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:
And by what witchery in the western hills
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.