From nowhere we came, into nowhere we go. What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night.

~ Attributed to Crowfoot

Help the Captain get his spaceship!

Mithril Angel Wings

Teasing out History

Spent some time earlier looking for good firefly quotes. As much of a cult hit as Firefly is, it’s rather hard to find quotes about the lightning bugs as opposed to the Whedon show. One quote did keep cropping up that I liked though, from an Indian chief:

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”

– Chief Crowfoot, Blackfoot Indian Chief

It showed up in any number of quote compilation pages across the net (Google the first two sentences and you get over 13,000 results).

One page, however, had a suprisingly different attribution:

A little while and I will be gone from among you, whither I cannot tell. From nowhere we came, into nowhere we go.What is Life? It is a flash of a firefly in the night. It is a breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is as the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.

-Haggard, Sir (Henry) Rider
Dying words of the  African chief Umbopa in King Solomon’s Mines.  John Peter Turner in The North-West Mounted Police (1950) credited them to Crowfoot (c.1830^1890), chief of the Blackfoot Indians, who died in his teepee overlooking the Bow River,  Alberta, 25  Apr1890, and this attribution gained popular acceptance.

African chief Umbopa? What the heck?

So I looked up Sir H. Rider Haggard, and lo and behold has the entire text of his 1885 book, King Solomon’s Mines. Which I searched fruitlessly for a firefly quote. Searching for fire though, found this section (bolding mine):

Umbopa understood English, though he rarely spoke it.

“It is a far journey, Incubu,” he put in, and I translated his remark.

“Yes,” answered Sir Henry, “it is far. But there is no journey upon this earth that a man may not make if he sets his heart to it. There is nothing, Umbopa, that he cannot do, there are no mountains he may not climb, there are no deserts he cannot cross, save a mountain and a desert of which you are spared the knowledge, if love leads him and he holds his life in his hands counting it as nothing, ready to keep it or lose it as Heaven above may order.”

I translated.

“Great words, my father,” answered the Zulu–I always called him a Zulu, though he was not really one–“great swelling words fit to fill the mouth of a man. Thou art right, my father Incubu. Listen! what is life? It is a feather, it is the seed of the grass, blown hither and thither, sometimes multiplying itself and dying in the act, sometimes carried away into the heavens. But if that seed be good and heavy it may perchance travel a little way on the road it wills. It is well to try and journey one’s road and to fight with the air. Man must die. At the worst he can but die a little sooner. I will go with thee across the desert and over the mountains, unless perchance I fall to the ground on the way, my father.”

He paused awhile, and then went on with one of those strange bursts of rhetorical eloquence that Zulus sometimes indulge in, which to my mind, full though they are of vain repetitions, show that the race is by no means devoid of poetic instinct and of intellectual power.

“What is life? Tell me, O white men, who are wise, who know the secrets of the world, and of the world of stars, and the world that lies above and around the stars; who flash your words from afar without a voice; tell me, white men, the secret of our life–whither it goes and whence it comes!

“You cannot answer me; you know not. Listen, I will answer. Out of the dark we came, into the dark we go. Like a storm-driven bird at night we fly out of the Nowhere; for a moment our wings are seen in the light of the fire, and, lo! we are gone again into the Nowhere. Life is nothing. Life is all. It is the Hand with which we hold off Death. It is the glow-worm that shines in the night-time and is black in the morning; it is the white breath of the oxen in winter; it is the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself at sunset.”

“You are a strange man,” said Sir Henry, when he had ceased.

It does appear that the first quote was wrongly attributed, barring the small possibility that Chief Crowfoot read Sir Haggard’s novel in the first five years it was out and plagiarized it on his deathbed. I wonder where and when John Peter Turner, the historian for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, quoted him, and whether the screenplay of the 1937 movie version of King Solomon’s Mines gets closer to those lines (when did glow-worm morph to firefly?), but that is outside the scope of my sleuthing.

I do, however, find that the misquoted snippet appeals to me more with its alliteration and simplicity, and so I used it anyway. Besides… it’s damn hard to find a firefly quote.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>