Every nation seems to have its historical myths.
These myths are often about the formation of the nation or its fight for independence. I have enjoyed the recent series about American mythology presented by Lucy Worsley. The myths about the War of Independence were particularly interesting for a Briton. I remember reading some time ago that some Americans couldn’t understand why Independence Day wasn’t celebrated in the UK. Of course, I could think of few Brits who would like to celebrate it, but not for the same reason as the Americans!
To have lots of myths you need lots of history!
The Americans have to extract all their myths from history since 1776, whereas we in Britain go back forever. We’ve got King Arthur, Boudicca, Robin Hood, all before Columbus made his famous voyage. We’ve even got a story about a certain John Cabot finding America before Columbus and another about a Welsh Prince who sailed off somewhere to the West. Every village in Britain seems to have its local myth.
Do myths do any harm?
Usually not. They add a bit of local colour to history. They help us feel good about ourselves as a nation. But they can do harm. Lucy Worsley showed that the myths of the Old South made slavery seem respectable. All those contented, well-fed slaves; their charming, noble masters and mistresses. States rights sounded like an ideal concept, not just the right to keep slaves. It reminded me of the myth of Merrie England, where happy peasants danced around the maypole, bowing happily to benevolent lords and ladies, with their loyal, loving servants.
Myths do two types of harm
- Firstly they make us feel the past was better than the present. They brush the poverty and injustice under the carpet.
- Secondly, they encourage a national sense of superiority and a dislike of foreigners. We were always the Good Guys: no British war-crimes ever happened.
During the War (World War II, of course) it was probably useful to boost morale by exaggerating the extent to which we were all in it together, helping our neighbours, doing our bit. It was therefore justifiable to suppress information about the rise in crime, looting, black-marketing. But it’s been over for a long time. We need to grow up and face the facts.
I will write about some specific myths that I think need challenging, in my next few blogs.