Page images

Chapter XXV. The Gains of Fable

It has been well for men that they have been citizens of two worlds—the traditional world and the world of reality. Whatever harm they have suffered in either has come from but two things. These things are fear and selfishness, wherein are all the frustrations and all the cruelties. The rest has been good.

The myths of fear kept men from sailing west and south. Until a few centuries ago the imaginary terrors of the Atlantic and of the tropics hid from them the knowledge that men like unto themselves lived in all parts of the earth, and that the winds would waft them to these along smooth pathways of the sea. The myths of selfishness—the tales that maritime nations told of evil things in waters and upon coasts which they would close to the enterprise of others—wrought the same mischiefs that greed and falsehood work anywhere. They retarded the advance of learning, restrained the intercourse of nations, and recoiled at last on the heads of those who invented them.

The gains of fable are writ large in the history of modern exploration. Error was the guiding star of discovery. A vain fancy was the most precious cargo of the caravels, as it was the keenest weapon of the conquistadors. The coasting voyages around Africa into the eastern world would have been longer deferred if men had known that the Dark Continent reached so far to the south. The discovery of America was due to three stupendous mistakes—the belief that Asia stretched thousands of miles farther eastward than it does; the belief that Japan was a thousand miles farther from Asia than it is; the belief that the circumference of the earth was three thousand miles less than its true dimension. The total of these mistakes was so great that the whole of the New World lay concealed within it. Had Columbus known that he must sail due west for nearly twelve thousand miles to reach Cathay, he would have foregone his enterprise.

Because the Spaniards made marvels the text for launching expeditions instead of telling or compiling stories, their delusions as to the Americas of the sixteenth century constitute the strangest chapter of travel tale. But "he that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him”; the illusory expeditions of Spain had results that were denied to the more pedestrian adventuring of other nations. One of these led Cabeza de Vaca across the territory of the United States from Atlantic to Pacific, as early as 1539. It was not until 1805, in the Lewis and Clark expedition, that the cooler advance of the Anglo-Saxon matched this feat. In their search for illusive golden cities the countrymen of the Cid explored the mountains and savannas of South America, the American Southwest, and even the South Seas, and did it all so far ahead of the English and American penetration of the northern continent that the story of their adventures was an old tale before the Saxon had entered the Great Plains, or climbed the Great Divide, or dropped down to the Pacific.

Such is the service of dreams. They fire the mind and make the feet of young men restless. The province of wonder has been to rescue men from their heaviness. They settle down in one place, and their children and chattels tie them there, but the nomad in them droops within unchanging horizons and sickens down in dullness. No report of other lands like their own and other peoples like themselves will arouse them. They want to hear of marvels, and every tale of them is a pleasant tale even if it is of one-eyed cannibal giants, or malignant dwarfs, or headless men, or the storm-winged roc, or the Swallower of the West. At least it opens new vistas, and peoples them with creatures such as cannot be seen at home. So it was that Wil. liam of Wykeham instructed the scholars of New College, Oxford, to occupy the long winter evenings in the Middle Ages with “singing, or reciting poetry, or with the chronicles of the different kingdoms, or with the wonders of the world.”

The spirit that leads men to seek distant markets, or dig for gold in mines, or search for raw materials on the other side of the earth, is modern, and still only a few have it. Through most of the story of man it has seemed a better thing to hunt for hidden treasure, to seek for the Golden Fleece or a golden city, to set out for the Terrestrial Paradise, to win to the back of the north wind. Even now, report that a prehistoric monster haunts a lake in Patagonia, or that an expedition will hunt pirate gold on an island of the Pacific, stirs pulses that would not respond to the news that a great coal field had been uncovered in Alaska or China.

Imagination and curiosity, whence have come most of the travel tales, have builded where building'was needed to fill in empty places whereon men refused to rear the structures of reality, or to replace what they tore down. In their passages from age to age and in their long migrations, men have been constantly forgetting things, carrying over long stretches of the sea such memorials of the heliolithic culture as a particular process of mummification, but not the arts and sciences that had gone with it. They have discovered lands only to lose track of them. Authentic notes of distant countries and customs they would not credit; there has been ignorant incredulity as well as ignorant credulity. The true things in geography to which men .have shut their eyes are no more than countervailed by the vain things they thought they saw. The tales of afternoon lands and the singular peoples of the mountains and deserts widen, if only with the shifting contours of legend, horizons which had been narrowed by forgetfulness and a perverse refusal to believe.

