Page images
PDF
EPUB

ginning they were wrought in the thought that life would enter them. A passage in The Flame of Life reveals the creative quality in D'Annunzio reacting to their spell: “In the fruit orchards, in the vineyards, among the vegetables, among the pastures, rose the surviving statues. They were numberless like a dispersed people. Some still white, some gray or yellow with lichens or greenish with moss, or spotted; in all attitudes, with all gestures, goddesses, heroes, nymphs, seasons, hours, with their bows, with their arrows, their garlands, their cornucopias, their torches, with all the emblems of their riches, power, and pleasure, exiled from fountains, grottos, labyrinths, harbors, porticos; friends of the evergreen, box, and myrtle, protectors of passing loves, witnesses of eternal vows, figures of a dream far older than the hands that had formed them and the eyes that had seen them in the ravaged gardens.

Sovereign reason itself has sent emissaries to the courts of fable. Science is tolerant and until it knows it speaks the language of Montaigne, “It is a sottish presumption to disdaine and condemne that for false, which unto us seemeth to beare no show of likelihood or truth.” Empedocles, precursor of physical scientists, and perhaps first to glimpse the doctrine of evolution, provided the classic world with a working explanation of the prodigious animals and peoples and gave a law to the menageries of myth. He thought that the various parts of men and animals were separately created by the elements, which were his deities. There were heads without necks, arms without shoulders, eyes without sockets; and as they wandered about in space these members united, forming man-headed beasts, beastheaded men, and various bizarre beings which because of their maladjustment did not survive in competition with normal men and animals. The doctrine has been echoed in modern times in the contention that the composite creatures of fable-part reptile, part bird, and part beast-represent intermediate forms, experiments which nature inaugurated and abandoned in evolving higher types of life. The marsupial kangaroo, the duckbilled platypus, and the flying lizard are surviving testimony to such experiment.

A kindred philosophy may be discerned here and there in the folklore of aboriginal Americans. In the deluge legend of the Pimas, Fox and Sister, escaping in two arks, set to work to fashion a new world of men out of mud; Fox molds manikins with one arm, one leg, one eye, but Sister derides these and tells him to put his journeyman's product away behind the ocean in another world; then she breathes into her own better handiwork the breath of life; these deformed folk are still living somewhere, the Pimas think. The haunting Indian myth of a First People, who had the human form but the beast nature, and from whom the animals derive, and the companion myth of a First People who had the brute form, but discarded it for the human, are things with the Empedoclean quality, but reach deeper; and a true note of observation is in them. Somewhere in every man one catches a glimpse of some animal. All created things are reflected in his form, his gait, his face. “Somewhat of me down there?” was the question of Emerson when he caught a dog's understanding glance; and in men's countenances he had seen, he thought, “the features of the mink, of the bull, of the rat, and the barnyard fowl.”

Thus the Metamorphoses of Ovid take on a tinge of plausibility. “What keeps these wild tales in circulation for thousands of years?” asks Emerson. “What but the wild fact to which they suggest some approximation of theory!” In lighter vein in Penguin Island Anatole France sketches the metamorphosis of birds into men: “Immediately the penguins were transformed. Their foreheads enlarged and their heads grew round like the dome of St. Maria Rotunda in Rome. Their oval eyes opened more widely on the universe; a fleshy nose clothed the two clefts of their nostrils; their beaks were changed into mouths, and from their mouths went forth speech; their necks grew short and thick; their wings became arms and their claws legs; a restless soul dwelt within the breast of each of them. However, there remained with them some traces of their first nature. They were inclined to look sideways; they balanced themselves on their short thighs; their bodies were covered with fine down."

There is good terrestrial history as well as the dreams and guesses of the mind hidden in travel tales, and in them are embalmed some of the oldest memories of mankind. Paleolithic man found various subraces of men in Europe when he came

[ocr errors]

there, savage prowlers from whose skeletal remains modern science has restored the outlines of squat, ape-necked, beetlebrowed human beings, crudely formed as a heathen idol. Against these he waged the relentless war of one species against another—a war of extermination. The memory of their odious appearance would survive longest in the stories told to entertain or frighten children. As Sir Harry Johnston has suggested, "the dim racial remembrance of such gorilla-like monsters, with cunning brains, shambling gait, hairy bodies, strong teeth, and possibly cannibalistic tendencies, may be the germ of the ogre in folklore.”

It is certain that folklore shows the traces of other and less frightful races of men who in turn were driven off the European scene. The giants of nursery tales are identified by Tylor with Stone Age heathen, shy of the conquering tribes of men, loathing their agriculture and the sound of their church bells. When the Scandinavian sagas speak of dwarfs, furtive and cunning, garbed in reindeer kirtle and colored cap, hiding in caves, and armed with bone-tipped arrows, they are picturing the persecuted and once widely spread Lapp race.

