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The Truthiness of Legends

Wednesday, June 24th, 2009 | Posted by James Enge


Not about myth this week, exactly, but legend–the sort of myth that begins as historical fact.

I was googling randomly to escape the weariness of my days and nights and I ran across the Wikipedia entry on Gráinne Ní Mháille (a.k.a. Grace O’Malley, a.k.a. the Pirate Queen of Ireland).

An account is given of the queen’s encounter with a certain Tudor pretender to the throne of Ireland.

[Legend meets punchline after the jump.]


_____

Part of the entry runs, in the original Wikisprache:

Some also reported that Ní Mháille sneezed and was given a lace-edged handkerchief from a noblewoman. She apparently blew her nose into the handkerchief and then threw the piece of cloth into a nearby fireplace, much to the shock of the court. Ní Mháille bemusedly informed Elizabeth and her court that, in Ireland, a used handkerchief was considered dirty and was destroyed. This was meant as an insult towards the court.

According to Mr. Wikipedia, the whole conversation took place in Latin, which I hope is true, because everything is better with Latin™.

But that’s not how my great-uncle and namesake, James McNally, used to tell the story. My mom’s family claimed (by what circuitous route I forget, exactly) to be related to Grace O’Malley. My great uncle claimed that when Grace sneezed in Elizabeth’s presence, La Tudor handed her a handkerchief. She blew her nose with regal dignity, smiled sweetly, and dropped the handkerchief on the ground. There was a general gasp. Sir Walter Raleigh (not impersonating a nymph or out promoting lung cancer that day) stepped forward and said, “Madam! Why do you drop the Queen’s gift on the floor?” And Grace looked him in the eye and said, “I never put my snot in my pocket.”

I expect this is not historical. My great uncle seemed pretty ancient to me, but he wasn’t quite old enough to remember the sixteenth century, so the anecdote has no particular authority.

But I think it’s funny for a couple of reasons, and interesting because it’s not about Queen Grace at all. It’s an Irish-American takedown of some English icons (otherwise what is Sir Walt doing there?), but it’s also a snap at the “lace curtain” pretensions of the McNallys.

In a very important way, no story is ever about its subject. An effective story, a story that works, is about the audience–is a direct hit on the audience’s emotional buttons. That’s why legends grow out of history: the audience’s emotional needs (as perceived and refined by a series of storytellers) transform the data into some secret semblance of the audience itself–its fears, its aspirations. Legends may not be true, but this kind of truthiness is what gives them weight, impact, success.

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