There are two great legendary heroes in English folklore: king Arthur, and Robin Hood. Both corpuses rise in times of national identity-crisis, and both look back to an earlier time of identity-crisis we might identify with.
The tales of king Arthur are set in the fifth century, in a time when Roman rule had given way to a weakened Romano-British culture (when the official machinery of empire drew back to defend Rome itself, what was left was Roman colonialists who had intermarried with the Celtic tribes the had earlier conquered) which was itself facing the threat of a new wave of invaders, the Saxons. But the tales of king Arthur establish themselves in the twelfth century, when the recently arrived Normans were trying to establish their cultural conquest of the (by now) Anglo-Saxons. (Can you see a pattern?)
The tales of Robin Hood are set in the twelfth century, in the historical period when the tales of king Arthur were gaining currency. But these tales of Robin Hood take captive the collective imagination in the fifteenth century, towards the end of the Hundred Years’ War with France, in which England had taken control of most of France, and lost it again; and had established a booming economy based on control of the international wool trade, only to fall to impending military defeat and, in the uncertainty, plunging into recession.
Later still, in a time of political and religious upheaval, William Shakespeare would turn to one of the high-points of the Hundred Years’ War—the English-Welsh defeat of the French at the Battle of Agincourt—to give us another folk hero, Henry V.
This is how folklore works. It tells a story from the past that addresses the crisis of the present in such a way that we can identify the hero-protagonists as ‘us’—even though they are many steps removed from ‘us.’ It tells us, if we have overcome crisis before, we can do so again. But it does not give us tactics. Rather, folklore gives us a story by which we can take hold of a thread—an unbroken thread—that runs from the past to the present and on into the future. Something of continuity of identity will survive, folklore tells us, even if much inevitably evolves. The genius of story—as opposed to tactics—is how adaptable story is, how capable it is of being brought to bear in any number of contexts.
Thus, the stories of king Arthur and of Robin Hood gain renewed currency in a later age when the English, shaken by total war, are losing their own modern Empire. Thus, they find new retellings in film and television. Thus, they have an appeal to English nationalists, who believe themselves to be under threat from invading waves of immigrants speaking unintelligible tongues, bringing foreign religions and alien values...
Folklore gives us truth that is greater than the sum of its bare facts, not least by revealing to us our deepest selves. What is it that we fear, in the crisis we face? And what inspires the faith that gives us hope? What we do with those stories takes in the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Not dissimilar to the English, a community displaced from Jerusalem (and later returning, in part, and in three waves) in the sixth century BC and fifth century BC wove folklore of patriarchs and liberators, of local tribal military leaders writ large, of the coalescing and fragmenting of a kingdom, of a Golden Age lost but perhaps not gone forever. Like Arthur and Robin and King Henry the Fifth, there is history at the core, but embellished in the telling for a particular purpose, in the tales of Abraham and Moses, Samson and Deborah, David and Elijah. Of Esther and Daniel, stories set even in the jaws of exile. And more, so many more, a cast of thousands.
A network of little communities scattered across the Roman Empire and against the backdrop of the siege and fall of Jerusalem (yet again) retold those stories, this time bringing in a new hero, one not lost in the mists of time but who lived among them in the actual lifetime of the story-tellers. Jesus of Nazareth, and his band of followers, the mercurial Peter, the crazy Paul; Mary, whom he had liberated from seven demons, and to whom he appeared first when he was raised from the dead, a thing verifiable by many witnesses prepared to die for its truth. Moses, David, Elijah, all point now to Jesus. And the telling of his story, too, takes on the form of folklore, of memorable episodes we might tell over and over again and identify with in a wide range of crises.
Two thousand years on, these are stories that shape not national imagination and identity but, rather, that of a global kingdom; one that has taken local expression across time and space, down through centuries and criss-crossing continents. They are far greater and untameable than Arthur or Robin, both of whom, some say, will come back one day, in our hour of greatest need...
God so loved the world that he gave us a folk-story. Or, rather, a library full of them. And then breathed life into it, and stepped out of the pages.
For Christians, it is to these stories that we are invited to return, in the crises of our times, not for escapism but to discover, in how we retell them afresh, the truth of the matter: who on earth are we, now, we citizens of the kingdom of heaven?
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