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.

 

All’s Faire in Fall

bristol-Renaissance-FaireFall is here again, and with it comes Fair season – Church Fairs, Grange Fairs, State Fairs, Harvest Festivals, and perhaps the most fun of all – The Renaissance Faire.
Renaissance Faires are  newer than you think. The first official “Renaissance Faire” traces back to Los Angeles in 1963, when a school teacher named Phyllis Patterson put one on for a weekend fundraiser for radio station KPFK, and more than 8,000 people showed up. A fall staple was born (because, let’s face it, NO ONE wants to be buried under that many yards of wool, satin, and leather in the middle of July).

Why the Renaissance? Why not Roman Bacchanalias with chariot races? Why not the 1363839072Dark Ages? Why not Pompeiian pageants? Celebrating the gruesome deaths of a city of people might be just a tad morbid. The Dark Ages were – well, Dark. We don’t know much about them, because following the fall of Rome civilization was illiterate, spread out, and little was going on beyond warfare and survival. And Rome? Rome certainly had a lot going for it, but not many speak Latin anymore, and togas, while simple and fun for frat parties, just don’t have the suave flair of swashbuckling boots, rapiers, and villains’ pointed beards and mustaches. The Renaissance has far more possibilities.

Robin-Hood-Men-In-Tights-dracula-and-robin-hood-in-tights-and-loving-it-22205932-320-240Rising up out of the depths of the Black Plague, the Renaissance means, literally, a rebirth. Disenchanted with a church that did not save them from the plague, men turned to science to keep them safe, resulting in great advancements in learning, science, art, music, and warfare. Stretching from 1300 to 1600, the Renaissance saw the rise of DaVinci, of Galileo, Columbus, Martin Luther, the printing press, Magellan, Henry VIII, William Harvey,  the advent of gunpowder, muskets, and the waning of armor and swords. Most Renaissance Faires throw in the likes of Robin Hood (earliest tales date to 1377), and sometimes evejeffpiraten King Arthur, who, although Malory’s history of Le Morte D’Artur is published in 1470, the story from which The Once and Future King is taken,  is believed to have lived, if he’s not merely legend, sometime between 600 and 800. Herein lie the tales of valor, not long before the Three Musketeers, the tales of actual pirates Barbossa and William Kyd, of Dutch corsairs and privateers, and let’s not forget Shakespeare (though Shakespeare’s plays, though written and performed around 1600, were often taken from history much older: King MacBeth actually lived in the 1000’s). That’s a lot of romanticized history to be able to play with, a lot of possibilities for actors to delve into. Hence Renaissance Faires are full of LARPers (live-action role players) and SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism, hard-core medieval recreationists) members running about. Your inner Dragon Master can run amok, and no one will ever know.

unspecifiedSo pull on your hose, strap on your broadsword, lace your corset, and get ready for an imaginative adventure back in time, and if you’re not careful, you just might learn something. Faires can offer a diversity of activities such as Birds of Prey shows, sword forging, glass blowing, theater, jousting, live chess tournaments, musicians, and more, as well as authentic foods, drink, clothing, crafts, and entertainments.  Check out the Connecticut Renaissance Faire, or if you like a drive, try the larger ones like King Richard’s Faire in Massachusetts, or my favorite, The New York Renaissance Faire in Tuxedo, New York. They’re worth the trip!  For a more in-depth experience, check these great books out as well:

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.