History, Legend, Myth and a Broken Obelisk

There have been many occasions when I have seen or heard something, a single image, that immediately inspired a potential story. There’s the ruined cottage two fields down from my garden. There’s the dark lane I used to walk along, coming home from Junior School, where all sorts of unpleasant people might be lurking. There’s the guide, giving me a tour of Ightham Mote, who casually remarked, without further explanation, as we moved from one room to the next, “This is where workmen discovered the skeleton of a woman, walled up behind the panelling.” I see or hear something and one tiny idea begins to expand like a cell dividing. Sometimes an entire book emerges. Sometimes it doesn’t.

An image that never quite made it was one which used to spring itself on me whenever I travelled home, late at night, from Birmingham along the A40. There are other images along that road which obviously did inspire Bev Jones to write Halfway (brilliant: read it), but the one that grabbed me was an obelisk on a pedestal, set in a layby in deep woods over a sharp drop to a river. A typical village war-memorial, I assumed, as it flashed into view in my headlights, and I never stopped to look further, because by that time I was just wanting to get the next hour and a half of my journey out of the way.

But then the image nagged at me. Why put a war memorial in a layby far from anywhere. There was no village to claim it. I mentioned it, eventually, to someone who knew the area, and I was told that it was actually a monument to a terrible accident in Victorian times, in which a fully laden stagecoach plunged off the road and down into the river.

Now that explanation instantly conjured up images of Gothic horror that would surely make a fabulous book. The innocent passengers, each looking forward to a future that would never come to pass. A run-away bride-to-be, maybe, fleeing a forced marriage. Orphaned children with their nursemaid being delivered to a distant maiden aunt. A crook fleeing from the justice that would hang him. An innocent-looking elderly parson, who was really an agent carrying government secrets. All doomed on that stormy December night, moon glinting through rent clouds, the howling wind answered by the howl of unseen wolves… yes, okay, there were no wolves left in Britain, but this is fiction. Maybe it was a tree, succumbing to the wind, crashing onto the road, that upset the coach and sent horses and passengers plummeting to their death. Were their necks broken in the fall? Were they crushed by the shattered coach? Did they drown in the black raging torrent, their screams unheard? How late into the night was it, after the coach had failed to arrive at the next staging inn, when men were sent out with smoking torches from Llandovery, only to find battered and bloodied corpses scattered on the rocks of the ravine? The obelisk erected in their memory is cut short, a broken pillar, always a symbol of untimely death.

As it turns out, the actual event is explained in the very verbose and unintentionally amusing inscription on the memorial, and it proved to be so undramatic that I lost the will to work on the story. In December 1835 (two years short of being Victorian), the mail coach from Gloucester to Carmarthen, heading for the next staging post at Llandovery, left the road, hurtled down the hillside, crashed into an ash tree and was smashed to pieces. All five passengers, plus the driver and guard, survived the crash, although the driver was fined £5 for driving while intoxicated. The obelisk was erected a few years later, not to commemorate tragic deaths, but as a warning against the perils of strong liquor. The drama keeps getting less and less. The broken pillar does not signify lives cut short, after all. It’s just the result of a lorry crashing into it.

Ah well, my version was better.

There is always a significant difference between history, legend and myth. My definitions (and maybe other people would disagree): History is what we believe really happened – I won’t say history is fact, because it’s always subjective, open to reinterpretation and even to discovery of unsuspected evidence. What is the historical truth, for example, of what happened to the Titanic on the night of the 14/15th April, 1912? Evidence is still being discovered and debated.

Legend, on the other hand, isn’t bothered with trying to establish facts. It retells an event the way it should have happened, to give the story maximum dramatic appeal and add the colour otherwise missing. Did someone really say, of the Titanic, ‘God himself could not sink this ship?’ Probably not, but they should have done. The story of the Titanic’s sinking is full of legendary details, many of which were perhaps true and many of which probably weren’t, but they should have been, so we add them in.

Then there’s Myth, which isn’t really interested in historical details at all, but only in telling a tale with a deeper meaning as an explanation of something much bigger. Greek myths are tales that illustrate some fundamentals of life and human nature. The myth of the Titanic lies in its horrific wide-screen mirror image of an arrogantly over-confident class-ridden society that was about to crash and sink into the abyss of the Great War.

Where does fiction fit into all this? Legend comes closest, I suppose – a story as it should be told. But we do like a good dose of theoretically proven fact running through it to keep it grounded, unless we are reading pure fantasy. But pure fantasy needs to have a good dollop of Mythic intent if it is really to carry us along. Something intangible but recognisable as Truth.

Having dismissed the history of the Mail Coach memorial of the A40 as too mundane for words, shall I work on the legendary side of it, and add the details, including wolves, that should be there? Or take it to another level as a meaningful myth of Man’s inescapable confrontation with death? Maybe next year.

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