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.

 

Susan vs. the Wizards + Warriors

      The long-bearded ancestor of all wizard, warrior, and chivalrous knight stories is arguably Le Morte d’Arthur, compiled by Sir Thomas Mallory and first published in 1485 – not bad, considering the printing press was only invented in 1450. These tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable was later worked by T.H. White into The Once and Future King, published in sections between 1938 and 1958, and taken up by Disney in 1963 as The Sword in the Stone.  In the same time period (1937-1954), J.R.R. Tolkien was busy pounding out The Lord of the Rings, his infinitesimally detailed trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King) that set the bar for most fantasy novels to come, so massive in scope that ten hours of movie magic can’t encompass it all.

Tolkien helped shape Dungeons and Dragons (1974), the endlessly successful fantasy game – wizards, warriors, dwarves with their battle axes, elves, orcs, checking for traps and spells – they all started with Tolkien.  Dungeons and Dragons, however, is directly responsible for creating several lines of worthy novels, perhaps the best being the two original Dragonlance trilogies, Chronicles (Dragons of Autumn Twilight, etc) and Legends (Time of the Twins, etc). While some have complained that “you can hear the dice rolling in the background,” these are the novels that set my brain on fire.  I had the misfortune to read them as they were being released, having to wait anxious months for each delicious installment. While Chronicles sets up the characters and sends them off on a very D&D-type adventure, Legends runs with the developed characters and explodes with adventure.  These trilogies are clean enough for the 11-15 year old crowd, and a great place to send them after (or in preparation for) Lord of the Rings. There are more than 200 novels under the Dragonlance umbrella (and a film), so let them read!

The modern crown of medieval fantasy, however, must go to George R. R. Martin (what’s with all those R’s?).  His Song of Ice and Fire series, better known as Game of Thrones, the first title of the series, is Tolkien grown up dark and twisted (yes, darker than Mordor, where evil is only ever alluded to). Dragons, kingdoms, sex, murder, warfare, dwarves, incest, murder, swords, traitors, child brides, sex, murder, backstabbing, murder, sex, murder – Game of Thrones is nothing short of a massive soap opera set in a fantasy world of medieval powerstruggles.  While the HBO series consists heavily of nudity and violence, it is not a tenth of the amount of extreme brutality and sexual depravity of the books – these are NOT chivalrous tales for the young, but bloody and too-realistic horror stories of warfare. Yet, they will suck you in with compelling characters in a story that is too painful to read further, and too engaging and dramatic to ever put down. Each volume runs 800-1200 pages, so unless you can clear your schedule (you won’t want to stop), you may want to check out the audiobooks instead.

Read them. Savor them. Imagine them.  Then go beat up a tree with a sword. Just make sure it’s not an Ent first.