OUR VALUED CORRESPONDENTS.

IN REFERENCE TO Dr. Boli’s Complete History of the World, “Mary” writes:

Sir Walter Raleigh was working on a history of the world while in the Tower of London. Except one day he saw some workers quarrel outside the tower, and one was killed. Despite actually seeing it, and the most diligent queries, he could never find out it was about.

Whereupon he gave up his history and burned what he had done.

This is such a charming story that it seems almost petty to correct any of the details. Indeed, it requires only two small corrections: for “gave up,” read “continued,” and for “burned,” read “published.” Sir Walter’s history was a very popular standard work for a century after he wrote it, and can be found in more than one edition on Google Books, which is now perhaps the most comprehensive library on the planet outside Dr. Boli’s own library.

Sir Walter’s own preface to the History is worth reading, and we can find an abridgment of the work here. Abridgment, as any author knows, is the sincerest form of flattery; it implies that one’s work is considered so essential that even the impatient and subliterate deserve a crack at it.

There is, however, one form of flattery that may be even more sincere than abridgment, and that is legend. Stories true and false circulate about people like Sir Walter because they simply deserve to have good stories told about them. A legend is posterity’s only way of conveying the magnitude of a personality that has made an indelible impression on the imagination of his contemporaries. The stories tell us, not what Sir Walter actually did, but what kind of man his friends knew him to be. In that way, our legends of Sir Walter Raleigh may be said to be not false, but actually truer than the mere facts of the case will allow.

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Published in: on March 23, 2012 at 8:49 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Indeed. If truth is beauty, beauty is truth – so if a legend is beautiful, any facts that contradict that legend simply are no longer true – and thus not facts.

  2. The stories tell us, not what Sir Walter actually did, but what kind of man his friends knew him to be.

    Or, as might be the case with Macbeth and Richard III, his enemies.


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