Monday, December 7, 2015

Glastonbury: Lies and Legends

"The Tomb of King Arthur"
An excellent post about the monks of Glastonbury and King Arthur's tomb from A Clerk at Oxford:
In the twelfth century, the legend of King Arthur absolutely took off in England, and became hugely popular almost overnight. (Here's a fairly compact overview, and see also this and this page.) This coincided with an explosion in the volume and variety of historical texts being written in England, in Latin, French, and English, and in many of these texts Arthurian legend became incorporated into the narrative of the pre-Saxon history of Britain; from a strictly historical point of view this was largely spurious, but it was a moment of immense literary vitality and creativity. Not everybody was swept along with the fashion; there are some skeptical and scathing comments from twelfth-century historians about this apparently brand-new history. But these stories had huge appeal, and part of that appeal, we might speculate, was that they occupied an enchanting borderland between history and fantasy: they can be imagined taking place not in some faraway magical kingdom but in this country, on the very ground we walk on, yet so far in the past that they provide space for all kinds of invention.

Whatever the exact details of Glastonbury’s origins, there’s no doubt it really is ancient, and people go there, even today, in part because of the charm of antiquity, the sense of origins lost in the mists of time. The vagueness and the mistiness and the ‘maybe real, maybe not’ are part of its appeal to the imagination. Deliberately designing a church to look older than it is might well be a scam, but it might equally be an attempt at conveying an aura of ancientness, creating an atmosphere which helps your visitors to feel that this is a special, holy, and ancient place. (Note the difference between 'helps your visitors to feel' and 'tricks your visitors into thinking'.) It’s an entirely natural move to associate that specialness with the most popular historical legend of the day, one which was especially beloved by the aristocracy and the educated elite – the social world from which some monks came, and which most monks had to learn to negotiate to some degree. In that world, Arthurian legends were everywhere - and understanding them as legends, as literature, is key.

Legends are not lies. Fiction is not fraud. At root, these are stories, and the most important thing about a story – even a story about events which happened in the past – is not always whether it is true, as in, it actually happened. We all know this, don’t we? Telling a story which you know not to be true is not necessarily lying; whether we call an untrue story a 'lie' depends on all kinds of other factors, which we are quite capable of understanding in our everyday lives. It depends on your intention in telling it, the manner in which you tell it, the way you want your audience to receive it, and the way they actually receive it. If you invent a story which you know is not true, and you want your audience to believe it’s true, that might be what we would call a lie. (But even so, there are circumstances in which we would not consider it lying; when parents tell their children stories about Father Christmas, children believe them, but most people don’t call that 'lying'.) And if you invent a story which the audience won’t believe, which they will recognise as exactly that – a story – that’s not a lie. That’s fiction. It’s fiction even if it deals with history; it is quite possible to tell a story about history because you think it’s a good and powerful story, and not because you think every word of it actually happened. (Read more.)
More HERE from Stephanie Mann. Share

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