Bound Tales Of Yesterday

Every age has its own myths and legends, its tales of heroes and hidden horrors, of villains and their victims, all suited to the age they were told in. And on my shelves, safely bound between hard covers (one or two locked shut) is a broad collection containing thousands of these tales.

This is not hard to do. Folklorists do nothing but collect and then publish, and then the copies sit and molder, mainly unread. Few ever attain a large print run, and of those that do, most are corrupted by public demand. Both the Grimms and Andersen bowed to pressure and revised what they’d published for later editions, softening the sharper edges and draining away some of the blood. Even then, though, it’s quite possible for an ambitious soul to track down the originals, which in turn were, in large part, collected from older tales told and retold over the ages.

The common error here lies not in the collecting or the publishing, but rather the mistaken illusion that these tales once bound will stay that way. For tales are living creatures; they grow in the telling, as they pass from teller to hearer, and every soul they pass through is changed by the experience — some forever, some only for a night and a day.

After having been lost for some years, the art of telling tales is rising again, though we don’t see it until we look. In the fast-fading yesterday, some few of these stories were told by Disney, all prettied and painted, dolled up for screens big and small. Even those weren’t proof against the critic’s venomous tongues; some of the more ghastly settings were forever removed from public view, like “Song of the South” and its prettified portrayal of slavery and slaves. What we’ve lost from that, alas, is the great treasure that was Uncle Remus and his tales; today, only a few hushed whispers tell of Br’er Rabbit and “De Tar Baby”, for fear someone will be objectified by the realization that tar is black. As if anyone who would use that as an excuse doesn’t already view people as things!

But that was then, when the veneer of civilization wasn’t wearing thin, an overlong age of plastic and chrome now falling to bits, as has often happened before. In the thirties, that veneer was almost gone, with the Dust Bowl in the midwest, poverty everywhere, and nothing much to do but wait out the howling wind, whiling away the hours by a small fire telling stories as the windows rattled. Tales of the larger-than-life who walked among us, of John Dillinger and Ma Barker, of Pretty Boy Floyd, of Bonnie and Clyde — true heroes to the foreclosed-on, not because they robbed but rather because, as often as not, they’d set fire to the bank’s records on the way out the door.

We forget that today, that these were folk figures at least as much as they were real people — people who often as not lived unremarked-on among those who venerated them, rich or poor, because who would turn a hero in to the law?

Before that time of legends was another, a gilded age, one with gold paint and floral carvings to hide the poverty and filth society was built on top of; before that was war and the West and the great Iron Horse that conquered it in ten thousand miles of steel and ties. Out of each of the hard times came the stories of the day, of real people like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett and the half-real like Mike Fink the river man, Stagolee who was far more real in legend than that Lee Shelton who gave him his name, of Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed and even George Washington who never ever told a lie.

After the thirties came a different kind of story, one that came from the presses by the thousand: first the pulps, then the comics. New legends were born, of the Shadow and the Green Hornet; tales of hero and villain and the champion of the weak. The Lone Ranger rode in from the Thrilling Days Of Yesteryear; from the headlines came Jack Webb and his sanitized police heroes on Dragnet. Sam Spade faded away to be replaced by Bruce Wayne and Batman, Captain America, and Spider Man — each with the stories of their time, all representative of the age in which they live.

It is the qualities of the age that determine the heroes that speak to the people; only thus can they thrive. From the hardest times come the greatest heroes, and those tales are what are told and re-told, to be remembered in ages yet to come.

Today we’re coming up on another age of tales and their tellers, now when the thin veneer of civilization again wears thin and harsh reality starts poking through at the seams. Superheroes arc across the silver screen, but theirs it seems is the story of yesterday, of the Before. Dystopian tales of the walking dead and After The Bomb are slowly fading into the background of the Desert of the Real, and a new hero is due, one who speaks to the people of tomorrow.

When you find him, and you will, do think of me with my tales tamed and bound and neatly shelved, and perhaps drop in and tell me his story so I can add it to my collection. I’ll have the kettle on.

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