Thursday, 9 August 2012

"... in a world without magic spells or dragons, would we understand ..."


I love the intersection between folklore, fairy tales and history. Where does one fade into another? I was reading an older article from the National Geographic about the Staffordshire Hoard1 (which I still have yet to go and see), and was very struck by the last sentence in the article: "Odds are we will never know the story behind the Staffordshire Hoard, but in a world without magic spells or dragons, would we understand it if we did?". This is a rather wonderful sentence in itself, but conveys some particular thoughts to me.

Perhaps because I have just finished that essay on Grimm, but my first thought was how that sentence links with the opening line from the Brothers Grimm's The Frog Prince: "In den alten Zeiten, wo das W√ľnschen noch geholfen hat" ("In olden times when wishing still helped"). This phrase serves to distance us from the time when the tale is supposed to have happened, and according to Prof Rabkin, our tutor, allows us to set aside reality and to accept that the fantastical will follow, and is an element demonstrated in fairy and folk tales across many nations3, and continues in modern fantasy and science fiction (hence why it came into our course videos).

Thus the article seems to suggest that the past is not only L.P. Harley's foreign country2, but a place which should be perceived to be intrinsically different from the world which we inhabit now. By using such phrases in a news article is the author trying, consciously or subconsciously, to persuade us that this hoard was buried in a fantastic, alien time which we cannot understand? By placing the medieval as something that is fantastical, we create an atmosphere that says we can't understand the medieval period, so why try as it's a futile exercise. To suggest that the medieval was a fantastical period, seems to me to be creating the same declining to engage with the past that phrases such as the Dark Ages can create.

I find this rather disturbing as that is the antithesis of who I am: if I don't understand something, I feel a need to try to comprehend it, whether we are speaking about a foreign country, the opposite gender, or of another time period. While we will never be able to be 100% certain what someone was thinking in the 7th Century4, do we truly know what someone is thinking now?

However, what effect has the placing of the sentence at the end, as opposed to the beginning? Does it help, but consciously separating the 'distancing effect' from the factual information and analysis of the article, challenging existing preconceptions with an ironic ending. Or, does it serve the purpose of continuing thesse pre-existing medievalisms by leaving this as the last thought with the reader. Honestly, I suspect neither - it's a pretty phrase that sounded good on the end of the article. The writer was not interested in challenging the reader to think differently. The focus was on presenting information in an interesting style that was deemed suitable for the general public.

The challenge then is for us not the reader - to show to other inhabitants of our "world without magic spells or dragons",  how and why we can understand the past, and why we should want to continue to try to do so.

Aside: while checking some sources I found that I am missing a lecture I'd have loved to go to in Birmingham by Prof Brooks on "The Hoard as a Window onto England in the Age of the Conversion to Christianity". It's going to be at 2pm on Sunday 19th August in the Waterhall at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and tickets are £6 it says, so if anyone else is going, a write-up would be greatly appreciated!!

  2. "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" (see Wikipedia for a quick summary about the book if you haven't read it...)
  3. I found a great summary here, but unfortunately it doesn't give the source nationalities for many, not which tales or collectors they were recorded by.
  4. For the sake of argument I am using the dating of the Biblical inscription given by scholars such as Nicholas Brooks and Michelle Brown:; Also an expired link:

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