A few notes about a couple of things which I have read over the past few days: First, an article in a fundamentalist christian magazine posed the question of whether the characters written about in Genesis could really have lived to the great ages which are attributed to them. Like Methusaleh, for example, who reached the age 0f 969. Answer? Yes, of course they could. And the evidence is drawn from historical research which has, we are told, verified some of the details of book. So if some of it is clearly true, it is entirely reasonable to suppose that the rest is also true.
Now this might be the daftest version of this argument which I have come across for a while but, in one form or another, it crops up continually in biblical apologetics. Right at the opposite end of the spectrum is the argument that if some of the story is clearly impossible, the whole must, likewise, be fictional.
Now let me try to apply this to a novel which I have just read: “The Shiny Night” by Beatrice Tunstall. And you've got to read this one,folks, because it is just super. It's set in Cheshire and it spans the reign of Queen Victoria, opening after a short prologue with the celebrations on Beeston Crag for her coronation, and ending in the same place on the night of her diamond jubilee. It tells the story of Seth Shone who, having been transported to Australia for killing a gamekeeper, eventually returns. Disinherited, he builds himself a cottage on the common and adorns it with stone images of his enemies, the men responsible for his downfall. He has laid curses upon the images and over the ensuing sixty years they work their inexorable magic until he is avenged at last with the tragic death of the squire.
“The Shiny Night” is a delightful story of nineteenth century Cheshire folk. It is also a tale of witchcraft and magic. Naomi Oldmeadow, one of the witches, is seen by one character to arrive at the home of another witch in the form of a grey goose flying low over the hedges at night.
So is it true or false, fact or fiction? But witches don't transmogrify themselves into geese. Rinderpest, a truly horrible plague of cattle, now thankfully eradicated, doesn't come about by black magic. So “The Shiny Night” is, through and through, all make-believe. But the Image House is real. (The photo here, by David Ackerley, is from http://www.cyclingnorthwales.co.uk) I know it; I drive past it every time I visit Cheshire and it really was the home of Seth Shone who really did put those images there to curse his enemies. Following the descriptions in the story I can walk to all its locations: I can walk up Watling Street to where Naomi Oldmeadow lived in Delamere Forest.
Tunstall herself doesn't believe in witchcraft or magic. She isn't superstitious. But she weaves a fascinating story about real people who really did have those beliefs – and interpreted the world around themselves in terms of those superstitions.
This is one more example of the kind of story which reinforces my conviction that whenever we come across a tale, ancient or modern, of weird and wonderful goings on, it is always worth asking what underlying reality could have given rise to such a tale. And why I am sure that myths and legends and fiction and chronicles are all part of a continuum that is generated by the fundamental human tendency to tell stories.