Fiction’s Mythical and Legendary Origins
Are The Theories About Them Equally Fictitious?
Myths are generally held to contain no verifiable, factual elements, frequently serving to illustrate perceived moral or ethical principles. They are essentially timeless, unrelated to any historical period, or presented as revealing a continuum of reality, despite an (unverifiable) origin in a particular epoch. Greek Mythology is an example of one such group. Myths are thus often regarded as synonymous with fiction, in nature, if not always in creation.
Legends include and are based on factual events, but these may be much exaggerated or distorted, either over time, or from the outset. The motives for this alteration can be political, societal, hagiographic or purely literary.
The differences between myth and legend appear to cause some controversy, illustrating intending writers’ need for detailed supporting research material. The sources from which this brief summary originates, together with the reactions that they engendered, illustrate this.
Many stories, short or otherwise, have a legendary basis. Sometimes the narrative is directly related to the legend, whereas in other examples, only the subtlest parallel or analogy appears.
The Angels of Mons is an unusual example of a short story having given rise to a legend, as opposed to vice-versa. The heavenly beings, said to have been dispatched by St George, to assist Allied troops in the epic WWI battle, formed the centrepiece of a tale by the London journalist Arthur Machen.
A modern example, teetering on the boundary between fact and legend, was provided by John Simpson, the renowned, courageous BBC News reporter. This is factual. Equally factual is Dirk the Flemish cameraman’s horrified audience’s desperate, futile search for rational explanations, with which to dismiss the terrible implications.
Imagine the scene:
A group of journalists meets for dinner, at a hotel in the shattered, immediate post-revolutionary remains of Ceaușescu's Bucharest. Dirk tells them of an old, much admired television camera of his, that had “become evil”. Even the usage, stark in its evident literalism, shocks his battle-hardened audience. Far worse follows. They learn how the camera apparently initiated several horrific deaths, revealing journalists’ positions to adjacent snipers, by noisily ejecting a cassette, or switching its own flash light on. Eclipsing even these horrors is the camera’s massive, yet physically inexplicable increase in weight, the cause of which defies the minutest dismantling and examination.
In common with all the best short stories, there is one haunting, ominous clue, at the start, replete with its own implicit dreadful associations. These incidents range over several locations, but begin after the camera is left with security guards overnight. Where? On Haiti.
Dirk’s audience leave their dinner untouched, to the demonstrative chagrin of the Maître d’.
Unwarranted constructions, irrationally placed upon coincidences? Somehow, no such alluringly comforting dismissal of the sinister implications really works, as Dirk’s appalled listeners rapidly realise.
Such is the rich seam of material offered by combinations of myth, legend and fact.
A Mad World, My Masters by John Simpson Ch. 9 “Guignol” pp309 – 317 pub. Pan 2001
The Angels of Mons and Other Legends of the First World War' by Dr David Clark, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, Sheffield Hallam University
This talk, given at 7.30pm on Monday 27 October 2014 in the Upper Chapel, Norfolk Street, Sheffield, formed part a series of public lectures organised by Sheffield Hallam University’s Humanities Research Centre to mark the centenary of WW1.
Diffen.com Legend v. Myth