Lange: True Stories
I had just told my favorite spooky story to a bunch of boys around a blazing fire. One kid looked at the black woods around us and asked, “Is there really a huge frog that comes and grabs people in the night? Was that story true?”
“M’boy,” I answered, “look at all the stories you know: Jack and the Beanstalk, the Pied Piper, Admiral Peary at the North Pole.... They’re all true, or at least they were once. This one’s just like them – absolutely true.”
I’ve long felt there’s no such thing as an absolutely true story; that everyone telling a story puts his own English on the ball, and anyone hearing it takes from it pretty much what he brought to it.
In my childhood, a favorite began, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” That old King James Bible version still resonates; it begins what’s been called “the greatest story ever told.”
In pre-scientific medieval Europe, many natural phenomena lay beyond comprehension, so folks invented stories to explain them. They had tacit ecclesiastical approval because they helped explain what happens to disobedient children and naughty farmers. Thus the werewolf, cursed by God and doomed forever to ravage innocent citizens. He came to the New World with the French, becoming the dreaded loup-garou that stalked Quebecois farmers driving through dark woods on winter nights. Were the stories about it true? They were for the people who believed them at the time.
Not all folk stories are scary. The phantom of the Canadian North travels the trails of winter, guiding lost mushers to safety. There’s Crow, who lives among the Inuit and once flew south to steal daylight from the Cree. He got away with only enough for six months, so the Inuit still live in darkness six months of the year.
With the expansion of science, folk tales and religion suffered. Paul Bunyan, Mike Fink, Pecos Bill – were just ourselves written large, but are now marginal, like their professions. Once, though, I told some German students about the winter so cold that all the swear words spoken in Paul Bunyan’s camp froze, and when they thawed in the spring, made people cover their ears for days. “Does it really get that cold here in America?” Yes, I assured them, it does. For all I know, they believe it yet.
Summer campfires will perpetuate howling half-humans just out of sight in the dark woods. Many of us will carry to our graves the story of a stable in Bethlehem, a star static in the sky, and a procession of visitors, from shy shepherds to saddlesore astrologers bearing gifts. Which brings me back to the kid’s question: Is it true? And to my answer: Truth is at least partly in the ear of the beholder. And besides, it’s a great story.
This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.