Storytelling and the intersection of “Myth” and “History” have been much on my mind of late. I place those loaded words in quotation marks because they are not as straightforward and easy to pin down as we might tend to think. Considering History, as Napoleon had it, “a set of lies that people have agreed upon” is too harsh, but it remains that what we think of as history is in many ways a mythic construction. Yet much that we dismiss as myth has a germ of historical reality to it, and not infrequently we discover that oral “tradition” is more accurate than our bias toward documented history allows .
The purported bright line between “History” and “Myth” is of relatively recent vintage. When Blind Harry composed his ballad recounting the tale of William Wallace, he cared not what was factual — he was telling a tale that was “true.” And the mythic Wallace will forever be more potent than the historical Wallace, thanks to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which did as much violence to history as Wallace did to the English — but nevertheless remains a stirring and potent tale that resonates worldwide.
Last week I drove up the Olympic Peninsula, through a mythic landscape of mist, rain, and deep green forest. As I drove, I pondered my own sometimes uneasy relationship with Myth and History. I have, several times, embarked upon historical fiction projects that I abandoned because I locked up when the demands of story conflicted with the armature of history. I could no more write a Braveheart than I can fly. That’s not something I’m proud of and neither am I ashamed to say it; that’s simply the way I’m built. That inhibition led me to write True Tales of the Frontier Partisans in my Warriors of the Wildlands.
Our identity is woven out of the stories we tell ourselves. Almost invariably, those stories are a mixture of fact and myth — and often more myth than fact. That does NOT mean they’re not “true.”
Colin G. Calloway explores this phenomenon in his masterful White People, Indians and Highlanders:
“What matters about identity, writes J.M. Bumsted, ‘is not whether it’s real or mythological, whether it’s based on the historical record or the imagination of its inhabitants, but whether it exists and whether a large number of inhabitants subscribe to it.’”
“…People draw strength from their heritage and from a remembered past of courage in the face of adversity. How much of that past is imaginary is difficult to say; ancestral loyalties rest on fancy as much as fact.”
This is not to say that any made up story will do to concoct an ersatz identity. In order for it to resonate, a story and a cultural myth must bear a fundamental “truth,” even if it is not fundamentally factual. I have addressed the tensions between the mythic and the historical before. I have resolved that tension to my own satisfaction, a means of toggling back and forth in order to delve into either or both — although I still feel the inhibition about writing historical fiction (I still read it with pleasure). And, on this long drive through the forest in the rain, I may have conceived of a means to obviate the conflict entirely for the sake of creative endeavor.