Myth-ing Persons : Heroes of Myth and Legend

January began as one of the last months of year, not the first.  The start of the Roman calendar (and the astrological one) was March. Back then there were only ten months to the year, totaling 304 days. Between was a miasmic 66 monthless days of “winter.” According to legend, Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome (after Romulus himself), added January and February to codify that winter term (along with a catch-up month every other year of 22 days).

Was Numa a real figure? History leans toward yes, born around 753 BC. Both Plutarch and Livy (major Roman writers) wrote about him. He codified Roman laws and religion, so we know he actually lived, but like many legends, there are stories about him that are most likely fable.

Every culture has their grandiose heroes of myth and legend. Some we know are fantasy (Beowulf), while others we know are fact (Jesse James). Let’s look at some famous heroes that history can’t make up its mind about.

Mulan

Disney’s Mulan is based on a Chinese poem called The Ballad of Mulan. She is believed to have lived somewhere between 386 CE and 620 CE (if you’re not up on your history, Common Era has replaced the Anno Domini). She takes her aging father’s place in the army, and serves for twelve years without her fellow soldiers realizing she’s a woman. Depending on the source, her name might be Hua Mulan, Zhu Mulan, or Wei Mulan. Although she’s first mentioned by the 500’s, historians can’t decide if she’s real or just an interesting story.

 

 

 

 

John Henry

The steel-driving African American of song fame who managed to hammer more rock than the new-fangled steam drill before collapsing and dying was likely a real man. In the 1920’s, sociologist Guy Johnson tracked down not only people who claimed to have worked with John Henry, but one man who claimed to have seen the showdown. The front runner for the actual location is during the cutting of the Big Bend Tunnel in Talcott, West Virginia, around 1870, but no one has definitive proof.

 

 

 

 

William Tell

A folk hero of Switzerland, Tell was an expert bowman. When Switzerland fell under control of the Habsburgs, a magistrate put his hat on a pole and demanded all citizens bow before it, or be imprisoned. While in town with his son, Tell refused to bow, was arrested and sentenced to death – though, since he was such a marksman, the Magistrate would let him go if he could shoot an apple off his son’s head. Tell did so, was arrested anyway, escaped, and the people rose up in rebellion, in an act considered the founding of the Swiss Confederacy, around 1307. Some historians believe Tell is merely a new twist on an old Danish fable.

Robin Hood

     The story of Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Prince John, King Richard, and the Band of Merrymen has been told for almost a thousand years. We know King Richard and Prince John are real (Richard took the throne in 1189), but there is debate about Robin Hood. Most likely a yeoman, not a noble, the name Robin was about as common as fleas, and the word Hood (sometimes Wood; the Old English were creative spellers) simply meant a man who made or wore hoods – more common then than hats. History’s been singing about him since the 1300’s, but his true identity isn’t known. If you can, check out the BBC series Robin of Sherwood.

 

 

 

 

 

King Arthur

Oh, Arthur! How we want to believe! Of all legends, yours is perhaps the most influential of any! Your mage Merlin/Myrrdin is the direct ancestor of Gandalf, Dungeons and Dragons, Dumbledore, and more.  “Arthur” (depending on spelling) is believed to have actually been a military leader who fought battles against the Saxons around the end of the 5th century. The earliest possible references to him date to the 600’s, though some discuss a Battle of Badon but give no mention of a king named Arthur.  Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to give a romanticized version in the 1100’s, then Thomas Malory came along in the 1400’s and standardized the legend. T.H. White called him the Once and Future King, and Lerner and Loewe put it all to music so we could remember it easier. Arthur was probably real, but not quite as mystical as we’ve been made to believe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

January’s a harsh month, but 31 days is sure better than 66, so curl up with a legendary figure, real or possibly not, and decide for yourself.

