Tuesday, February 12, 2019

When Fact and Fantasy Merge

The last two posts here at Classic and Cozy, Victoria Johnson's February is for Fairy Tales and Janis Susan May's Fantasy, Myth and Formula, have been about fantasies and myths, in other words, writing that is rooted in our dreams, stories that stir our imaginations and help us to understand good and evil. I loved both posts. They started my mind on a journey about two birthdays we celebrate this month: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Though these two men are actual historical figures, with many documented accomplishments, a large part of their allure lies in the myths that have grown around them.

Perhaps the most well-known of these is George Washington's "I cannot tell a lie". Did he actually say that? No. The story first appeared in the fifth edition of Mason Locke Weems's biography, The Life of George Washington, published in 1806. Mr. Weems knew it wasn't factual when he included it in his book. He said that his plan was to tell Washington's history, then go on "to show that his unparalleled rise and elevation were due to his Great Virtues." I first heard the story when I was in elementary school (a very long time ago) and it's a pretty safe bet most of you did too. So, why is this little story, which most people know is not true, better known than most of the documented facts of our first president's life? Why has it lasted for more than two hundred years when many facts have been lost? It has the appeal of myth. It's a tangible example of the good we, as Americans, like to believe is the basis of our country.

What comes to mind when you think of Abraham Lincoln? If you're anything like me, first is a picture of his noble, craggy face. Next is an image of the log cabin in which he supposedly was born. While it is true that he was born in a log cabin, the actual cabin, much like Washington's cherry tree, is the stuff of myth. That humble little log cabin has become a symbol of that American icon: a man of humble beginnings, proof that if you work hard and follow your dreams, anything is possible.

There is a tourist attraction representing the cabin but no one pretends it's the real thing. It's a facsimile and is enclosed inside a miniature Greek temple. One account I read described the temple as "pure and serene and utterly unrelated to the historical Lincoln". The temple has sixteen columns, representing the fact that Lincoln was our sixteenth president, and fifty-six steps representing the years of Lincoln's life. The closest they dare claim to authenticity was to say that there is a possibility that some of the logs might have come from the site of his actual birthplace. It other words, it's a symbol, a myth.

Does the fact that these stories are not true lessen their importance? I don't think so. They are part of our heritage, fantasies we have molded from fact to remind us who we are and what we aspire to be. They are stories to pass down through the generations in the hope that the values they represent will be an inspiration for our children and grandchildren, and, equally important, to ourselves.


9 comments:

  1. Well said, Sandy! Myths are as necessary to humans (and civilizations) as food and drink. Myths codify what we are - they are 'solid' versions of our beliefs and rules, and we ignore them at our peril.

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  2. I so agree, Susan. Thanks for taking time to leave a comment - and for the inspirational thoughts in Fantasy, Myth and Formula.

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  3. Children can retain facts about our history when they hear it told in a form of a story, even if some of the "facts" are not entirely true. Some are simply exaggerations of the qualities our past leaders may have had. I think it's a wonderful way for children and adults as well to retain some of America's history.

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    1. I agree, Fran. I think mere facts can miss the essence of truth that is captured by myth, the things that make us remember what happened. I do realize, though, that it's possible to overdo exaggerations. It can be a thin line to walk. Thanks for weighing in.

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  4. Hi Sandy--
    You ask a great question... why do we all remember and retell these myths and not the great facts of our president's lives and terms in office? I think it's the storytelling, putting those virtues into context of what we hold dear. I.E., honesty, humbleness, etc.
    Victoria--

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    1. Hi Victoria, I think you've nailed it. Myths remind of us the qualities we aspire to. Thanks for your comment - and for your fairy tale post. That's what started me thinking about how much of what we consider history is based on the myths inspired by great men.

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  5. Very interesting post, Sandy. At heart, it seems, these are the great stories of our human existence.

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    1. Yes, I think they are, Karen. So good to hear from you.

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  6. Stories have been part of the human experience from the time we developed language. They are how we learned how to survive, live together and love. Good post, Sandy.

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