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July 13, 2004
History and Myth

Stephen Den Beste talks about the Battle of Waterloo.

The truth about Waterloo, after nearly two centuries, remains imperfectly understood. The latest scholarship on the subject, as revealing as it is, is less satisfying (particularly to Anglophiles) than the legend that has persisted to this day.

There's a difference between History and a good story; the former is truth, but sometimes the latter, the "good story," is more pleasant to believe, or teaches a lesson better than the actual history does.

Joseph Campbell would understand. This is what Myth is all about.

For instance, I know, intellectually, that there was never an actual Sherlock Holmes, but I might willingly suspend my disbelief. I may prefer to think of him as a historical figure, because of some educational or even inspirational value that the Holmes stories might provide. I may act as though Holmes was real [though you'd be amazed at how infrequently this act is discernable to the human eye], but I know the difference.

I was once a History major. I've studied, I've read. My reading list consists of (among other things) books on things historical. I think I know (or at least have a better-than-average understanding) how the battle of Waterloo was fought, won, and lost.

But I also think the smaller stories that build into the legend, true or not, are valuable in and of themselves — perhaps, nearly two centuries later, more valuable than the truth is. As the saying goes, if those stories didn't exist, they would have to be invented.

That's why they persist.

The legend of the "thin red line" was an inspiration to the British during the darkest days of the Second World War. I call that "valuable." [The expression was, as far as I can tell, actually coined to describe the 93rd Highlanders at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, but is often associated with the actions of the British infantry at Waterloo.]

After 1500 years, the legend of King Arthur remains a fixture of the English-speaking world [and maybe beyond, but I don't know.] We believe what we will about who Arthur was, what he did, and so on. No one really can say what the truth is — except that what we think we know is almost entirely a fiction. But the legend remains valuable.

And it's perfectly allright to hold legends and myths in high regard. They can inspire, they can motivate. They can, in difficult times, give the courage to carry on.

But always remember that myths and legends are just that. Don't mistake them for the truth.

[Self-study question: Michael Moore has made it his mission to build a Myth that stands in stark contrast to the facts. Will his version of the events of September 11, 2001 stand the test of time? Discuss.]

Posted by Russ at 11:11 PM, July 13, 2004 in History

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I never could figure out SDB's appeal.

Posted by: Donnah at July 13, 2004 11:54 PM

Interesting lead-in to the thesis of your
blog: a nice little essay about truth v. myth
with respect to Waterloo and, by extension,
history in general. It's a little surprising,
considering how well-read you are, that your
idea of truth is so absolute. I would think a
life of academia would turn you into a
relativist, like those dolts Einstein and
Stephen Hawking. The point has been lost in
my own head, because I'm fairly stoned. Oh
yeah, I remember: get over yourself.

So the following paragraph from your blog has
that authoritative air. Remember when you
were in school and an older, experienced
professor gave you some life-elevating advice
in vague terms based on some knowledge that
you felt like you should either already know
or weren't the type of person worthy of such
knowledge, so you didn't ask him to
elaborate? That's the sort of insecurity that
the following paragraph hopes to capitalize
on. Yes it's a preposition. Rules aren't
everthing. Sometimes you have think about the

"But always remember that myths and legends
are just that. Don't mistake them for the

Ok. Thanks for the guidelines, there,
Socrates. Maybe a little elaboration about
what we should mistake for truth? Come
on. You've read a lot. Help us out here. Is
the truth contained in the Torah, the New
Testement, or the Quran? Is it some
combination of the three? Are there other
possible sources for the truth (not ever to
be confused with Myth)? And, if so, what is
the exact ratio of Conrinthians to Gnostic
Gospels to Edgar Allen Poe? Assuming any of
those qualify for the truth test. I don't
know. But you do, by implication.

Just one more quote from you and then I'm
done (you are so darn quotable):

"[Self-study question: Michael Moore has made
it his mission to build a Myth that stands in
stark contrast to the facts. Will his version
of the events of September 11, 2001 stand the
test of time? Discuss.]"

Could you, maybe, list the facts that Moore's
Myth stand in stark contrast to? Y'know, in
the tradition of academia and well-readness?
Again, sorry about the preposition, but I'm
compulsive. Oh, and don't forget to put in
the footnotes. We inferior students would
like to know who to contact for further
edification. I haven't seen the movie, but
please give me the facts before I see it. I
want to be sure to delineate between truth
and Myth.

Posted by: Scott Renick at July 14, 2004 12:53 AM

The point has been lost in my own head, because I'm fairly stoned.


Posted by: Russ at July 14, 2004 01:00 AM

Nice commenter Russ. You can tell he's stoned, because he conflates the theory of relativity with things being, well, relative. Of course motion was also relative in Netwonian and pre-Newtonian mechanics, so it's not like ripping a highly technical concept from physics and doing it completely incorrectly represents any kind of accomplishment.

I think he's also gotten lost in the idea that history is just a narrative and truth is relative. Maybe he should try jumping out of a 20th floor window to see how relative the truth is, because post-modernist drivel might be affecting his head. History depends on a trail of documents and artifacts, as "historian" Michael Bellesiles found out when he tried that "narrative" idea and got fired over it.

What's amazing is that these "sophisticated" notions of history would've been laughable even in early Islamic thought, where sources are weighted on plausability, accuracy, number of confirming accounts, and other factors, to determine which of various conflicting accounts are most likely. So it's amazing that people are coming out of college way dumber, in terms of historical analysis, than early Muslims, but there it is.

King Arthur might appear one or two sentences of a single chronicle of "what we can sort of vaguely remember, or have heard about", but that's it. All of the rest was made up as fiction.

Oh, and the last time I checked there were 59 documented fabrications or lies in Michael Moore's latest piece of bilge.

Posted by: George Turner at July 14, 2004 01:52 AM