 

Book Recommendations Based on Your Favorite Marvel Superheroes

The Marvel Universe has never been more popular, with more movie and television adaptations being produced every year. But in between movies and TV seasons, what’s a superhero superfan to do? These YA books can help to fill the void your hero has left behind:

If you’re an Iron Man fan, try The Thousandth Floor by Katherine McGee. A tale set in a luxury tower 100 years in the future follows the experiences of an addicted perfectionist, a betrayed teen, a financially strapped girl, a socialite with an illegal A.I., and a genetically perfect girl. In this world, the higher you go, the farther there is to fall.

If The Incredible Hulk is your guy,  Monster by Michael Grant is also pretty incredible. When  meteorite strikes introduce an alien virus that gives humans unique superpowers, it triggers an epic battle between teen hero defenders and out-of-control supermonsters.

Need more like Thor? Try the Magnus Chase series by Rick Riordan. After the death of his mother, Magnus finds out that he is the son of a Norse god and must track down a lost ancient sword to stop a war being waged by mythical monsters.

If you love Guardians of the Galaxy, give Invictus by Ryan Graudin a try. Born outside of time as the son of a time-traveler from the 24th century and a first-century gladiator, Farway takes a position commanding a ship that smuggles valuables from different eras before meeting a mysterious girl with knowledge that places his existence in question.

If you can’t wait for the next Black Panther movie,  try Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi in the meantime. Zâelie, her brother Tzain, and princess Amari fight to restore magic to the land and activate a new generation of magi, but they are pursued by the crown prince, who believes the return of magic will mean the end of the monarchy.

 

 

 

A Legacy of Spies

The other year, in preparation for a novel I hoped would have more intrigue and action than I was used to writing, I decided to break with my comfort zone and read a few spy novels to deconstruct the genre and see how the action was set up and paced. I’d read a James Bond novel once and was less than impressed; the movies I loved so much were horribly dull novels, and the book-Bond looked much more like Truman Capote than any pretty-boy actor.

I didn’t want to waste time, so I Googled “best spy novels”, and one of the top two on almost every list was John LeCarré’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so that was the one I read first.

The lists were right. The book was brilliant, and I couldn’t put it down. After that I rushed out to watch the 2012 BBC film version, an incredible cast including Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, and more – which was still excellent, though some people prefer the 1979 mini-series adaption with Alec Guinness (that’s Obi Wan Kenobi to some of you). The strangest part was that, while reading the book, I had already cast Toby Jones in one of the roles in my head  –  but as Peter Guillam, though, not Percy Alleline as he was in the film.

Why so good? Well, see – like Ian Fleming, John LeCarré (real name: David Cornwell; spies aren’t allowed to use their real names to publish novels) was an actual British spy in World War II, so he knows the ins and outs and tiny little details of how the game is played, layers upon layers of secrets and trades and double-dealings. He’s lived it first hand, and that makes all the believable difference. He began writing novels in 1961 (Call for the Dead), but it wasn’t until his third novel in 1963, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, that he hit the best-seller list and wound up quitting MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service) to pursue writing full time.

While all of us sit here and think, why would you quit being an awesome spy to write books?

But LeCarré certainly is good at it, with more than 24 novels to his name, almost all of them best-sellers. Several have been made into successful film adaptions, including The Constant Gardener (2005), starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) starring Richard Burton, and the recent delicious adaption of The Night Manager (2016), starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, a book that reads more like a James Bond adaption than a Bond novel does.

Unable to sit still in retirement, LeCarré, now 86, has pumped out yet another novel last year, A Legacy of Spies, a conclusion of sorts for George Smiley’s people, his ex-agent who keeps coming back. Pulling his best-loved characters from so many of his novels, LeCarré manages to weave them together with new characters in present-day, finding new depths and bringing new truths to light, even after 50 years. LeCarré shows that time has not diminished him nor his characters, and if you think you know how it will end, like all of his works, it’s pretty well guaranteed you don’t.

Give le Carré a try. If you like mystery, espionage, intrigue, and unraveling puzzles with characters who won’t let you go, then you’ll love his work. If you haven’t tried him, he’s a wonderful place to begin to explore the genre. For modern novels, he’s rather clean, without a lot of graphic violence or sex or language, perhaps making the stories even more remarkable. Start with Legacy of Spies and work backward, or start at the beginning and work forward. If you prefer to watch rather than read, there are more than ten films, five television adaptions, and four radio plays to keep you entertained. You’ll be so glad you did.

