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Myth, legend and far-fetched — the fine distinctions

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Posted: Sunday, November 18, 2012 11:31 pm | Updated: 12:10 pm, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Don’t confuse MYTH with myths. The former stands for the Matthews Youth Test for Health, a contrived acronym for a test used to see if children exhibit tendencies for Type A behavior, particularly competitiveness, impatience and aggression.

A myth, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, “is a traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people.” The word comes from the Greek “mythos: speech, thought, story, myth, anything delivered by word of mouth.”

A legend, by comparison, is an “unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical,” and comes from the Latin “legenda: for reading, to be read,” and so is based in written culture instead of oral, like myths. 

“Legendary” gets tossed around mighty lightly these days, and the dictionary folks report that it’s considered “common journalistic hyperbole.” Sometimes the bounds of hyperbolic decency are stretched by implacable self-promoters like Germany’s most popular author, Karl May.

The Dictionary of Literary Biography says May’s popularity “surpasses that of any other German author in any literary category and is not likely to be approached by many authors worldwide. This success is all the more remarkable because it is not restricted to a particular class of readers ... May’s works have always attracted the attention and appreciation of highbrow readers,” such as Albert Einstein.

May, pronounced “my,” was a scoundrel and crook. Raised in poverty, his family scrimped to send him to school to become an elementary school teacher. He lost his first posting after 12 days for flirting with his landlord’s wife. He lost his second one, and was barred from teaching for life, for stealing his roommate’s watch, pipe, and cigarette holder. May worked in the prison library while incarcerated, however, and began writing. Two more jail terms for “petty confidence schemes” ensued before he was employed by a publisher specializing in pulp fiction and travel books. 

May wrote scads of blockbuster novels in the 1880s, but his masterpiece was “Winnetou, the Red Gentleman” in 1893, shortly after Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show visited Germany. It featured Winnetou, an enlightened Apache Indian chief, and a German adventurer known as “Old Shatterhand” for knocking out opponents with a single blow.

May never visited the American West, though he often claimed otherwise and said he based his characters’ wilder exploits on them. How far-fetched? Before Old Shatterhand met Winnetou the chief had already read the great works of Western literature and given up scalping “and other barbaric practices.”

A literary celebrity, May gave numerous readings, especially to the Karl May fan clubs throughout Germany. He emphasized his fabricated personal exploits so much he actually began believing his own lies. Though he remained vastly popular, people started questioning his adventuring claims, his false references to himself as “Doktor,” his racy early pulp novels and criminal background. Too bad he didn’t visit the West and write nonfiction books about its legendary characters, like Rip Ford.

John Salmon Ford was a real medical doctor, congressman, Texas Ranger, newspaper publisher, commander of a spy company in the Mexican War, and Confederate Colonel and commander at the Battle of Palmito Ranch, the last of the Civil War, which he won. “Old Rip” earned his nickname by writing “Rest in Peace” after each name on his casualty lists, and garnered Southern enmity by endorsing captured Negro soldiers’ right to vote.

In later life Ford wrote his memoirs, including encounters with Apaches who didn’t read and thoroughly enjoyed scalping. Ford was a legendary figure; May was a self-promoting fraud, but his books still resonate with German readers. A recent New Yorker article stated, “all his life he was a confabulator, even when it was of no benefit to him,” yet “his books have sold more than a hundred million copies.”

The public library supports voting, too, providing registration for new voters and the information and resources needed to become the informed electorate our nation counts on. In choosing materials for the library’s collection, pains are taken to represent as many viewpoints as well as possible. For when they refer to American public libraries as “the people’s university,” it’s no myth.

Greg Hill is director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries.

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