It may be that a vague recollection of now extinct animals has survived in legend. There is an Iroquois story recorded by Father Charlevoix of a great elk which stood so high that eight feet of snow did not impede his movements, and with "a sort of arm which comes out of his shoulder and which he uses as we do ours. Kaska tribesmen speak of a large, hairy, tusked animal which roamed their land long ago. The Indians of North America must at some time have seen living members of the elephant family. It has been suggested that the tortoises of Hindu myth which bear the world on their backs are a memory of the huge Himalayan tortoise.

There are legends that are true myths of observation, exercises not of memory, but of primitive logic. They disclose man pondering the ruinous records of the past and satisfying the necessity for a theory that shall explain them. The din inutive burial cysts and dolmens made by departed races and scattered over the world were thought to be the graves of dwarfs, or their houses, or their treasure places. Fossil bones have produced a veritable cycle of these philosophic myths. The frozen mammoths and fossil bones of Siberia have been known to man from earliest times and have produced a stock of legends as well as an immemorial trade in ivory. Some of these, reciting the battles of prehistoric animals with one another and with men, have almost the dignity of epics.

The mistaken logic that produced the creatures of legend has had at various points a sort of whimsical confirmation. Save for his fiery breath, the dragon of fable mirrors the leathern-winged, serpent-tailed, crocodile-bellied saurians that haunted the marshes of the ancient world and passed from the scene ages before man is supposed to have come upon it. There are living things as weird of aspect as any created by the unbridled imagination of man, but most of them are small. Such are the vampire bat, the dragon fly, and the so-called fiend fly, the black face and curved horns of which gave it in the Middle Ages a diabolic name. Seas and fresh-water streams and marshes all contain creatures which so much resemble, and so much differ from, the familiar land animals as to seem the product of a conscious venture into the grotesque. With a fish net and microscope one might bring to view an array of animals that in everything save size would rival the exhibits of fable. The wildest dream of man has not pictured anything so beautiful and strange as the life-drama of the little creature that is first a larva, then a chrysalis, and then the butterfly of a single summer.

There are words in which the germinal idea has been so enveloped in wrappers of metaphor and inference, so incased in concentric shells of rationalization, so burdened with borrowed significances, so freighted by sentiment and reflection, and so enriched by art and historical accretion that they may be called microcosms of the world of fable; the proper noun, Babylon, is one of these. In large measure the peoples of prodigy and in some measure the lands of legend owe their being to a search for causes confined within the domain of etymology. They may be called a literary phenomenon, a product of words and the ways of words, and a by-product of libraries. Words breed myths. Given a Rome, people will invent a Romulus. Given the ancient Britons and Celts, people will invent a Britannus and a Celtus, their eponymous chiefs. The theory of totemism

-supposed descent from an animal ancestor—arose, as Spencer thinks, from the efforts of savages to explain the animal names which they bore.

When the meaning of words becomes forgotten or their form corrupted, a myth follows. Mediæval Spain, for example, believed that Jews were born with tails, confusing the word rabbi with rubo (a tail). Château Vert in England has become Shotover,

and peasants have it that Little John shot over a high hill near by. Maid Marian of the Robin Hood ballad cycle is the Mad Morion of the Morris dance, a boy who whirled through its measures wearing a morion or helmet.

How names can become corrupted the public-house signs of England will attest. The Bag O’Nails should be the Bacchanals; the Bully Ruffian should be the ship Bellerophon; the Cat and Wheel should be St. Catherine's wheel; the Goat and Compasses should be God Encompasses Us; the Iron Devil should be Hirondelle (the swallow), and the Queer Door should be the Cour Doré (the golden heart). The effigies of bags of nails, cats, goats, and doors under these uncouth names are pictorial fables based upon bad etymology.

In like fashion Pliny confused the name of the Canaries with the Latin canis (dog) and says these islanders are called thus because, like dogs, they devour the entrails of wild beasts. Similar confusions of words have brought legendary islands upon the maps. Avalon, the Celtic paradise in the west, whither Arthur was ferried unto peace, is Apple Island of the classics, the place of the golden, dragon-guarded apples of the Hesperides. Antilia, mystic mediæval island of the remote Atlantic, is perhaps Ante-ilya, or island off the Portuguese coast. Milton's "cold Estotiland” and Estland, islands which held their place for centuries on the maps of the northern seas, are probably misreadings for Scotland and Iceland, transferred from faded sketch-maps to a Venetian chart of the sixteenth century.

“Not Angles, but angels,” said a punning ecclesiastic when he saw fair-haired Saxon captives in the slave markets of the Mediterranean. So the Greeks and Romans gave to savage tribes the names that in their own tongues sounded most like what these tribes called themselves. A myth might result-a record of some deformity, or some inhuman custom. A larger

« PreviousContinue »