Myths That Shaped Our History. The Meaning of Myth
In everyday usage, the word ‘myth’ is now almost synonymous with ‘misconception’ or even ‘lie’. When we describe something as a myth, we are in effect saying that it is untrue. We are in this way robbed of a very useful word with a specific meaning quite unconnected with falsehood or truth; which is unfortunate. Some myths are of course untrue; others though are no more than straightforward and accurate historical accounts. Perhaps it would help to understand this if we first cleared the ground a little by thinking about the nature of myth. Only then will we be able to make sense of the subject-matter of this book, which is an account of some of the great myths of British history.
Myths are stories or narratives which help us to make sense of the world and understand our place in it. Sometimes they are tales about the creation of the world. Other myths describe the origin of a nation, religion or ethnic group. In the book of Genesis, the Bible gives a mythical account of the creation of the world. The ancient Romans had a set of myths which told of the founding of their city. The Hindus and Jews both have collections of myths which describe where they come from and explain their association with a particular geographical region. A body of myths or stories which have a meaning for a particular culture in this way is sometimes called a mythos. The Jewish mythos is to be found primarily in the first part of the Bible; known in Hebrew as the Tanakh and to Christians as the Old Testament. For the Hindus, the Mahabharata is a mythos which tells of gods and men in the early history of the Indian subcontinent.
The British too have their own mythos; a collection of myths which explains who they are and how they came to hold the values and beliefs which they now have. These have never been codified into one definitive book like the Bible, but they have nevertheless given us, among other things, the ‘British Values’ which successive British governments have in recent years been so keen to promote. The mythos of the Jews tells them that they are a special people, chosen by God to bear a message to humanity. The mythos of the British is in some ways similar to this, only without the divine commission. These ideals were exported to the rest of the world, giving nations such as the United States of America their core values in the process.
The mythos of the British
No wonder that the Magna Carta Memorial at Runnymede was erected by the American Bar Association. The granite pillar there is inscribed with the words ‘To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of freedom under law’. For America, freedom under law is something which originated in Britain. This gives the British their most popular and enduring mythic narrative, although there are others which are almost as powerful. Carl Jung popularized the idea of mythic archetypes, recurring figures which crop up in myth systems around the world, such as the hero, the trickster and the wise old woman. He wrote also of archetypal motifs such as the Deluge. Universal floods are to be found not only in the Bible, but also in legends of the Sumerians. Ancient American cultures, such as the Maya and Aztecs, also feature this motif of the worldwide deluge which destroys all humanity other than a tiny handful of survivors. There are also mythic characters and situations which are not universal, but are rather limited to one particular culture.
In the Bible, Israel’s apostasy is a recurring theme, as is the idea of the prophet without honour in his own land. Jesus Christ is of course the most commonly-known example of this figure from Hebrew myth. The British have their own special set of mythic images and we see these cropping up over and over again in the nation’s history. That the rule of law, habeus corpus and so on have something to do with the Magna Carta and are Britain’s most precious gift to the world, is one myth beloved by the British. Others include the myth that Britain does best when outnumbered and with its back to the wall. This David and Goliath image, with Britain battling, and ultimately triumphing, in the face of overwhelming odds is tremendously popular.
David and Goliath
We see it in the Battle of Agincourt and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. More recent examples of this particular myth come from the Second World War. The evacuation of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz all show Britain standing alone against a mighty foe and, in the end, coming out on top. The image of David and Goliath shows how myths can act as a unifying force for a nation. When Winston Churchill appealed to the nation’s fondness for this particular myth in 1940, he was consciously summoning up the memory of Agincourt by talking of ‘the few’ to whom so much was owed. The reference was of course to ‘we few, we happy few’ from Henry V’s speech before Agincourt, in Shakespeare’s play. Myth can act as a rallying cry. It is very important to remember that when we talk of these historical events as ‘myths’, that we are not saying that they did not happen. Certainly, most of them have been dreadfully exaggerated and edited until we are left with a story which bears little resemblance to the original incidents, but that is not always the case.
The familiar account of the British retreat from Dunkirk is historically accurate, but it is no less an example of the ‘David and Goliath’ myth for that. What then is the point of these myths? Why do religions, ethnic groups and secular societies create and perpetuate myths about themselves? There are two reasons. In the first place, myths give the members of a group an identity and enable them to make claims about themselves. However downtrodden they might be, at least they are chosen by God or are the heirs of some ancient tradition. Britain might today be quite insignificant upon the world stage, but the country’s inhabitants can hold their heads up proudly and recall that it was their country which bequeathed to America and other countries their fundamental values. Myths are a way of allowing ordinary people to feel a bit special. Even if they have not done very much themselves, as individuals, they can take pride in the supposed past achievements of their race, culture or nation.
There is another reason that myths are valuable and that is that they enable us to make sense of history, whether our own or that of other cultures. History in the raw is chaotic and messy, consisting of a series of largely random and meaningless episodes. Myths give us a framework which helps us to interpret the past and turn it into a coherent narrative. If I were to ask readers what happened in 1066, for instance, everybody would know at once that this was the year that the Saxon rule of England ended and the Normans took over. William the Conqueror landed and fought a battle at Hastings against Harold, who was the last of the Saxon kings. After Harold was defeated and killed, William went to London where he was crowned. This is the generally accepted sequence of the Norman Conquest, the one which we learn at school. The Battle of Hastings fits neatly into another mythic narrative of the British Isles, which might be termed the ‘Invaders from the East’. Periodically, invaders from the east threaten to overrun Britain. Sometimes, they succeed. We think of the Celts who landed in southern England centuries before Julius Caesar. Then in 55 BC, Caesar brought troops across the Channel and a hundred years later, the Romans occupied a large part of Britain. Five hundred years after that, it was the turn of the Angles, Jutes and Saxons who took over the country in successive waves.
