End of a series
Legends are powerful, but that doesn’t mean they are right. Sometimes, we can still research to separate fact from fiction. Other times—like with Robin Hood—too many stories exist and too much time has elapsed to have solid certainty.
Following the thread of thought about memory in the previous blog post, I started thinking about why legends exist. Why are they created? Is there something deep inside our being that needs legends? I recognize that this is probably getting into some psychology, and I certainly have more reading to do before fully forming an opinion or hypothesis. But here are a few ideas I’ve been considering.
First, humans seem to need heroes. Even a generalized glance across civilizations reflects this. Gilgamesh, Osiris, Odysseus, Romulus, King Arthur—just for a few heroic examples from earlier eras of western history. (Eastern, African, and Native American cultures have their hero stories as well, but I am not as familiar with those and would not want to mis-represent.) Some cultures took the character qualities most desirable in a hero and applied them to religion—making gods. Some cultures celebrated their warriors or other leaders to the point that it’s hard to see where facts end and the legend begins.
Second, heroes and legends often go hand-in-hand. When a culture delivers the epitaph of “hero,” does the legend begin? Or at least the opportunity for a legend to form? I think so. Hero status has traditionally been seen as a rank above the common man. This is natural, and it is good for people to be recognized for their character qualities, leadership, and successes. But heroes are easily transformed into legends, especially after their deaths. This can create a slippery slope as the stories shift to meet an era or thought patterns and the legend grows into something unlike the original hero. (Oh, and occasionally people with “hero status”—in reality or in their own minds—will start their own legends based on their memories or their perception of themselves. Chamberlain comes to mind as a Civil War example.)
Third, events are static but legends grow. It can happen quickly or over a more extended period. Ever compared a Civil War battle report of an incident to the newspaper reporting of the same event a few days later? Oh, it’s fun! The facts might be relatively similar if the writer was putting forth a good faith effort, but watch the language change. It can be subtle, but the more times the story is told—particularly of an exceptionally good or bad event—the more noble, the more gallant, the more courageous the hero becomes. (Or the opposite, if it’s a situation of vilification.) Now, stretch the retelling over decades or centuries and mix in the need for a legend to conform to society’s views. The event that happened in 1862 has not changed, but the perception of it may have shifted significantly.
Fourth, legends inspire…and that’s not always a bad thing. It becomes problematic when legends are accepted or taught as complete, solid fact without the acknowledgement of the evolution of the story. Perhaps over time, people with good intentions have used or added to legends to illustrate their points of view. (This still happens regularly.) I’ve been trying to recognize how legends are inspiring people (what is it inspiring them to do or think?) and then think about ways to help peel back the stories and get to the facts, or call out the problems with the legend.
Fifth and finally, legends exist so we have to learn to deal with them. I suppose everyone will have a different approach to “dealing with them.” Just in a circle of history buddies, I’ve heard a variety of responses from forceful calling out to conversation about the issue to shrug and move on. I am not in favor of “burning legends” because I think the saga and evolution of the legend gives valuable insight into thought patterns and the historiography of a subject or person. However, I am weary of legends interfering with facts or being presented as facts.
If humanity needs heroes and legends, they will exist. But as a researcher, I find myself asking more and more often: is this legend accurate and is it fair to the “hero”? With one particular Civil War officer I’ve been studying, the legend does not jive with the primary source facts and I keep asking why. Why did the legend become what it is? Where and how did these stories start? Is there a basis for them and if so, what are those base facts (hopefully confirmed by multiple primary sources written close to the event)? It’s an on-going thought train and brain exercise for me, and I’ve got so much to keep learning.
In the meantime, if we need heroes and legends…I’ll accept Robin Hood with his centuries of legend. Want to watch another episode?