Friday, August 15, 2008


The underpinnings of Culture (and popular culture in particular) are often found in the myths that linger in the memory of the people. The reasons for this are rather complex, because when you consider all the factors that contribute the past should not act so much as an anchor for the present, but it does. The truth is a factory worker needs to know very little history or arts or politics to do his work. A chef needs to know the world of cuisine, but beyond that has little “need” of cultural literacy. The point is that it seems to be of little importance to know of the past, to be aware of the culture surrounding you, but the culture functions upon the memory of things.

I am not of Scottish descent but my wife’s family is, and their last name is Wallace, and that name has a legacy surrounding it that is a very vital part of the mythic memories of the nation of Scotland. Yes the nation of Scotland, because, due to a nationalist fever sparked by Braveheart the motion picture starring Mel Gibson, people in Scotland have moved slowly but steadily towards reimaging their nation of people into a true nation, apart from English sensibilities. The movie, however flawed factually, recounts the rise against Edward II, Longshanks by the Scots, as led by rebel and knight Sir William Wallace. It is, like many stories, based upon legends, but also upon historical records. Some of the movie is particularly egregious regarding historical fact. Mel Gibson had neither the famed red hair of the Wallace, nor was he nearly as tall as Wallace, who is likely to be the 6’7” of historical record due to the many references to his being able to wield a two handed Claymore sword ONE handed. Nobody could do this without great strength and truly, the leverage of being tall. But this and many other flaws did not prevent the story told from being emotionally moving, and stirring of a patriot’s heart in Scotland itself. The movie captured the moment in as much as it reminded the Scots of who they were and where they came from.

(1)Some evidence of the treatment of fact

Now, it is fair to suggest that the movie only inflamed existent emotions, but that does not argue against what I am suggesting, that popular culture mirrors our distant memories, even when we might not be aware of that. And aside from the factual errors the movie was brilliantly made, performed and filmed.

Another famous myth that underpins culture comes from the British isles as well, in the legends and myths of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. No mere movie shows this, but speeches by politicians, names of local sites, media products, and more all suggest that if one is not familiar with the legends, they are just being oblivious to the world around them. I would argue that for the English and Welsh to forget Arthur they’d have to be destroyed and rebuilt, for it is such a powerful memory. Myth in culture is a valuable thing to be aware of, as it forms a necessary cultural literacy where people are immersed in the knowledge of a culture, while being a part of it as well.

I am not suggesting either that the Arthur legend in particular is not a world wide phenomenon, and it goes far beyond stories of courage and valor. The end of the Arthurian legend stories has Arthur falling mortally wounded and being taken to Avalon where he will sleep until the moment his people need him again. This is not an isolated myth, as later stories in other countries mirrored this, Frederick Barbarossa was said not to be dead but sleeping in a cave where he would awaken when his red beard would wind around his body, Sebastian of Portugal, a young warrior king who died in combat but who’s body was never found was said to be constantly rumored to return, and lastly Charlemagne, of the Holy Roman Empire is at various times have said to visited other kings in their dreams to guide them and help them lead.

We watch movies, read stories, enjoy songs, and the information in them comes from who we are, as a people, where we’ve been, and where we are going.


Brynna said...

Ah, I love mistakes in old movies. Especially when I can catch them myself. I watch a lot of old subtitled Japanese movies, and have learned a few phrases of Japanese. It pains me when a newer movie uses words, but subtitles them completely wrong just so it can fit the movie.

The only show I've seen actually do a good job with subtitling is Heroes.

alex-ness said...

Back in 1995 Hideo Nomo was interviewed during the All Star game and the interpreter had taken enormous liberties with the answers he turned from Japanese to English. The fellow was unfortunately not an expert and was not prepared to deal with an international audience and live interview. He later said he saw it as his job as giving the gist of the answers by Nomo.

Sometimes no matter what you try to do you get in trouble. A movie that was slavish in attention to factuality might well have been called boring. And we know that there is nothing worse than boring.

(Thanks for the comments Brynna)

kurt wilcken said...

Like the feller said in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallence": "When fact becomes legend, print the legend."

alex-ness said...

well, as a historian I despise using fiction when factual truth is available. So I do not think they should just do the legendary, but I am of the opinion if you have a story to tell you should tell it.