Winter is Here, Jon Snow

Some people love winter, love the brisk air, the blinding glare, the crystal-clear night skies, soft fluffy snow and cups of steaming hot chocolate. Other people hate the freezing cold, the knifing winds, the treacherous roads, bare trees, and endless brown mud and slush clinging to shoes, cars, and pet feet tracking through the house.

For me, winter is a romantic time, curled by a fireplace (wood, gas, or electric) before a window with long velvet drapes (one of my favorite possessions), reading a book in a favorite chair while snow swirls outside the window and an animal lounges at my feet. It means a stew bubbling on the stove, fresh bread in the oven, or perhaps fresh shortbread cookies and a cup of Earl Gray tea by that fire. Perhaps it’s a holiday, with candles and lights and decorations, waiting for company to make it through the snow. Yeah, yeah, there’s no groundsman to shovel the walks when it’s over, I have to do it myself, but for a few hours I’m lost in an old English fantasy, there’s a mystery in the air, a challenge ahead, but love and fortune win in the end (note: I have never achieved this fantasy, but I keep hoping).

English Tales of Winter

Which made me think: why are all those images we cling to English fantasies? Sure, that period of literature is within what’s called the Little Ice Age, which ran from the 1300’s to the 1890’s, killing off the Vikings in Greenland and creating all those iconic Currier and Ives scenes, but it also put those chunks of ice in Washington Crossing the Delaware, and in 1816, with the dust of the exploded volcano Mount Tambora in the air, summer never arrived, and temperatures were still below freezing in June. Where is the American winter tale? American stories tend to be about blizzards, hardship, starvation, and ghosts. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, and Washington Irving are hardly on par with Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Reading about the Donner party probably isn’t a good idea before eating stew.

American Tales of Winter

The only American “winter” tales I know well are children’s literature: The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Left By Themselves by Charles Paul May, the semi-historical Seven Alone by Honore Morrow, and the absolutely timeless endearing tale of Mandy, by Julie Andrews Edwards (Yes, Mary Poppins herself. Adults will love this, too!). But where are the adult books? Problem is, not much adult American literature of that period gives off that type of security.

That period of literature we think of is called the Romantic movement and includes Gothic literature, dealing with mystery, spiritualism, ghosts, hauntings, and torturous love – Frankenstein, Les Miserables, Dorian Gray, Hunchback of Notre Dame, A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist – some of our most famous classics, running from about 1760 through the Victorian age, around 1890.  America in 1776 was not only new and still forming, it was mostly unsettled, and people in the colds of Fort Duquesne, Fort Niagara, and Fort Cumberland were more concerned with staying alive than writing literature. Of course you still had authors, but not to the degree England – a stable civilization for 1200 years – did. While Heathcliff was brooding the lonely moors, Americans were exploring and giving us stories like Last of the Mohicans, Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Moby Dick, and The Scarlet Letter. Not the same, and certainly not the same as being snowed in and wringing one’s hands on the family estate. The American experience is uniquely American in that regard.

Just because our snow stories don’t go back to King Wenceslas (ok, Wenceslas was Bohemian/ Czechoslovakian, but the song, 900 years later, is English) doesn’t mean American literature isn’t good, it just means it’s different. Maybe you’ll have to settle for cotton twill drapes and a medium double-latte with a space heater and a Snuggie. If you love gothic literature, delve into a classic or something newer; there are hundreds of books (and films!) to choose from. If you love reading about snowy days while curled in a chair listening to the winds howl, try some of these modern tales (and films):

Office Girl by Joe Meno

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

 Snow by Orhan Panuk

 

  Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata

The Snow Child  by Eowyn Ivey

Wolf Winter by Celia Ekback

Winter Solstice  by Rosamunde Pilcher

The Book Thief by  Markus Zusak

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

 The Shining  Stephen King

Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg, 

Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Checking Your Flu

It’s almost impossible to get through the winter without hearing about the flu. While we often use the word flu to describe any miserable feverish head cold, a cold (rhinovirus) is NOT the same as the flu (influenza). A head cold is 10 days of misery. Flu will disable you for weeks, if not outright kill you.

