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.