Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Who's the myth?


Over at Vanity Press a couple of days ago, Chet Scoville noted this story from Yahoo News, which I copy in its entirety:

LONDON (AFP) - Britons are losing their grip on reality, according to a poll out Monday which showed that nearly a quarter think Winston Churchill was a myth while the majority reckon Sherlock Holmes was real.

The survey found that 47 percent thought the 12th century English king Richard the Lionheart was a myth.

And 23 percent thought World War II prime minister Churchill was made up. The same percentage thought Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale did not actually exist.

Three percent thought Charles Dickens, one of Britain's most famous writers, is a work of fiction himself.

Indian political leader Mahatma Gandhi and Battle of Waterloo victor the Duke of Wellington also appeared in the top 10 of people thought to be myths.

Meanwhile, 58 percent thought Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Holmes actually existed; 33 percent thought the same of W. E. Johns' fictional pilot and adventurer Biggles.

UKTV Gold television surveyed 3,000 people.


Chet found this depressing, but since last year I do my best to avoid letting anything depress me, since that improves nothing. So, trying to take a more positive view, I ask myself these questions:

How, in a world saturated with fiction, can people who are not historians keep the mythical and the real sorted out?

How many historical figures do even intelligent people have filed away in their memories? How sure of their reality can they be -- if put on the spot by a pollster?

Is it amazing that people think Richard Lionheart is a myth, since most accounts (Ivanhoe-inspired) are pretty mythical?

Didn't medieval people think Arthur is real? Don't a lot of people think that now?

Isn't it perhaps understandable that someone with the poetic last name "Nightingale" associated with saintly charity, might be considered a legend?

Shouldn't literature profs be pleased that Dickens has more public reality than Churchill?

On to another myth. One spinoff of the Greatest Show on Earth is a debate about Barack Obama, and whether he's like JF or RF Kennedy. I was around for Kennedy's assassination, and was much affected by it, but have in the last 20 years or so have come to think he was mostly image. The issue of Kennedy's true standing was interestingly raised today at Ezra Klein's blog, by him and his commentators. Have a look.

P.s. My youthful Kennedy infatuation makes me very wary of discussing certain issues with people who were teenagers when Reagan was president.

Image: Mother Teresa. Or somebody.

Update: As Prof. Nokes points out, Will McLean looked farther than I did, and found the top 10 list of fictional characters believed by the public to be real. And behold, Will shows that the people who made the poll don't know their history very well.

Here's the list,

  • 1) King Arthur – 65%
  • 2) Sherlock Holmes – 58%
  • 3) Robin Hood – 51%
  • 4) Eleanor Rigby – 47%
  • 5) Mona Lisa -35%
  • 6) Dick Turpin – 34%
  • 7) Biggles – 33%
  • 8) The Three Musketeers – 17%
  • 9) Lady Godiva – 12%
  • 10) Robinson Crusoe – 5%

and here are Will's remarks. My own addendum: I'm pretty sure Dafoe modeled Robinson Crusoe off a real shipwreck survivor. Ah, yes, Alexander Selkirk.


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2 Comments:

Blogger Matthew Gabriele said...

"TEENAGERS" when Reagan was President? Try "embryos." The average undergraduate freshman was born in 1989...

(but I still take your point)

4:00 PM  
Blogger Phil Paine said...

Actually,even Sherlock Holmes turns out to be a bit marginal. Conan Doyle modeled him on one of his teachers, Dr. Joseph Bell, and publicly stated so. Bell, who resembled the fictional Holmes in appearance, character, and ideas, was delighted. Since this is well known to Sherlock Holmes fans, it should come as no surprise that an excellent television series "Murder Rooms" was made about the relationship between Doyle and Bell -- in which they have entirely fictional adventures. Thus we have a fictional representation of the relationship between a real man who was the inspiration of a fictional character, and the real man who was the author of the fiction. Let King Arthur and Robin Hood beat that.

Personally, I'm working on a fictional story based on the idea that Philip Jose Farmer invented most characters in history, but I'm not sure if Philip Jose Farmer actually existed, or not.

1:29 AM  

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