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  • Review: Myth or Legend? February 9, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Medieval , trackback

    C.E. Daniel et alii, Myth or Legend? (New York/London 1956)

    What is the difference between myth and a legend? Well, according to this little BBC miscellany from the 1950s a myth is ‘invention and fancy’, while legend is ‘some kind of history’. This distinction gets right at our main concerns with so many of those now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t figures and places that hide in the shadows of the past. And so Beachcombing has taken it upon himself to accentuate here the positives in this all-but-forgotten collection: eleven short essays, seven to ten sides, each with a tiny bibliography.

    First, all the pieces gathered together here, were penned for the airwaves and you can hear, as you read, the rather bluff avuncular tones of yesteryear – think C.S. Lewis in his Mere Christianity radio talks. The reader never feels talked down to, but is rather overwhelmed by bonhomie and suspect jokes. One contributor reflects, for example, on modern druids attempting human sacrifice: ‘If any bold spirit among [the revivalists] were to try and make a return to primitive doctrine and ritual as recorded in our only authorities, the classical writers, the results would certainly be front-page news, but their performance would be as rapidly and forcibly curbed as in the days of the Roman Empire’. You get the idea…

    Second, the BBC, in putting together this series of talks, made absolutely no concessions to the public’s tastes. Beachcombing has spent some time at the edge of broadcasting decision-making. And the first thing that you do when you are about to plan a program proposal is ask what Joe Public wants: which of course means what controllers believe that Joe Public wants – a new elitism far more odious than the old. Back in the 1950s though this was the last thing in the broadcaster’s mind. So King Arthur and Robin Hood? Demagoguery! Lyonesse and the Nemi? Never heard of them. Commission a piece!

    Third, in part because of its elitist ways, the BBC had extraordinary pull in the 1950s. It was able to get a series of luminaries whom Beachcombing can best describe, in composite, as pipe-smoking, tweed-wearing, classically-trained archaeologists, many of whom had more letters after their name than you would find in a can of alphabet soup: e.g. ‘Kt, Hon.D.Litt. Dublin Hon. LL.D. St.Andrews, Hon. A.R.I.B.A, F.S.A.’. So there is the great Tom Lethbridge, Stuart Piggott, Glyn Daniel and Sir Leonard Woolley, not to mention Sean Ó Ríordáin fresh from his digs at Tara. ‘All the Olympians, a thing never seen again…’ (Though Zeus – aka Mortimer Wheeler – is inexplicably absent).

    Then, lastly, this is the 1950s and we find ourselves back in that rather unusual thought world that could have been 1956 but that could equally have been 1860 on the cusp of Darwin’s temper tantrum. One author, for example, goes out of his way to stress that he is not threatening any Biblical narrative n his essay. Leonard Woolley reports a fascinating conversation with his wife about the Flood. R.F. Treharne suggests that the Holy Grail might be found buried at Glastonbury. Then, John Bradford notes how more ‘have read Conan Doyle’s tale, The Maracott Deep, about an imaginary search for Atlantis under the sea, than have read the first written description of the place by the Greek philosopher Plato’. Beachcombing wonders if this was even true in the 1950s…

    Now, for the benefit of the internet spiders and bizarrists of the world, the contents:

    G.E.Daniel ‘Lyonesse and the Lost Lands of England’; D.L.Page ‘The City of Troy’, R.F. Treharne, ‘Glastonbury and the Holy Grail’; Sir Leonard Wooley, ‘The Flood’; C.T.Selman ‘Theseus and the Minotaur’; Sean Ó Ríordáin ‘Tara’; J.M.White ‘Tristan and Isolt’; E.R.Leach ‘St George and the Dragon’; T.C.Lethbridge ‘The Isles of the Blessed’; S. Piggott, ‘The Druids and Stonehenge’; J.S.P. Bradford ‘The ‘Lost Continent’ of Atlantis’; H.J.Rose ‘Nemi and the Golden Bough’.

    This is a rare book and if anyone is desperate Beachcombing could probably scan a chapter or two…

    Thanks to Jonathan over at A Corner of Tenth Century Europe who flagged up Myth and Legend. Beachcombing is always on the look out for unusual reads: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    9 Feb 2010: Invisible has been busy proving Beachcombing wrong on his silly claim that this work is rare. ‘I checked this out on Bookfinder.com and there are many copies available, HB & PB, most priced between US$7.00 – $20.00. Full disclosure, no commercial connection with Bookfinder.com except that I shop there and find it a useful place for consolidating all sorts of used book sites/dealers. Whenever I hear about a book reputed to be rare, I like to verify that it is. Just a quirk. The internet, whatever its flaws, has made many rare books a lot more common.’ For some reason Beachcombing ordered in his book from Alaska for a very small King’s ransom – sigh…