William the Conqueror
Other manifestations of this myth are to be found in the prospect of Napoleon crossing the Channel in the early nineteenth century, the Battle of Britain in 1940 and then, during the Cold War, the fear that the Russians might sweep in from the east and take over Europe, including of course, Britain. Current fears about a supposed flood of migrants resonate with the British precisely because this too raises the specter of marauders crossing the Channel. Seeing 1066 in the context of an overarching myth in this way makes it easier to understand and once we have selected a few facts and discarded others, we are left with a neat story of ‘the last successful invasion of Britain’, ‘the last Saxon king’ and so on. The account, as it is usually related, bears little resemblance to the historical record, but that hardly matters. Harold was not the last Saxon king at all: he was succeeded by Edgar Aethling, of whom few people have ever heard. Nor do most people know about the later Battle of London and other military engagements which took place after Harold’s death.
The important point is that we have a memorable and compact narrative which fits perfectly into the structure of a popular myth cycle about invaders from the east. In this book, we shall be examining ten myths which have helped to shape the way in which the British see themselves. These ten historical episodes fall into various categories, three of which we have already looked at briefly: Britain as bringer of law and democracy, Britain as target of invaders from the East and Britain as the small country facing a mighty and invincible foe. To these may be added Britain as the nation which saves Europe from itself. These myth-types are not mutually exclusive and in some cases overlap. The Battle of Britain, for instance, shares elements of the invaders from the East, Britain saving Europe and also Britain as a small country standing alone against a mighty enemy. In the same way, the Battle of Waterloo is both about Britain saving Europe from a tyrant whom other countries seem unable to defeat by themselves, but also about bringing democracy and the rule of law to other, less enlightened nations. Another favourite British myth is the little person standing up against authority. This is similar to, but slightly different from, the David and Goliath myth. In David and Goliath, the less powerful character uses violence to conquer his oppressor. In the little person scenario, the weaker party triumphs by cunning or persistence. It is this image which made the films of Charlie Chaplin such great hits with the British in the early part of the twentieth century.
In Chapter 6 we will be looking at the very archetype of the little person struggling against the Establishment, as we examine Florence Nightingale’s efforts in the Crimean War. This brings us to another distinguishing feature of myths, as opposed to mere legends. Myths are narratives or stories, which always feature people, or sometimes gods, as the active forces in the situations of which they tell. In myths, things happen because of the intention of personalities, some human, others supernatural or divine. An ancient story about a natural disaster such as a flood or volcanic eruption is not a myth, but a legend. It might even be plain and unadorned history. The Biblical flood which left only Noah and his family alive, though, is pure myth. This is because it was caused by the agency of Jehovah, as a punishment for the human race’s wickedness and depravity. It is this which gives a mythic dimension to the modern take on the flood, rising sea-levels caused by anthropocentric global warming. If this were a purely natural occurrence, it would not grab the imagination as readily as the assertion that the flooding will take place as a result of humanity’s profligacy and greed. It is this element, the action of humans, which gives global warming the status of a myth, regardless of whether it is true that the planet actually is heating up or not.
This factor, the desire to attribute natural circumstances and events to the deliberate action of men and women, enables us properly to describe various key passages in British history as ‘myths’. The Spanish Armada was scattered and dispersed by the wind, but in the mythic version found in British history books it is the larger-than-life figure of Francis Drake to whom credit is given for this natural event. It is much the same with other incidents, ranging from the rain before Agincourt to the cystitis and piles which afflicted Napoleon at Waterloo and so fatally weakened his judgement. In each of these cases, we attribute victory to noble and determined British warriors, instead of prosaic circumstances which have arisen by the working of blind chance. The desire to interpret history in terms of kings and queens, soldiers, statesmen and other famous people is an understandable one, but has its perils. Obviously, it is far more interesting to read about Henry VIII and his six wives or the story of Francis Drake finishing his game of bowls before defeating the Armada, than it is to study dry facts and figures relating to the economic, religious and social developments which were really responsible for the upheaval in Europe during the sixteenth century. In a broader sense, we none of us like to feel that we are at the mercy of fate; we all prefer to believe that we are the masters of our own destiny. Viewing history as the product of great men and women’s conscious decisions brings order to the chaos and allows us to think that life in general may be controlled, always providing of course that one has a strong enough spirit!
Napoleon at Waterloo
The danger is though that in editing historical incidents in order to make it seem as though the driving force of history has been the decisions taken by a handful of important individuals, we are necessarily forced to distort accounts so as to rule out chance and natural circumstances. If we want to see Henry V as the heroic victor at Agincourt, fighting against insurmountable odds of five or six to one, then we must forget the muddy ground upon which his victory was really founded and focus on his noble and stubborn character. As a direct result of the process outlined above, the ten historical myths at which we will be looking in this book are myths both in the proper sense of being narratives which have special meaning to one particular culture, but also myths in the more commonly-accepted meaning of the word, that is to say largely fictitious. The facts about Waterloo, the generals of the First World War, the suffragettes, Magna Carta and so on bear little or no relation to the stories as they are generally known and understood. We begin with what might almost be described as Britain’s foundation myth: the story of the birth of democracy and the rule of law.
Magna Carta is of tremendous importance in British history, because it provided the justification for the very existence of Britain’s colonial ambitions and the establishment of the greatest empire the world has ever seen. This first chapter will also introduce us to another great mythic theme in British history; the yearning for a supposedly ‘golden age’, when everything was much better than it is today. This particular myth is still, as it has been for many centuries, an important one in understanding the psyche of the British people. It explains why so many people in the country still feel an aching nostalgia for various periods of the past, whether this is ‘before the war’ or, more recently, the 1960s and 1970s.
To be continued…
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