Nor have even these tales been enough to satisfy with their close likeness to realities. Men have played with the thought of other countries above the clouds or in far-off seas, imagining things which none was expected to believe, and

copyists repeated and literal-minded men accepted sometimes as having basis of fact. Such are Plato's Republic, More's Utopia, Campanella's City of the Sun. Aristophanes pictured a CloudCuckoo Town, which the birds built between earth and heaven to bring the gods to terms, and filled it with the trillings and pipings of feathered creatures. The satirist who wrote of Lilliput, Brobdingnag and Laputa had read Lucian's True History. In Ariosto’s Limbo of the Moon were stored such treasures as time misspent in play, vain efforts, good intentions, unpaid vows, the promises of princes, and deathbed alms.

Three of these imaginary countries were sketched with such fidelity to detail, poetic or grotesque, that they lived in the

yet which

thought of men with almost a sense of the actual. Scobellum was a fruitful land, the people of which went beyond the cannibals in cruelty, the Egyptians in luxury, the Persians in pride, the Cretans in falsehood, the Germans in drunken license. Whereupon the gods turned the drunkards into swine, the lecherers into goats, the gamblers into asses, the idle women into milch cows, and the misers into moles. The Land of Cockaigne was a country of luxury and high feeding where the houses were built of barley sugar and the streets were paved with pastry and goods were free in the shops. Fiddler's Green is a place where always the fiddlers are fiddling and the pipers piping, and the dancers dancing; it lies on the other side of hell.

Travel tales that purport to be true have a way of rebuking unbelief with their half triumphs. Noting only the impossible items in a tradition, learned skepticism has opened itself to discomfiture by rejecting the whole. The two outstanding figures of fable, the pygmy and the Amazon, point the moral. In the more grotesque forms may be found notes on forgotten history and on palæontology. Those tales for which no basis of fact can be discerned are yet projections of the minds of primitive men on the clouds, seen after the men themselves have dropped below the horizon, like the red in the sky after sunset. At least their colors illumine the manuscript of antiquity and the rude scroll of savagery.

Though fantastic fables were bred thereof, it has been loss and not gain that the old sense of kinship with the fowls of the air and the beasts of the field is no more. There were compassions and tolerances in this imagined relation, with just a hint of deep insight. Before the brotherhood of man became so much as a phrase, the brotherhood of all created things was a fact. Killing for the mere stupid sake of killing had no place in a world in which men believed that the first men were ants; in which they made the hare, the coyote, and the raven heroic figures of their epics; in which they celebrated the piety of the oryx, the elephant, and the llama; in which they acclaimed the strength of the lion, the keen sight of the eagle, and the sagacity of the fox, and in which they spared the bear, the deer, and the parrot because it seemed to them that these were ancestral folk. Were these savages farther from the truth than men of the

present day whose interest is not in the lives but in the deaths of beasts, and who rob the woods and fields of half their beauty and significance by their senseless pursuit of the pathetic, defenseless, and yet kindred beings that harbor there? “My sister the swallow" is the chant of St. Francis. In a better time when wild life will be cherished and not hunted, it will be remembered that the dawn-peoples had a vision which was not all vanity.

The world of reality wears a rich garb that was woven for it by the world of tradition ages ago. Shifting lands of legend have become solid ground. There was no island of Brasil, but the country of Brazil bears its name. There was perhaps no Antilia, domain of the Seven Bishops, but the Antilles stretch their veritable ramparts across the Caribbean. The Amazons are commemorated by the earth's greatest river. There are beasts and birds which perpetuate the names of the dragon, the harpy, the sea horse, the unicorn, the satyr. The pity of the pelican lives in Christian symbolism. The wisdom of the brute runs through Æsopian fables and mediæval bestiaries. The creatures of classic prodigy—the griffins, the phænix, the dragon -animate the blazons of heraldry. The ideal lands and marvelous peoples of ancient story lend a strange beauty to the romances of chivalry. Half of the appeal of cathedrals is in the monstrous figures—bestial, grotesque, devilish—which proclaim from their roofs and buttresses and sculptured walls a paradox which is no paradox at all, that the sanctuaries of the spirit are set among the perilous ways of the world. The old credulities are enshrined in the language of every people, in the imagery of the arts, and in the bedtime tales that follow the settings of the sun from station to station around the earth.

These things have spoken neither the last nor the greatest word they are to utter. The fruitful use of the collections of savage myth and peasant lore is yet to come, when classic legend will take its place as but a chapter in the volume of fantasy. What will be revealed therein is the mind of man in the presence of the spectacle of beauty and terror which is the world. Here the themes of poetry, painting, and the plastic arts await a new treatment. Not so much the councils of the gods, the myths of creation and of natural forces, as the simpler travel tales that

« PreviousContinue »