History and Legend

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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