June 15, 2007

In terra caecorum monoculus rex

In English: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

This is yet another proverb carrying on with the theme of kings, as in yesterday's proverb and the past few days. Today's proverb emphasizes that the status of the king is relative, contextual rather than objective. As is almost always the case with proverbs, the meaning can be stretched by means of metaphors. This is not just a saying about kings, but is a saying about any situation where someone or something wins out, simply because it is the best available.

Yet it is also possible to consider the proverb literally: what would a regnum caecorum, a "kingdom of the blind," really be like? For a wildly creative answer to that question, you should read H.G. Wells's wonderful short story, "The Country of the Blind," which is available online.

The premise of the story is that in a remote valley in the Andes mountains, a small community of people was stricken with a disease which gradually blinded the people and their offspring as well:
And amidst the little population of that now isolated and forgotten valley the disease ran its course. The old became groping, the young saw but dimly, and the children that were born to them never saw at all. But life was very easy in that snow-rimmed basin, lost to all the world, with neither thorns nor briers, with no evil insects nor any beasts save the gentle breed of llamas they had lugged and thrust and followed up the beds of the shrunken rivers in the gorges up which they had come. The seeing had become purblind so gradually that they scarcely noticed their loss. They guided the sightless youngsters hither and thither until they knew the whole valley marvellously, and when at last sight died out among them the race lived on. They had even time to adapt themselves to the blind control of fire, which they made carefully in stoves of stone.
After centuries of time had passed, a sighted man then strayed into this valley - a man who knew this old Latin proverb!
But Nunez advanced with the confident steps of a youth who enters upon life. All the old stories of the lost valley and the Country of the Blind had come back to his mind, and through his thoughts ran this old proverb, as if it were a refrain: -- "In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King."
The man fully expects to dazzle these people with his ability to see, but things do not turn out that way:
Slowly Nunez realised this: that his expectation of wonder and reverence at his origin and his gifts was not to be borne out; and after his poor attempt to explain sight to them had been set aside as the confused version of a new-made being describing the marvels of his incoherent sensations, he subsided, a little dashed, into listening to their instruction.
Over time, the man falls in love with a woman of the valley, yet will her family let her marry someone who is patently a madman in their world? It's a great story - kindled in H.G. Wells's imagination by the words of today's proverb, taken literally. Find out what happens by reading the rest of the story for yourself!

Meanwhile here is the proverb read out loud:

386. In terra caecorum monoculus rex.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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1 comment:

randy said...

This proverb appears in the film Minority Report. (Tom Cruise's character purchases drugs from a one-eyed drug dealer who utters this proverb.)