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.

 

That Wild Wild West

Westerns are not my bag. They cover a very short piece of history (usually post-Civil War to the early 1900’s), they’re often trite, and too many of them bore me. You can run down a checklist for almost every one: Horse? Check. Damsel? Check. Angry Indian? Check. Sheriff?  Check. Big shootout? Check.

Clichéd

No doubt, much of my boredom has to do with Hollywood Westerns. Though I’ve never seen the entire Terror of Tiny Town, I’ve suffered a few westerns. I did like Tombstone, and the remake of True Grit, Young Guns, Maverick, and yes, I admit, I did enjoy The Lone Ranger – three times. Maybe I’m un-American, but I can’t stand John Wayne or his films, and while I was excited to watch High Noon (it was mentioned in the TV show M*A*S*H*, and actor Harry Morgan appeared in both), it was a terribly disappointing, tragically dull film to someone used to modern Hollywood. It turned me off from ever attempting My Darling Clementine or Shootout at the OK Corral. So while I can handle modern westerns, those old classic hallmarks aren’t found on my shelves.

Nor had I ever read a real “Western,” although a couple of Best-Western Literature lists include children’s books like the Little House on the Prairie series, as well as Old Yeller (you could probably throw in Young Pioneers, Caddie Woodlawn, Seven Alone, and the sequel to Old Yeller, Savage Sam), and those I loved just fine. If you read through twenty different lists of what’s considered the best of Old West literature, you’ll find ten books are on every list, so let’s call them the Best Westerns of Literature (not to be confused with Best Western, the hotel, or Western Lit as opposed to Asian):

The Virginian – Owen Wister
Hondo – Louis L’Amour
Lonesome Dove – Larry McMurtry
True Grit – Charles Portis
All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
The Shootist – Glendon Swarthout
Riders of the Purple Sage – Zane Grey
The Time it Never Rained – Elmer Kelton
The Ox-Bow Incident – Walter Van Tildenberg Clark
Shane – Jack Schaefer

Fresh and Award-Winning

I could have lived the rest of my life just fine without Westerns, except for one thing: someone I knew was writing one. I’ve seen Howard Weinstein for many years at various conventions, attended some of his writing workshops, and we know each other at least in passing. Howard’s written more than 18 books, from science fiction to dog training to Mickey Mantle, and some 65 comic books. To make sure he got it right, he visited several of the places he wrote about, making sure he got the details, and over a year or more I listened to him talk about his work and read excerpts from it. It was interesting, but… It was a western.

Galloway’s Gamble was published last September, and now it’s won an award: The Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award for Best First Western Novel. So I had a quandary: support a fellow writer in his award-winning endeavor, or ignore his success on a project he loved dearly. I thought I’d done my duty by having the library order a copy, but I buckled down and opened my first western.

photo courtesy of Howard Weinstein

Galloway’s Gamble is the story of Jake and Jamey Galloway, two brothers who shift about aimlessly looking to find their purpose and not doing well at it. They join the Civil War too late, they miss marrying the girls they had their eyes on, they get taken by a cheating card shark, and horse-shy Jake just can’t manage to hang onto a hat. Yet, little by little, they take steps and missteps to change their fortune, and wind up trying to save their little Texas hometown from the villainous cattle baron Wilhelm Krieg and the corrupt banker Silas Atwood. 

As a western, I can’t judge Galloway’s Gamble, since I’ve read nothing to compare it to, but winning an award is pretty good sign. As a novel, you certainly don’t have to like westerns to enjoy it. The story of the Galloway brothers is a timeless tale of the little man against the powerful, with a cast of characters that never lets you walk away for long – you have to pick it back up and find out what happens. While the influence of films like Maverick is evident (which is not a bad thing), there isn’t an overwhelming number of bullets, horses, swaggering men in hats, and no cliché’d slang that could be a turn-off to the casual reader. Instead, you get a solid, interesting story that just happens to take place in the late 1800’s.

Give it a try. If you like it (and I’m sure you will), you might find some of the classic westerns to your liking, too. I think I’m going to go watch Maverick again.

The Founding Fathers’ Families in Fiction

As Independence Day nears, we are all reminded of our nation’s founding fathers, and the way they shaped our nation. These men have become icons, but they were just human beings, often quite complicated human beings, with wives, mistresses, and children (both legitimate and illegitimate).

