“When I see the dizz ying fal l by my feet and I fear
A beast, a devil, my own ref lection,
And a mass of bodi es below, tw isted by force,
Look, there the y fell, and I w ant to fol low.
But I can’t force my fee t o ff the height
Beca use the ma d ter ror is not at my back
Nor in my face, and ye t, I wan t to fall,
And br e ak my back.”
Ex Altiora is a long Latin narrative poem about a monstrous man/demon/monster of some sort that is approaching a fortified mountain town, and the subsequent failure of the town to effectively combat the monster.
In the days of yore, a prosperous town lay in the Alps, or some other high place, next to a cliff. Due to its strategic importance, the town is quite prosperous and can afford many watchtowers guarding all approaches.
One day, a merchant, who had been sent out to deliver goods to another town returns just three days from his departure claiming that an enormous monster (or demon, or beast, the poem uses many words to describe the monster, and is not consistent in its usage) is approaching along the road.
In defense, the townsfolk place a wooden barricade across the road and ready some soldiers. However, when the watchtowers finally spot the monster, they report the monster is far larger than the merchant had said, and so the town digs a ditch around their walls, and starts handing out spears to every able-bodied man.
With the ditch mostly done, the monster comes into view from the wall, and it is much, much larger than the watchtowers reported. And so, in panic, the town starts attempting to reinforce the walls, and hands out spears and bows to every man, woman, and child, regardless of their ability.
However, as the monster approaches and the townsfolk realize that its head towers above the clouds, they fly into a panic and stop all activity that is not related to making weapons. They attempt to widen the ditch, they send out messengers for help.
Then, as the monster is almost upon the town, the townsfolk see that the monster is larger than the very mountains, higher than the sky even. In terror, the entire town abandons their defenses and rushes headlong off the nearby cliff.
When the messengers return with help a few weeks later, they find the entire town intact, but abandoned. Everybody is dead at the bottom of the cliff.
The poem is decidedly uncomfortable to read. The poem is in dactylic hexameter, but only barely. It is as if the anonymous writer had trouble mastering the meter, though the effect could be deliberate. This disbalance creates a cumulative unease in the reader’s mind, and it necessitates a lot of breaks, less the reader gets nauseous.
The ambiguous nature of the monster lends itself well to being applied as a metaphor to real world problems, say global warming. The town’s attempts all point to a lack of understanding about the threat they face or perhaps the scale. Maybe it really is a huge, unsolvable problem, or perhaps the town was just blowing the threat out of proportion.
Other problems arise. The setting keeps shifting. It first starts in the Alps on a cliff, but later it sounds more like there is a canyon nearby, other times it’s more like the fall is from a mine shaft or other hole. The final section, the town is on top of the mountain rather than halfway up. These inconsistencies are buried enough that it’s hard to notice them, but again, they start to add up so that by the time one finishes the poem, the reader can be excused for feeling disorientated.
Apparently, a copy of the poem was held by Jurgen Leitner, at least two exist in the Miskatonic University’s special collection, and a facsimile of a 17th Century copy resides in the University of New Mexico’s Dark Collection. It is possibly a very rare book, as each copy is unique, and no original covers exist. Most have woodcut illustrations, though a few are without.
See the Magnus Archives for more information.