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Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

15 January 2008

Man into myth, round 2

In July 2007, I discussed the legends of Gilgamesh and John Henry with an eye toward figuring out how the life of a historical person morphs into a larger-than-life legend.

I recently read two biographies with a similar goal:
If a Pirate I Must Be: The True Story of “Black Bart,” King of the Caribbean Pirates by Richard Sanders, about the 18th-century pirate John “Bartholomew” Roberts (no known relation)

El Cid: The Making of a Legend by M.J. Trow, about the 11th-century mercenary Rodrigo Diaz

Both authors began with the history and lifestyle of the times. The bulk of the book provided the biography, with discussion of the accuracy of the evidence. The ending discussed how a mythology grew up around the man.

Sanders and Trow came to similar conclusions. Boiled down to the basics, (1) the man had to stand out in some way from others of his kind, and (2) the times had to change so that the man was seen in a different light.

What made these two men stand out?

Rodrigo Diaz went into battle countless times and never lost, even when the odds were impossibly against him. He earned the nickname El Campeador (The Valiant One) in his first battle when he was a teenager. The Moors later gave him the title al-Sayyid (The Lord), and today he is still known as El Cid.

John Roberts was captured by pirates and forced to join the crew. Six weeks after being impressed, the pirates elected him captain because of his boldness, knowledge, and ability to intimidate. Unlike most pirates, Roberts did not drink alcohol, he banned gambling on his ships, and he rarely killed. He was the most successful pirates of his time, capturing 400 ships in his two-and-a-half-year career.

What happened after their deaths to keep their legend alive?

After El Cid’s time, relations between the Muslims and the Christians soured. The Christians began a several-century campaign to drive the Moors out of Spain. After the peninsula was mostly secured in the 1300s, the nobles of Spain began to fight each other. The songs and stories of El Cid that had been passed down were resurrected and retold, casting El Cid as an ideal knight who helped drive out the Moors, a man unlike the lesser men of the 1300s. Two centuries later, El Cid was reinvented again, this time as a symbol of the sustained greatness of Spain. King Philip II applied to the pope for El Cid to be canonized. Most bizarrely, the 20th-century dictator Francisco Franco identified with El Cid and took every opportunity to bask in the reflected light of his hero.

Black Bart’s exploits were better documented than those of other pirates, and he featured prominently in A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, written in 1724 by Captain Charles Johnson. The book portrayed Black Bart as intelligent and disciplined, a tea-drinking man who resorted to violence only when necessary. Later, when pirates were no longer a threat, their adventures became fodder for popular entertainment. Johnson’s book was a common reference source. According to Sanders, Black Bart and his crew were the models for characters in Walter Scott’s The Pirate and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and still strongly color our view of pirates today.

Do these insights help the writer who wants to create a character worthy of legend? Perhaps, if she's writing a tale that takes place over generations or centuries. Otherwise, I don't see that they do. The lives of El Cid or Black Bart would be unbelievable in fiction. And excluding the occasional brief epilogue, most novels and stories end when the story itself ends.

What do you think? Does the process by which Gilgamesh, John Henry, El Cid, and Black Bart became legends give you any ideas for creating larger-than-life heroes?


Odds 'n' ends

1. Starting next week, I will have a regular blogging slot at A Slice of Orange, the blog of the Orange County Chapter of the Romance Writers of America. Called “Advice to Myself as a Newbie Author” (a title I inherited), each monthly column will profile an author who answers the question, “If you could go back in time to before you were published, what advice would you give yourself?” Look for it on the 22nd of each month.

My first guest at “Advice to Myself . . .” will be Jennifer Blake, whose historical romance Guarded Heart, set in New Orleans, will be published February 1.

2. Jennifer Blake will also be interviewed here at For Love of Words next week. She has an interesting history and many insights to share, so please stop by.

3. The Writer’s Digest website had an interesting blog post Tuesday called “20 Tips for Good Blogging.” Worth a look, particularly for new bloggers.


Lisa said...

Shauna, I find the stories of these real legends very interesting. Since I am woefully clueless about writing heroes -- let me skip to the odds and ends. I'm looking forward to seeing your posts "Advice to Myself" and the Jennifer Blake interview. I also checked out the 20 Tips and I found some things I need to improve on, but I was fairly happy to learn that I actually am following a fair number of tips...hooray! Thanks for all the great info!

