Invictus, composed in the 19th-century by William Ernest Henley, is now best known as the poem that inspired Nelson Mandela throughout his more than 26-year stay in prison.
In the 2009 popular movie that shares the poem’s name, Mandela, President of an emerging South Africa, is seen in flashback reading the poem as it describes his circumstances and reveals the door for his psychological (perhaps spiritual) escape from the horrors of being imprisoned by forces beyond his control.
The same could be said of Henley himself—he wrote the work over time, each successive edition occasioned by an act of fate which threatened to overwhelm him. First an illness, then an amputation, then further hospitalization:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Most who have seen the movie have been inspired by one or more of Mandela’s characteristics—his ability to forgive, his focus on the greater good, or his steadfast and consistent personal dedication to avoid repaying long-standing apartheid with White discrimination.
Mandela’s courage is mirrored by his protégé in affairs of leadership, Francois Pienaar, captain of the nearly-all-white National Rugby Club, The South African Springboks. During the movie, and in real life, Pienaar was transformed by Mandela’s presence and generosity of spirit.
When the two first meet, they actually addressed the question of “What does a leader do to inspire those he leads?” While Mandela leads Pienaar through the possibilities from music to speeches, he carefully impresses him with his own action, his own selfless commitment to a cause bigger than himself. Mandela’s aim is to inspire Pienaar to win the Rugby World Cup for his newly democratic nation.
The tension builds until the unlikely and ironic final match between the former white-separatist Springboks and the perennial champion “All-Blacks” from New Zealand.
So the real-life symbolic battles–Black against White–Segregated against Integrated–are joined, on the field and in the nation. It turns on inspiration. Unlike today’s professional athletes, the South Africans aren’t moved to victory by a million dollar bonus. Rather it is Pienaar’s words that mirror the subjective interior passion of his charges “This is our destiny!” he shouts to his bloodied troops.
Invictus is a myth that was played out in real life. As in the sinking of the Titanic, the gods made sure we understand by explicitly naming the symbols. A rousing success, not just because of the acting, but because the story rings of what matters—to all of us.