Empire Talks

I have recently moved to London and blogging has taken a bit of a back seat to job hunting, finding new friends and routines, new weather and more.

London is an amazing city, the seat of the British Empire. The city is layered with every era of art, architecture, literature, philosophy and political upheaval usually only accessed through school books.

Just living here is an education.

Victoria

Museums are plentiful, free and lined with rare treasures, antiquities and artefacts. Brightly lit theatres boast among their cast members Hollywood actors and world class talent. Some shows run for years on end. Libraries, churches, houses of parliament, consulates, hotels, each are heartrendingly beautiful and well preserved.

As an Aussie in London, I’m struck with the power of “empirical” imagery in a the city streets, free to view from pavements for both rich and poor. There are statues of Victoria, Wellington, Nelson and Bodicea, an Obelisk taken from Egypt, dragon markers to outline the borders of the City of London, sphinxes on park benches, a Unicorn on the coat of arms, Griffins, a winged bull , Peter Pan in Hyde Park and the list goes on.

City_Dragon

As a child of the “new-colonies” as we antipodeans are historically referred to, such regal imagery in public places is somewhat curious and wonderful. The importance of such imagery does not go unobserved.

Herodotus was noted as “father of history” for his inquiry ‘historia’ into the events surrounding the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century BC.  He collected his materials systematically and critically, and then arranged them into a historiographic narrative thus breaking with the Homeric tradition to poetically allude to mythic origins.

However, even Herodotus could not help tracing the genealogies of human kings to the divine nor recount the significance of the oracles on the behaviours of men.

Sphinx london

As James Romm wrote,

Herodotus worked under a common ancient Greek cultural assumption that the way events are remembered and retold (e.g. in myths or legends) produces a valid kind of understanding, even when this retelling is not entirely factual. For Herodotus, then, it takes both myth and history to produce truthful understanding.

London tells a story on its streets, its squares, its cornices and its parks. Not only are there everywhere images of leaders, monarchs, notable men and women of history but these leaders are co-conspirators with creatures of myth and legend as though standing in a line of history which reaches back into the realm of dreams and myths itself.

british-royal-coat-of-arms-on-somerset-house-london-s010xb

Such mythic imagery, gives the Empire gravitas. A propaganda of sorts. And yet, perhaps like Herodotus we learn that it takes both myth and history to produce a truthful understanding of ourselves.

Muriel Rukeyser writes:

The world is not made of atoms, it’s made of stories.

Indeed. An Empire is certainly made of more than guns and steel. It’s made of the narratives that weave the hearts of its people together.

The Darkness of Faery

Do you ever marvel at how dark fairy stories are? The original Grimm’s tales have been sweetened and sanitised in their modern versions for Disney picture books. In Cinderella, the ugly sisters chop off their own toes to fit into the glass slipper. In Snow White, the huntsman brings a deer liver to the wicked Queen in a golden chest and the woman eats it, believing it to be the girl’s. When Snow White marries Prince Charming, the wicked Queen is invited to the wedding where she is punnished by having to wear iron-hot shoes and dance untils she drops dead.

Is it better to have children’s stories without witches and wizards, goblins, dragons, devils, monsters or ghosts? Should children face death, abandonment, exile, slavery or worse ?  G K Chesterton gives the best explanation of how to view darkness in fairy stories:

Fairy tales then, are not responsible for producing in children fear or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.  

GK Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (1909), XVII: “The Red Angel”

gk chesterton