Flu shots are a government conspiracy. I got the shot and still got the flu.

Preventing death and permanent disability is not a conspiracy. Complications of a cold include sinus and ear infections, asthma, or rarely pneumonia. The most common complication of the flu is pneumonia – the #4 killer world-wide, but can also leave you with organ damage or failure,  encephalitis, and even sepsis. If you get the flu shot and then feel lousy, it’s not flu; it’s your body charging up its antibodies. If you get a flu shot and then get a cold, it’s not the flu. Recombinant flu vaccines don’t even contain flu. CAN you get the flu after getting a flu shot? Of course you can, the same way you seem to get the same cold every year. Here’s why:

Is there more than one type of flu?

There are actually three flu viruses, A, B, and C. A is common, B less so, C mild and rare. Each type has two parts: the hemaglutinin protein (the H) and an enzyme to let it reproduce (the N, for neuraminidase). There are 18 types of H’s and 11 types of N’s – thousands of combinations of H1N1’s, H2N3’s, H6N4’s. Now, not all of these can be caught by people (some are limited to animals), but viruses can mutate and change very rapidly. With all those combinations, the Centers for Disease Control have to make a best guess at what flu will prevail that winter, and make enough vaccine a year in advance. If your shot is for N1H1, and you catch H2N3 – you’ve got flu. Better flu shots (called trivalent or quadravalent) will give you immunity to the top three or four likely flus, quadrupling your chances of staying healthy. Even if you do manage to get a flu, your partial immunity will give you a much milder case.

What are the odds I will get the flu?

What are your chances? In the winter of 2016-17, more than 2500 Connecticut residents showed up at the Emergency Department for flu-like illnesses. 80% of those were type A, and of those , 98% of them were of the H3N2 variety (the others were the old H1N1). Sixty-five of them died. That’s not a total of reported cases; that’s just how many wound up hospitalized. If you have diabetes, heart problems, take immune suppressors, pregnant, sickle cell disease, cancer treatment, are over 65 or under 2, you are considered high risk. If someone in your family or workplace fits these categories, you are placing them at risk.

Now, of course, some years are worse for flu than others. The biggie was 1918, when the H1N1 (yes, that same one you’re getting vaccinated for right now) had a new mutation to a form no one had ever had before, and it became a world-wide pandemic for two years, killing as many as 50 million people. Fifty. 5-0. Million. The next major flu was 1957 Asian flu (H2N2), which killed two million people. The 1968 Hong Kong flu (H3N2) killed more than a million. That’s not counting disabled, or lost 30 days from work, or sick as a dog. That’s the number dead.

Why do so many flus start in Asia?

Many flu strains are animal-only. They’re limited to birds, or horses, or pigs. In Asia, people, chickens, and pigs are often living in close or crowded conditions, and many Asian cities are very densely populated. Pigs are very similar to people in their genetic makeup (surgeons can use pig organs in people for short times). A bird flu can mutate and jump to pigs, and from pigs it doesn’t take a lot of mutation to become a Human flu. This is why scientists worry every time there’s a breakout of swine flu or bird flu, and millions of animals may be slaughtered to keep it from spreading. All it takes is a new mutation to start a mega-deadly 1918-style pandemic.

Should everyone get a flu shot?

So who should NOT get a flu shot? Check with your doctor first if you’ve got Guillain-Barre Syndrome, if you have immune disorders such as HIV, children on aspirin therapy, severe egg allergies, people with certain metabolic disorders, if you have kidney disease or severe respiratory issues. Sometimes it’s worth the risk, sometimes it’s not, depending on the year.

Washing your hands constantly remains the next-best flu preventative. And while you’re avoiding the flu, or perhaps recovering from it, check out these really awesome books on the flu (I’ve read them!) – and some excellent (scary) novels on flu (check for movie versions, too!) :