So I have been thinking lately about historical just-so stories, especially as they relate to legends. You know the kind of thing: “the myth of Atlantis (or of the Flood) is just a garbled recollection of the Thera eruption,” or “the name of this 5th-century Romano-British official sounds kiiiiiinda like Arthur if you try to hear it.”
A few things have brought this to mind: first, in the most recent episode of my Doctor Who podcast, we’ve been discussing “The Time Monster,” which has a load of stuff about Atlantis. Second, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been watching the new season of Marco Polo, and it’s got Prester John in it (kind of). And I recently listened to the “In Our Time” episode about Prester John (in which a friend of mine’s father appears), which again is full of the host really wanting to know about the historical origin or inspiration for Prester John.
And this all strikes me as a bit weird.
Like … I get using the legend of Prester John to teach about the Christian churches of Asia, which are not very well known in the west (indeed, I know very little about them other than that they existed and that there were a lot more Christians in medieval Asia than people tend to think). And I get using Prester John to teach about medieval Europe, since, after all, that was the society that invented him. But you’re not going to find some thing in medieval Asia or Africa that you can point to and say “aha, Prester John,” and even if you did it wouldn’t really tell you anything, since you’d have to drift so far from the story that they would barely be connected.
Let’s say the story of Atlantis really is inspired by the Thera eruption. That would mean that the story of an island in the Aegean that was badly damaged by a volcanic eruption in 1600 BC or so turned into the story of a continent in the Atlantic that sank beneath the waves thousands of years earlier. The two stories would have nothing to do with each other other than “a natural disaster happened.” Which is not exactly novel or exciting.
It’s the same with Arthur: so you find a Romano-British officer with a name that sounds a bit like Arthur. That doesn’t mean he’s “King Arthur.” Still no magic sword, no Holy Grail, no love triangle, no giants, no round table. It would be like proving that there was someone in Kansas in the 1930s named “Clark Kent.” It wouldn’t make him Superman, and it would be interesting only in what it told us about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
I can only imagine that when people look for historical origins for fantastic stories they’re hoping that a historical element will lend some legitimacy to the fantastic bits, and while I’m sympathetic to that idea I think they’re going to be disappointed.