Historical fiction can flesh out the characters we know from our history books and give us a look at what life may have been like in those tumultuous times. Here are five novels featuring the men who were there at our nation’s beginnings, and the women who were at their sides.

America’s First Daughter America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie.  This carefully researched tale  imagines the experiences of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Patsy, who while accompanying her father to Paris struggles with his past affair with a slave and falls in love with his protégé against a backdrop of a growing revolution.

Mount Vernon Love Story Mount Vernon Love Story by Mary Higgins Clark by Mary Higgins Clark. In researching George Washington’s life, Mary Higgins Clark was surprised to find the engaging man behind the pious legend. Her novel tells the story of a rare marriage between  Washington and Martha Dandridge Custisand, and brings to life the human side of the man who became known as the father of our country.

Benjamin Franklin’s BastardBenjamin Franklin's Bastard by Sally Cabot by Sally Cabot. This work of literary historical fiction that brings to life a little-known chapter of the American Revolution — the story of Benjamin Franklin and his bastard son, William (a steadfast loyalist), and the women who loved them both.

Patriot Hearts Patriot Hearts: A Novel of the Founding Mothers by Barbara Hambly by Barbara Hambly. The triumphs and turmoil of early America are revealed through fictional portraits of four women–Martha Washington, Abigail Adams, Sally Hemings, and Dolley Madison–who played key roles during four presidential administrations.

The Hamilton Affair The Hamilton Affair by Elizabeth Cobbs by Elizabeth Cobbs. A tale inspired by the true romance between Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler traces Hamilton’s rise to one of America’s most unlikely heroes and Schuyler’s establishment of New York’s first orphanage.

 

 

 

10 Royal Reads

On May 19, Britain’s Prince Harry will marry his American love, Meghan Markle. The Royal Wedding will take place at 12pm (7am ET) at St. George’s Chapel,  Windsor Castle. If your invitation got lost in the mail, you can celebrate along with the rest of the world, as the royal festivities will be broadcast online and on several television stations (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and HBO will all have coverage, among others). We’re even having a Royal Tea Party here at CPL!

To help us all get into a regal mood, we’ve made a list of royal reads to set the proper tone:

The Royal WeThe Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. Unexpectedly falling for the crown prince Nicholas while attending Oxford, practical-minded Bex endures ritzy society gatherings, fashionable outings and unwelcome publicity as well as jealous ex-girlfriends and dark royal family secrets.

The SelectionThe Selection by Kiera Cass by Kiera Cass.  An America Singer is chosen to compete in the Selection–a contest to see which girl can win the heart of Illea’s prince–but all she really wants is a chance for a future with her secret love, who is a caste below her.

Royal WeddingRoyal Wedding by Meg Cabot by Meg Cabot. In the first adult installment of the Princess Diaries series, Princess Mia and longtime boyfriend Michael plan their wedding, while a scheming politico is trying to force Mia’s father from the throne because of a royal secret.

Romancing the ThroneRomancing the Throne by Nadine Jolie Courtney by Nadine Jolie. When a scandal at her all-girls school threatens her university prospects, Libby enrolls in her sister Charlotte’s posh boarding school, where they become rivals for the affection of their classmate–the heir to the throne of Britain.

Once Upon a PrinceOnce Upon a Prince by Rachel Kauck by Rachel Hauck. Their lives are worlds apart. He’s a royal prince. She’s an ordinary girl. But everything changes when Susanna receives an invitation to Nathaniel’s coronation. It’s the ultimate choice: His kingdom or her heart?

The White QueenThe White Queen by Philippa Gregory by Philippa Gregory. A tale inspired by the War of the Roses follows the conflict from the perspective of Elizabeth Woodville, who ascends to royalty and fights for the well-being of her family, including two sons whose imprisonment in the Tower of London precedes a devastating unsolved mystery.

Anne Boleyn : a King’s ObsessionAnne Boleyn: a King's Obsession by Alison Weir by Alison Weir. Henry VIII risks his marriage and the political strategies of Cardinal Wolsey in his obsession with Anne Boleyn, who does not welcome the king’s advances and loathes the cardinal for breaking her betrothal to Harry Percy.

