“Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” – G.K. Chesterton
As with the mythological Achilles, many of our favorite literary heroes, characters and creatures were born of legend and myth. Some, such as our American founding fathers and early frontiersmen, were created through a mixture of history and regional folklore. Mythological icon, behemoth folk monster, or national hero, literature has devoted many pages to the telling of these stories; but which of them are fact and which are fancy?
While doing some research on the subject, I was surprised to discover that many of our favorite American heroes such as Paul Bunyan, Casey Jones, John Henry, and Johnny Appleseed, existed only in the imagination of storytellers and poetic writers such as Walt Whitman.
Nineteenth-century writer Mark Twain created characters so vivid in the minds and imaginations of his readers as to seem almost real. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn seemed as alive to us as they were picturesque.
Many of the characters, monsters and heroes set down on paper came to us through the literary pen and imagination of Homer (The Odyssey) medieval Arthurian romances (The Knights of The Round Table) and from Old-World folk lore and superstitions.
From tales of the Norse gods came the legend of the werewolf and lycanthropy – the ability to change forms from human to wolf. These stories were widely believed during the 13th to 16th centuries, contributing greatly to the European and the Salem witch hunts.
Count Dracula has haunted the imagination of the world for the past 100 years. Ever since writer Bram Stoker created his character in 1887 the name Dracula has inspired fear. The deadly creatures of which Dracula is the chieftain have lurked in European folklore since ancient times. However, Bram Stoker’s novel was based on a real-life diabolical Romanian tyrant known as Vlad V. He was nicknamed “the impaler” and known as Draculaea. Draculaea was the Romanian word for “Son of the Devil.”
As with many stories that have become part of folklore, the vampire legend has some medically factual foundation. During the middle ages interbreeding among Eastern nobles led to genetic disorders including a rare disease known as erythropoietic protoporphyria. Many so-called vampires were, in fact, victims of this disease.
The disorder makes the body produce too much porphyrin which results in redness of the skin, eyes and teeth, receding upper lip and skin that bleeds when exposed to sunlight. Doctors of the time treated their patients by encouraging them to live in the dark and drink blood to replace what they had lost.
And what of our own American folk lore, was legendary frontiersmen Davy Crockett for real, or, like Miami Vice hero Sonny Crockett, was he just a figment of a TV writer’s fancy? Unlike some other figures of historic folklore, Davy Crockett was a real-life, bona-fide hero. The colorful American frontiersman was born in Tennessee in 1786, and gained fame through his heroic exploits as an Indian fighter, US. congressman and soldier. His valiant death, defending the Alamo in 1837, elevated him to legendary status.
The renowned English detective Sherlock Holmes was only a character created in the mind of writer Arthur Conan Doyle – or was he?
Everyone’s favorite sleuth was, in reality, patterned after Conan Doyle’s college professor, Dr. Joseph Bell, whose classroom wizardry in the laws of deduction amazed and influenced five decades of Edinburgh University students, including Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle. Dr. Bell was the archetype for the cerebral detective, whose rules for deduction echoed the real-life gospel taught by Professor Bell. As for the origin of the super sleuth’s name? His creator called him Sherlock after a cricket acquaintance and Holmes after American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes.
In the latter part of the 20th century frenzied newspaper writers and storytellers wrote insatiably on the reported sightings of a strange hairy monster, part-man, part-beast, spotted by hikers in the northern California woodlands. The beast came to be known among the locals as “Big Foot.” During the 1960s, Eureka, Calif., was put on the map by these reported sightings. Thereafter, a new legend was born.
In every mountain range in the world live people who tell stories of strange, manlike creatures who roam the mountainsides. In the Himalayas he is called the Yeti; to people living in the Canadian Rockies he is known as Sasquatch. Modern scientists believe these creatures could actually exist and may be the descendants of Gigantopithecus, which includes the giant ape.
Should we believe in the sightings of these things without actual proof of their existence? Are they genuine, mythical or the product of an active imagination? The answer is most likely all three.
Many years ago, my then 5-year-old nephew was afraid of the dark, or, as he often told me, of the monster behind the closet door. I’d reassured him that there were no monsters in our house, but it was little consolation to his unreasonable imagination. “I know there’s no monster on the other side of the door,” he’d tell me bravely, “but sometimes I think there is.”
There are times when the most real things in the world are those we can’t see. As the 5-year-old in all of us, it’s a matter of what we want to believe.