock, catching them one by one in my claws. But each bird dissolved into a swarm of lice which flowed through my talons. I became a toad, and lapped them up with my sticky tongue, when suddenly there he was again, the great bear, preparing to gulp the toad. I saw that he was wounded, though lightly. At once I changed back into my warrior form, and attacked him with new strength.

He became a roc or some such bird, really big, and flew up and up over the mountain. I pursued in the form of a warrior in a winged chariot drawn by swans. I rained arrows at his giant form. I flung javelins and darts at him. As a stone he plunged into the sea. As a cormorant I followed him, ready to take him in my craw.

This chasing and shape-changing went on for quite a while. We were both wounded and exhausted. Then, in the form of a yellow dog, he ran into a settlement of people. There he changed one last time. But this time his change itself changed. He became a thought, an idea, a practice in the minds of the men and women. I could sense him everywhere, but he was nowhere.

I galloped after him on a tall horse with a lance slung on my arm. People scattered. A yellow dog came from a doorway yelping and scurrying and looking over his shoulder as he fled. I ran him through, and he died on the lance. Well, that put an end to the battle. I rode home with the dog on the end of the shaft like a totem or pennant. I thought the eyes were Iapetus’, though it was hard to tell because they were dead.

That was my mistake. If I’d known where he had gone, I would have killed everyone there, all the animals, everything, and sown salt in their fields, too. Of course, I was hailed as a hero, which was nothing new for me, and forgot all about him. But the village did not stay the same. Its people became possessed with gain and size. They seemed to acquire an ingenuity which they devoted to this. They became a city, a kingdom, an empire.

From then, things just got worse, here, there and wherever, Iapetus set his mark. Of course, we sent our barbarian armies to pull them down, made diseases and plagues, blighted their crops and turned their fields to deserts. But wherever we pursued him, Iapetus sprang up in a hundred or a thousand other forms.

Still, he was pretty easy to spot. Wherever things got too big, wherever men overreached themselves, wherever ingenuity was used in the service of more and quicker, there he was. A sort of big tough cleverness. Which, of course, made him hard to fight.

When they tell you that the gods beat the Titans, and bound them like that one on the rock and so on, it’s all true but it’s all a lie too. Because, well, because I didn’t kill everyone in that village. Because I was looking for a thing, and Iapetus was so clever that he had become what I could not see.

Naturally, the war’s gone on ever since, and, frankly, at the moment we’re doing pretty badly. They won’t win, of course, because it’s, well, it’s basically impossible. If they really defeated us they’d defeat themselves too and pull the whole thing down, because we are them.

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