Decorating the Truth

I’ve spoken before about the practice of writing praise poetry as a skald, and spoken at length about the importance of carefully authoring your life story. When we consider these two things together – praising others with careful authorship – we run into an interesting consideration of historical accounts: the decorated truth.

I wrote a poem a little while ago, as part of an SCA job duty – my task was to write a poem commemorating the deeds of a particular group of warriors at the Pennsic War. Now, I couldn’t actually make it to Pennsic this past year, so that put me in an odd position. How do I write a truthful accounting of something I never actually witnessed?

That, my friends, is the function of the storyteller.

The world was joyous – wealth and peace were
found in all the lands – few were troubled.
But idle minds and idle souls
flourished in those fair fields of plenty.
A sin begat a greater sin,
and soon the ills of ailing hearts
tainted and tortured the track of men –
evils arose to wreak their doom.
Far to the west was found a cleftland
stretching deeply – still it is so named.
Deep in the belly of boiling earth
was birthed a beast of burning rage.
Of ache and hurt – of heart-woe and
sinful vengeance was sired the monster.
The enemy of man was eager to work
his schemes and plots through the sky-burner.
The worm of flames on wings of smoke
took to the sky and scoured the land.
It razed cities and ruined farmland –
its greed begat a grief profound.
Too little it owned – the land was ripe
and rich with prizes it possessed not.
Its wanting grew for want of grace,
and with it grew the rage of the wrathful demon.
To the East it gazed – a gainsome plot
it thought that place – a prize to claim.
From the air it loosed an oily flame-gout
and landed in the ruins it left behind.
Where trees once stood now stained earth
alone could be found – no life survived.
The woodlands rusted like weapons of iron
where the creature stopped – still they are so named.
To the north lay the linden-halls.
A cry went out – the oaks of battle
moved to reclaim their calloused soil!
Fierce the fighting – the flame-clash of
sturdy trees of trials was felt in
every land – and in every hearth.
Terrible their losses, but at last the woods
of wounding-poles repelled the corruptor!
Back to the west the wyrm retreated –
fleeing at once the wasted rustlands.
To fairer fields far it hastened,
to tend its wounds – and tender its revenge.
A host of the dead it dragged from the grave –
tattered banners and bloody flags
raised from the depths – red with corpse-mud
that cuprous lake – it is called this still.
In the East rallied an army valiant,
with strong-limbed and long-remembering
warriors eager as wolves at the feeding.
They marched to that place – that mire of death –
to meet the host of the hell-fiend
and put an end to the evils of men.
Hall-Konr lead them – that hero of old –
none since the Geat were known as well!
Met at midfield the mass of spears –
no din of swords since was as deadly.
The fiercest of men fell to the past –
but the pure souls of savage Tygers
welled in their breast as they battered the foe!
Soon they pressed the sea of rotting
back to their graves – that ground they took
and that lake was cleansed – cleared its good name.
But victory was brief – that villain with fury
descended from the sky and scoured the ranks.
Its hell-fires flooded the plain
and rent to ash the ashes of valor.
Countless their dead – their courage faltered –
no blades could bite that beastly hide.
Mighty Hall-Konr hacked at the fiend,
but stony claws struck him to the earth.
Slinked and stalked the serpent of hell
to the fallen liege, that lion of men.
A great breath it gathered to loose
a river of death – a red flame-sea.
The gout erupted – but razed no man,
the shower parted by a shield of iron.
Clad in a byrnie of black and gold
was an oak alone – lost is his name.
That brave warrior buffered his king –
saved his sovereign from certain death!
With dwarf-steel he struck at the beast,
hewed its hide with a hungry blade.
The wretch howled and hurried away –
but he grabbed its tail with a grip of iron.
Then homeward hied the hell-fiend and foe –
and never again were they known to roam.
The day was won by a warrior unnamed –
a hero hidden in the heart of battle.
All that remained was the mantle he’d worn,
a scrap of fur from the frozen north.
Said the warriors who’d watched as he fought
that strong as ice he stood his ground –
a frozen mountain – a frigid beorg
of stone and snow – and still we are so named.

So, nothing in this poem ever actually happened, not in the sense of some hard testable demonstrable reality. It does, however, contain truth of a sort.

The poem is dense with references to SCA-specific geography and history (like “Hal-Konr,” which is Old Norse for “hill-royal” and is a reference to Richard of Mont Royal, first king of the SCA), the central one of which is the unnamed warrior clad in black and gold – the colors of the Snowberg tabard. I mean, sure, there was never a dragon that raised the undead or some dude with a magical sword that beat it – but there are certainly acts of valor attributed to the people who form the unit.

I have a friend who is fond of saying that she “never lets the facts get in the way of the truth,” at least when it comes to storytelling. And that’s really a good way of looking at it. A storyteller is not a camera – we do not take pictures nor record video.

Rather, we tell the sort of truth” that is felt, rather than that which literally occurred. We recount the feelings, emotions, and connections that bind a group together. The facts matter less than the effect or the perceptions of each person, and that’s what we choose to remember.

I used to think my grandfather was 8 feet tall, at least when he sat us kids down to tell us nonsense stories about Indians living across the lake. And I lived my life reacting to my grandfather as though he was that tall – I gave him my attention and paid him heed. So what if he was shorter than me? My emotional connection to him rendered him taller in my perception, and that connection is as “real” as numbers on a tape.

We forget sometimes that our emotions are real things – the byproduct of biochemical reactions that proceed in discrete pathways. We can manipulate stimuli to produce reliable results. Feeling sad or happy is as real as pain or glycolysis. The result is a bit different, but so be it – does that make it less valid? Of course not!

When we recount stories or memories or really any event in the past, we’re really recalling our perceptions and interpretations of those events. We are biased and fallible. Different eyewitnesses will recount the same tale differently because they all experience a literally different reality – nobody’s brain “sees” the same information; that’s why eyewitness testimony is so unreliable. Your brain creates a literally different reality than that which exists in someone else’s brain. Your memory is the way it happened – for you.

So if we all experience different events, and we all remember them differently, why focus so much on literal truth? I mean, sure, we often need to know what “really” happened – but if you’re telling a story about this party you threw this one time, why not let the tale grow taller in the telling? This is part of crafting your own story – you choose how you will be remembered, and how you will remember other things. By letting a story grow larger, we emphasize our emotional connection to it and the connection we share with those who experienced the same thing.

Yeah, we can burst someone’s bubble: “That’s not how that happened!” I’ve been there and done that. But y’know what, life can be pretty shitty much of the time. Instead of relentlessly pursuing factual accounts, it can be nice to let some whimsy take over – and remind us of the parts of life that we truly cherish.

Those are things worth celebrating and decorating. The nuts and bolts of how it happened? Well, that’s not as important as the effect the events had on you – and if you choose to remember it being a bit greater than reality, so be it. Truth is not limited to a blow-by-blow retelling of objectively true information – your reactions to information are also a part of that truth. Those reactions govern how you behave, right? You live your life as though they’re real – so just make them real.

And then kill the stupid cat before it lets your secret out.

This is how to get attention on the Internet, right? Pictures of cats? That’s the real moral of the story – put a cat in it, and people pay attention.

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