Riding with the King
December 13, 2012
You can’t be a legend in your own time because the process of becoming a legend involves a long passage of time. Legends are just stories told and retold, peated and repeated . . . wait, that’s dumb, peated isn’t a word at all. But if you repeat something, haven’t you already peated it once?
Legends take a while, they’re anecdotes passed father to son, mother to daughter, morphing over generations into epics larger than life. Maybe they start something like this: George Washington comes home after a hard day battling the British and says, “Martha! How many times must I ask thee to fix the hole in my waistcoat? I lost a dollar out on the river today due to thy laziness.”
Martha, overworked and in a snit, tells Prudence, her neighbor, “George carelessly lost a dollar in the river today.”
Prudence tells her spinster friend, Abstinence, “I told you she was too good for him, now he’s tossing her money in the river.”
Fox News picks up on the story, “STEELY-EYED PRESIDENT THROWS DOLLAR ACROSS POTOMAC, KILLS BRITISH GENERAL. BRING ‘EM ON, HE DECLARES!”
So, there are two things that everybody knows about our first president. First, he threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River, 11 miles wide at the widest and 1,300 feet at the narrowest, and second, he refused to lie when confronted with the smoking hatchet and an eyewitness to his brutal assault upon a neighbor’s cherry tree.
Here’s the legend part: Did he really throw a dollar across the Potomac? Did he really chop down that cherry tree? Consider how incredible it is that these teensy bits of minutia about George Washington’s childhood have survived intact for 27 decades while probably not being true at all. But then, that’s what legends are about.
Washington’s herculean toss hardly holds a candle to legends like, well, Hercules and Prometheus. The Greeks believed that Prometheus fashioned a man-like creature out of the earth and stole fire from Zeus to jump-start the whole human race. To qualify as legend or myth, the story must be of an earlier time, unverified and unverifiable, and popularly believed to be historical. The Greek myths were handed down orally for 500 years through generations of families living in Greece and Asia Minor. It was not until the Greek Classic Period, around 750 B.C., when a written language was developed that they started writing these stories down. The Iliad, Homer’s account of the Trojan War, for example was written about 720 B.C.
Often the storytellers would simply embellish some fact or polish somebody’s heroic action until a 20-foot tall logger named Paul is running around with some blue ox named Babe. The root of much myth lies in human action, emboldened by time and retelling. Who will they be talking about 3,000 years from now?
Elvis Presley’s a good guess. He would’ve turned 77 in a couple of weeks if those pesky prescription drugs hadn’t gotten in the way. Three millennia from now I can see people unrolling and pointing prayer rugs towards Tupelo, Miss., birthplace of the Undeniable King of Rock and Roll.
You might be a legend yourself, we’ll just have to wait and see.