Lana Gramlich said...

Very interesting. So much info in this post! I'm off to digest...

Carleen Brice said...

What a great idea for a column! What advice would you give yourself?

Charles Gramlich said...

Congrats on your new Blogging slot/column. I like the title.

As for the legends, it would seem that one aspect of using this approach to creating larger-than-life charactes is to 1) keep a sense of distance from the character. A legend can't be examined up close. Maybe a larger than life hero can't be either? 2), make the character the focus of "other folks'" expectations. The character is scene through other's eyes, those who have needs and project them on the character.

Shauna Roberts said...

LISA and LANA, I'm glad you found the information interesting.

CARLEEN, since I haven't published a novel yet, I don't know what advice my future self would give my current self. :-) However, I do know what I would tell myself when I was first writing nonfiction.

1. Don't worry that your first drafts are crap. That's just your process. You'll always be able to fix them.

2. Don't write with a co-author. Doing so doesn't halve the work, it doubles it.

3. When an editor corrects something, it always means there's a problem. But their correction may not be the right solution to the problem.

4. Don't take on so many projects that you don't have time to enjoy life. Even when you are very busy, schedule an hour every week for yourself to read for pleasure.

5. Life's too short to work with clients you don't like.

6. Don't worry if you sound like a doofus when you do interviews. Scientists give you better quotes if they think you're dumb.

7. When choosing assignments, remember writing is more satisfying when it is meaningful and can change lives.

8. Medical writing is easier than science writing, more fulfilling, and better paying. Move into that as soon as you can.

CHARLES, interesting suggestions, particularly the sense of distance. In real life, when I know someone with a great gift, no matter how well I know them, that ability seems an obstacle to truly understanding them. Also, awe is a distancing emotion. (That's awkwardly put, I know, but I hope you get my meaning.)

cs harris said...

I think you're right--if we're in awe of someone, we see them as not like us.

These sound like fascinating books. If only my TBR pile weren't already taking over the house...

Shauna Roberts said...

CANDICE, they indeed were fascinating books. I had read about El Cid before, but not about pirates. Their egalitarian (for the times) social order was a surprise for me, as were other aspects of their social structure.

Steve Malley said...

Pirates are neat.

Legends are box-office poison. At least, that's the conventional wisdom, and there may be some truth to that. As they grow larger-than-life, the 'character' loses humanity.

Three usual solutions:

1. Focus on 'becoming the legend' phase, when the eventual legend is first starting out, finding their way and making mistakes. Worked prety well in Walk the Line and Batman Begins.

2. The legend who doesn't believe their hype. Tell a story of a Black Bart who only sees his own failings, or an El Cid who's just trying to do a decent job with a rough lot in life. Lot of westerns have used this approach.

3. Make the legend look like an asshole. Try to impart humanity by focusing on the 'flawed' side of their character.

I really, *really* hate this approach, maybe because I've never seen it done well. It seems a small, cheap and mean way to treat someone who did something outstanding.

That really *was* a thought-provoking post. Thanks, Shauna!!

virtual nexus said...

Thanks for a selection box post!

Need to come back to this one earlier in the evening and have a more careful pick through. Thought there were one or two interesting assumptions in the 'Good Blogging' advice - not least that blogging is primarily a written medium.

In theory, yes, as logs - but there are some stunning and highly functional photo blogs out there....I'm beginning to wonder if blogs arn't what you make them, after all (tho' agree with the bulk of the comments - and perhaps photo blogs would make better websites)?

Shauna Roberts said...

STEVE, I particularly like the "becoming the legend" phase. It's always fascinating to see how someone goes from the untested young person to someone who'll be remembered. Like you, I don't like the "flawed hero" approach. I'm glad you found the post thought-provoking.

JULIE, I'm undecided on your question of whether photo blogs would make better Websites. The Website approach lets the author organize the photos for easy access (all the cat photos in one place no matter when they were taken, for example), but one can't easily find what's new.

The blog approach is like a real scrapbook, where you put photos in and then show your friends, you put photos in and then show your friends, you put photos in and then show your friends, and so on.