I've just finished watching Lonesome Dove, the TV mini-series, which must rank as one of the best dramas ever to be on television. It's tone is highly elegiac - there is a sense of these great heroes, these former Texas rangers, in the twilight of their years, going off on one last adventure, in which their luck runs out and they almost all die.
And it's deeply emotionally satisfying. Why is this? Why do we find such stories of great heroes passing away so emotionally powerful?
I turn the TV off, and go upstairs to read my book. I happen to be reading Apsley Cherry Garrard's account of the Scott expedition to the Antarctic in 1910-1913. More dead heroes, more elegiac sense of a braver era passing.
I guess somehow our psyches are evolutionarily hard-wired to respond to such stories. We have, ever since literature began, responded deeply to stories that tell us of the great heroic age which has now passed, of the great heroes that lived before our time, of the feats they achieved, of the brotherhood and courage that existed among them, and how that is all gone now.
Perhaps such stories help create a spirit of self-sacrifice which serves the tribe. But also, tales of the death of heroes console us that our lives mean something, that there is something lost in the passing of man, that we are not simply insignificant arrangements of dust, that our spirits are great, and our stories deserve to be told. They take the best that is in man, and confront it with the worst of his or her environment - tragedy, accident, loss, death - and show man tested but not hopefully found wanting.
And I guess why Lonesome Dove is so great is that it also shows us the flaws of these great heroes - the imperfection of their lives, their emotional inarticulacy, their mistakes, their limits.
It is a fine story - greater than many more fashionable novels that strain for greater effect and value themselves at a higher price.
Below is a clip from the drama, in which an army man makes the mistake of picking a fight with Newt, the son of the tough former ranger, Captain Call. The captain has never acknowledged that Newt is his son, but his paternal instincts kick in when he sees Newt being attacked.