Deconstructing Legends

I met a very wide-eyed Grade Eleven student at a public reading I did several months ago, who approached me timidly and asked me to autograph a book for her favourite teacher, who is apparently a fan of my stories. “Miss X says you’re the best writer she’s ever found for deconstructing legends,” she said, and then she frowned and asked, “What does that mean and how do you do it?”

I laughed, I remember, and told her it was simply something I believed in—searching for the truth among the ruins—because no matter how complex or supernatural a legend may appear to be, there’s a simple human reality at the heart of it somewhere. She wasn’t the first one ever to ask me that question, though, and thinking about it now, I remember an analogy I used more than  twenty years ago in trying to describe what I was hoping to do with my own treatment of the Arthurian legend.

I was in Vancouver’s Stanley Park one day, watching a man teaching his young son to cast a hooked line, near Brockton Point. The boy made one cast, awkwardly, and snagged on something. Thinking at first he’d caught a fish, he grew excited, but his hook had caught on a loose, two-foot-long piece of debris in the water. The lad hauled it out, and after gazing dubiously at it for a time while his father pointed out the need to free his line, he began very reluctantly—and very gingerly—to reclaim his hook from the mess of slimy looking seaweed it was buried in.

It must have felt as unpleasant as it looked, because with a tiny shriek of disgust the boy straightened up and hurled the thing away from him. It hit the join of the sea wall and the footpath and broke in two, exposing, much to my surprise, a white, gleaming circle at the very centre of the broken piece. I saw a matching ring on the other piece, too, interesting enough to make me crouch down and look more closely at what the object was, but not sufficiently interesting to tempt me to pick the loathsome-looking thing up with my bare hand. Once I looked more closely, though, and saw what it actually was, I became fascinated and picked it up without another thought. I have no idea where the boy and his father went after that, but I sat there  for ages, perched on the sea wall, gazing at what I had discovered.

It had once been a simple length of soft metal pipe, about three-quarters of an inch in diameter, and I have no idea how long it had lain there in the water, but it had been long enough for barnacles to attach themselves to it and multiply for generations, distorting its original smooth contours, and for the long, slimy fronds of bright green seaweed to anchor themselves among the barnacles until the pipe was encrusted with more than four times its own width in accretions, completely obliterating any resemblance to a straight, man-made artifact. And after all those years, the boy had found it and thrown it, and it had broken upon landing, to reveal the perfect circle of corroded metal at its centre.

I sat staring at that little, white-looking circle, because for me it illustrated perfectly how a single, splendid human deed or achievement, admirable but incomprehensible to witnesses even at the time it occurred, could be warped and twisted beyond recognition by repetition and exaggeration and superstitious errors of belief and misinterpretation until, over the course of hundreds and even thousands of years, it became a legend. And so I set out, in dealing with my own legends—first the Arthurian legend, then the Knights Templar legend and latterly the Braveheart legend—to uncover the ultimate, human truth at the centre of each of them by stripping away all the debris and exaggeration, superstition and outright nonsense that has encrusted and adhered to them over the centuries, obscuring and defacing the simple beauty of what was there originally. That’s what deconstructing legends is about, and that’s what I do in my novels.

Here’s an example I’ve been thinking about recently: one of the greatest of Greek legends is the story of the Labours of Hercules—a series of gargantuan, seemingly impossible tasks assigned to the greatest of the Greek giants. He accomplished all of them, but the most intriguing of them all, in my eyes, is the one that sent him sailing off to the mythical Islands of the Hesperides to find the Golden Apples of the Sun. It’s a legendary tale, like thousands of others, but looking for the human truth at the heart of that particular example, I doubt anyone who loves Greek cuisine would disagree that Hercules may have been the first man ever to import lemons to Greece.