Brian Dunning wrote an article asking which of the following characters was real. See how many names you can correctly pick out without searching the term. In some cases historians aren’t really sure if the characters were real or not.
3. Sindbad the Sailor;
4. Uncle Sam;
5. John Henry;
6. Daniel Boone;
8. Robin Hood;
9. King Arthur;
11.The Man in the Iron Mask
13.The Pied Piper;
Dunning says that historical existence is a chancy thing. “It makes you wonder if many years after you die, people will wonder if you ever existed or were just a story. In a thousand years who’s going to know how many Hollywood movie characters were based on real life people? Spinal Tap might end up being remembered as one of history’s great rock bands, and children might sing nursery rhymes about John F. Kennedy.”
How will they decide? Maybe future historians can put the question of whether we actually existed to a vote. And if enough future people believe we existed well then maybe we did. But if no one remembers us, perhaps we never did exist, like Benghazi, a something which happened a long time ago that nobody can remember anything about.
JM Barrie, the author who wrote that “God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December,” argued that belief had the power to affect reality. But dreams retained a separate existence. When Tinkerbell was dying after drinking the poison meant for him, Peter Pan knew that the only medicine for fairies was magic.
Her voice was so low that at first he could not make out what she said. Then he made it out. She was saying that she thought she could get well again if children believed in fairies. Peter flung out his arms. There were no children there, and it was night time; but he addressed all who might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think: boys and girls in their nighties, and naked papooses in their baskets hung from trees.
“Do you believe?” he cried. Tink sat up in bed almost briskly to listen to her fate. She fancied she heard answers in the affirmative, and then again she wasn’t sure.
“What do you think?” she asked Peter.
“If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.”
Many clapped. Some didn’t. A few beasts hissed. The clapping stopped suddenly; as if countless mothers had rushed to their nurseries to see what on earth was happening; but already Tink was saved. First her voice grew strong, then she popped out of bed, then she was flashing through the room more merry and impudent than ever. She never thought of thanking those who believed, but she would have like to get at the ones who had hissed.
Yet what is magic for fairies is not necessarily elixir for little boys. Characters in fiction live in a world of their own. Here are two mini-short stories which illustrate how you can mix and match characters who would have existed or actually did live at the same time.
Sherlock Holmes versus Fu Manchu
Moriarty stepped out of the fog into the circle of lamplight where a lean figure awaited him, his features obscured by the upturned collar of an overcoat. But neither had any trouble recognizing the other.
“I thought you swore to destroy me Holmes?”
“I did James. But I will put my oath aside for the time being to combat a greater threat — there is a greater threat even than you,” the tall detective added.
Moriarty made no answer to the slight jibe but followed Sherlock Holmes wordlessly through the swirling coal smoke and mist of London until they came to the West End. There stood before them a house whose tasteful luxury testified to the importance and education of the owner within. But nothing was in evidence but a strongly built, square man who stood at the entrance.
“Dear Watson! I am very glad you obeyed my injunction not to enter.”
“I had the devil of a time resisting the impulse Holmes. Sir Reginald Soames and I and were in Afghanistan together. If he needed my help … well no call for it came, but there was an infernal scratching sound coming from inside. Hist. There it is again.”
“I assure you Sir Reginald has had no need for your help for some hours. I was sure of it ever since I got the note. But now that I and Professor Moriarty are here — the only two people in England who I would implicitly trust to proceed, we can safely open the door. Stand clear Watson.”
Holmes turned the unlocked knob but pushed the door open with his walking stick. It swung upon its hinges to reveal a ghastly sight. Watson drew back and suppressed a gasp. For there on the floor lay Sir Reginald Soames, his sightless eyes staring at the cut-glass chandelier on the ceiling. But it was not the dead man on the floor that riveted the attention. All over the corpse, some even swarming out of his open mouth, were hundreds of gray, loathsome spiders each of which stared at the trio through dull red eyes.
“Phoneutria nigriventer,” intoned Moriarty, as he closed the door again with crook of his umbrella.
“Yes, my dear Moritiarty. I knew your entomology would be up to it.”
“No mistake about them, Holmes. The Brazilian Wandering Spider. Deadly venomous,” the criminal genius answered. “Who is the interloper on my turf, Holmes? I will assist you in putting an end to him not from moral scruple, but out of a desire to rid myself of a rival. Who is it?”
“Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government– which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence.”
“There is only one man who fits that description,” replied Moriarty. “Fu Manchu the devil doctor.”
