History and Legend

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Ransom Stoddard: You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?

Maxwell Scott: No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

History tells us that George Washington as a boy did not cut down a cherry tree and, while telling his father about it, assure him that he could not tell a lie.  Saint Francis of Assisi almost certainly did not convert a wolf from his thieving ways and teach him to beg humbly for his  food like a good Franciscan.  Robin Hood did not help King Richard the Lionheart regain his throne from his brother John Lackland.  We know almost nothing about King Arthur and what we think we know about him is certainly almost entirely legend.

Historical accuracy is very important, and we should be unsparing about separating legend from hard historical fact.  However, that does not mean we should not also cherish the legends of historical figures.  Often the developments of the legend are an interesting historical tale in and of themselves.  However, the legends often also give us truth about the historical figure.  By all accounts George Washington was a man of extreme rectitude in all his dealings.  However that prosaic sentence lacks all of the poetry of Parson Weems’ fable of a boy too noble to lie, even when facing possible punishment.  Saint Francis probably never tamed a wolf, but the movement he started with his Franciscans has tamed the wolf in the soul of many a man and woman down through the centuries.  Robin Hood never lifted a bow for Richard the Lionheart, but the tale of the outlaw who fought for right has inspired the nobler natures of men and women for uncounted generations.  As for King Arthur, he is left in the hands of a great poet who sums up this post:

The Myth of Arthur by G. K. Chesterton
O learned man who never learned to learn,
 Save to deduce, by timid steps and small,
From towering smoke that fire can never burn
And from tall tales that men were never tall.
Say, have you thought what manner of man it is
 Of who men say “He could strike giants down” ?
Or what strong memories over time’s abyss
Bore up the pomp of Camelot and the crown.
And why one banner all the background fills,
Beyond the pageants of so many spears,
And by what witchery in the western hills
A throne stands empty for a thousand years.
Who hold, unheeding this immense impact,
Immortal story for a mortal sin;
Lest human fable touch historic fact,
Chase myths like moths, and fight them with a pin.
Take comfort; rest–there needs not this ado.
You shall not be a myth, I promise you.

History is our prose and legends our poetry for the great journey of mankind, and we need both to chart a true course into the future.


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  1. A very salutary caution, but we should not neglect the value of folk-memory.

    To give an example, within my own knowledge, I am proprietor of a small piece of ground, about 18 acres of winter pasture, known locally as the Ten Shilling Land of Boyd (the shilling is an old British coin, 20 to the pound sterling, abolished in 1971)

    The titles show it as being “a mailing or tenandry, being a Ten Shilling Land of Old Extent.” Now, the Old Extent was a survey of rental values, carried out for tax purposes by King Alexander III in 1280, whose daughter was marrying the King of Norway and he needed help to pay her tocher. It may have been based on an earlier assessment by William the Lion, a century earlier, but the evidence is not conclusive. There is a similar piece of ground, known as the Merkland, obviously of the same origin (the Merk or Mark is another old coin, worth 2/3rds of a pound sterling). So, here we have oral testimony of the assessment of this land, continuing over eight centuries.

  2. I enjoyed seeing the classic scene from one of my favorite movies “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” It brought me back to my medical internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1962 when the title song (which never mede it into the movie) was popular. I also enjoyed seeing the clip from “El Cid” which I discussed in my book Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners. It looks at the arc of the treatment of Christians especially Catholics in about 200 films from 1905-2008. You seem very knowledgeable about film. Are you familiar with it or my other book “Doctors in the Movies: Boil the Water and Just Say Aah!?” I also liked seeing the clip from my all-time favorite film “Casablanca” in one of your recent posts.
    Speaking about film, your story about Father Galveston would make a wonderful film as would the story of Edmund Campion and his brother priests.
    Keep up the good work.
    Peter E./ Dans

  3. I hold to the argument that there is a real figure beneath the Arthurian legend, however conflated or otherwise lost to time he may be. Something knocked the Saxons back on their heels around 500 AD, confining them to the southern and eastern parts of what is now England. The result was something unique in the barbarian-occupied Western Empire: the survival of the invading barbarians as a distinct group, with little intermarriage (or even linguistic borrowing).

    Whether that figure was named “Arthur,” or is the conflation of a later legend with a confirmable, if shadowy, historical figure (Ambrosius Aurelianus), I can’t say. But the Saxons suffered a severe reverse ca. 500 that took a couple of generations to shake off.

  4. It’s kind of like a shadow version of comparing science with religion; they’re for totally different purposes, and if you try to force one into the format of the other, it fails.

    People need stories. People need facts. A balanced person is going to need both, though the proportions are different for different folks.

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