Victoria by Daisy GoodwinVictoria by Daisy Goodwin. Early one morning, less than a month after her eighteenth birthday, Alexandrina Victoria is roused from bed with the news that her uncle William IV has died and she is now Queen of England. The men who run the country have doubts about whether this sheltered young woman, who stands less than five feet tall, can rule the greatest nation in the world.

Wolf Hall Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel by Hilary Mantel. Assuming the power recently lost by the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell counsels a mercurial Henry VIII on the latter’s efforts to marry Anne Boleyn against the wishes of Rome, a successful endeavor that comes with a dangerous price.

Elizabeth IElizabeth I by Margaret George by Margaret George. Growing up at the side of her cousin, Elizabeth I, Lettice Knollys struggles to regain power and position for her family while competing against the queen for the love of Robert Dudley, a rivalry that is set against a backdrop of the flourishing Elizabethan age.

 

 

Shakespeare Imagined: The Bard in Fiction

Who was William Shakespeare? Some folks think we know, others have doubts. Was Edward de Vere, Earl of the Oxford, really the Bard of Avon? Was it Christopher Marlowe? Or someone one else? Although new evidence points to the William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon as the author of the plays,  there will always be speculation.

Whether or not you believe he was the son of a merchant who grew to become the most well-known playwright of all time or someone else, we all remain fascinated by his life. Many authors have re-imagined Shakespeare’s life and characters and the results are riveting! Shakespeare’s legacy is unique, his reach unparalleled. Try some of these works of fiction that feature either Shakespeare or one of his characters.

 The Secret Life of William Shakespeare by Jude Morgan
There are so few established facts about how the son of a glove maker from Warwickshire became one of the greatest writers of all time that some people doubt he could really have written so many astonishing plays. When and how did he become a genius? This novel  imagines the private world of the master bard and chronicles the transformation of an unwilling craftsman and resentful son into a husband, father and genius playwright in Renaissance London.

 

 Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey
A retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest told from Miranda’s perspective as the magus’ isolated daughter, who finds solace and companionship with her father’s savage servant, Caliban. We all know the tale of Prospero’s quest for revenge, but what of Miranda? Or Caliban, the so-called savage Prospero chained to his will? In this incredible retelling of the tale, Jacqueline Carey shows readers the other side of the coin–the dutiful and tenderhearted Miranda, who loves her father but is terribly lonely. And Caliban, the strange and feral boy Prospero has bewitched to serve him.

 

 Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood
Felix, the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, is staging a Tempest like no other that will it boost his reputation. Or that was the plan. Instead, after an act of unforeseen treachery, Felix is living in exile in a backwoods hovel, haunted by memories of his beloved lost daughter, Miranda. And brewing revenge. After 12 years revenge finally arrives in the shape of a theater course at a nearby prison. Here Felix and his inmate actors will put on his Tempest and snare the traitors who destroyed him.

 The Tutor by Andrea Chapin
Another novel starring Shakespeare.  The year is 1590, and Katharine de L’Isle , a widow, is living at Lufanwal Hall, the  manor of her uncle, Sir Edward when a new schoolmaster arrives from Stratford, a man named William Shakespeare. Coarse, quick-witted, and brazenly flirtatious, Shakespeare swiftly disrupts the household and soon Katharine finds herself drawn into Shakespeare’s verse, and his life, in ways that will change her forever.

 Juliet’s Nurse by Lois Leveen
A new telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, from the perspective of Juliet’s nurse. In Verona, a mother mourning the death of her day-old infant enters the household of the powerful Cappelletti family to become the wet-nurse to their newborn baby. As she serves her beloved Juliet over the next fourteen years, the nurse learns the Cappelletti’s darkest secrets. Those secrets– and the nurse’s deep personal grief– erupt across five momentous days of love and loss that destroy a daughter, and a family.

 The Gap of Time: The Winter’s Tale Retold by Jeanette Winterson
The Winter’s Tale tells the story of a king whose jealousy results in the banishment of his baby daughter and the death of his beautiful wife. His daughter is found and brought up by a shepherd on the Bohemian coast. In The Gap of Time, we move from London, a city reeling after the 2008 financial crisis, to a storm-ravaged American city called New Bohemia. The story is one of childhood friendship, the power of jealousy, and the redemption and enduring love of a lost child.