“That is him. And it will take both of us to have any chance of halting him,” said Holmes.
Jose Rizal Versus Dracula
The Jesuit had reached London at last. The voyage had been interminable and might have even been longer were it not for the newly constructed Suez Canal. There was the long crawl through the Malay Barrier followed by the storms of the Indian Ocean, then the slow chug up the canal into the Mediterranean. By the time the steamer had exited the Straits of Gibraltar and entered the choppy Atlantic ocean, the Jesuit was almost looking forward to landing in England, though his knowledge of English was almost non-existent.
He knew no English, but he would be met.
The young, vigorous clergyman deduced that he was wanted not for his literary Spanish, nor his not inconsiderable knowledge of chemistry. No, his friend wanted him above all for his skill in arnis, an ancient Malay martial art, which when added to his fluency in European sword fighting, made of the young Jesuit a formidable man at close quarters combat. He and his friend had once held off two dozen Moros fighting back to back in Dapitan, Zamboanga.
But why was he here? All he knew was that his questions would soon be answered.
His friend was just as he remembered. About five foot three in height, of very muscular build, dressed properly, even foppishly, in the latest German fashion.
“Hello Jose,” Cazals said. “A que diablos juegas?”
Jose Rizal flinched at the choice of words. “Ah diablos, devils. That might be nearer the truth than is good for us, mi amigo. And in truth I have asked you here because as an ordained priest you can consecrate Holy Water.”
“What the dickens are you talking about?”
“The London authorities are baffled by a peculiar series of crimes and via the faculty at Heidelberg have called me into it. They involve — I will explain later — a number of murders of women in the poorer parts of this great city. Inspector Lestrade thinks a peculiar foreign count is tied up with it somehow.”
Rizal bade him put aside his questions as they boarded a cab.
“Before we get to the details, let me introduce you to our other partner in this project. He is at this very moment in his workshop modifying a 8 gauge shotgun into a repeating firearm for the peculiar purpose of launching wooden stakes from a tubular magazine. All we need now is some Holy Water.”
“Do I know this man? This partner who is making a gun which fires wooden projectiles?”
“You will not have heard of him. But though young he is already famous America. He is a Mormon, not a Catholic, I am sorry to say, who goes by the name of John Moses Browning.”
The cab was crossing the district of Whitechapel when a scream pierced the night. In the murk the two friends saw a woman in shabby clothes running through the street pursued by something. Rizal swung open the door and dropped to the pavement. He called out to Cazal.
“I’ll meet you at Browning’s.”
“The devil, I am coming with you!”
“There’s no time to lose. Do as I say.”
Then Rizal sped after the sound of the retreating footsteps. It was not long before he came upon the woman, down upon the filthy gutter, alive but not, unless help were forthcoming, for long. A gigantic figure stooped over her with a 12 inch knife.
“Drop the knife,” Rizal said, as he drew out his walking stick.
The dark figure turned menacingly round. “Who says? So you understand English?”
“Yes. And German, French, Spanish and a smattering of other languages as well. I am a doctor of medicine; a writer of some note. But I also have some fame a sword-master. May I introduce myself? Friends call me Jose Rizal.”
But there was no answer. No sooner had the small man spoken then Jack the Ripper lunged.
The Master of our Dreams
You can’t mix and match real things the way you do in fiction. The power of fiction lies in knowing that it is. Things get dangerous when made up stories are used to control actual reality or to substitute for it. Perhaps the least attractive thing about the administration is that it isn’t content with collecting the public’s taxes; or with just governing. It wants to be in charge of our collective dreams; as if there were a deep, almost unhealthy desire to control the narrative, so that by controlling belief it could control the waking world.
This takes the form of a constant attack on the national myths. It doesn’t know how to govern, but it knows how to campaign. Whether the issue is guns, marriage, abortion, culture, religion or the actual factuality of events, the administration is tireless in its efforts to explain what we should think; to accompany us in our dreams. Almost as indefatigable as Freddy Kruger.
The struggle between the White House spin apparatus and journalists over the issues of wire-tapping, over who may be accredited a journalist and what may or may not be said “on the record” is really one aspect of the wider struggle for our dreams or what used to be called our soul. The President is really rather more hungry in this respect than he should be. No one ought to have an appetite for the things he hankers for.
If he spent less of his time fixing the narrative and more attending to business it might be better. The President was elected the chief executive. His province should be nonfiction, not fiction. He ought to leave the remembering to the public.