Once upon a time, at the mouth of the river Ganges, were to be found a race of men who lived by smell alone. Called the ‘Astomi’ by the Ancient Greeks who catalogued them, their mouthless bodies were coarse and hairy, and if they came into contact with an unpleasant smell they could easily be killed by it. So relates Pliny the Elder in his Natural History. But he, in turn, is quoting one of the world’s earliest travelogues, Megasthenes’ Indika: the compulsive cataloguing of exotic far Eastern ‘peoples’ as if they were bugs to wonder at under magnifying glasses has ancient and well-established roots. Classical authors may not have thought about ‘race’ as we might in a modern sense, but they could certainly conceptualise difference, and their first attempts at realising this conception in narrative were often sensationalised and outlandish – embellished out of all proportion. The Astomi are not the only strange race to populate both accounts of human curiosities. Upwards of 40 such fictional races have been identified by modern scholarship, and many of them enjoyed immense popularity in both classical and medieval art and culture, despite (or perhaps as a result of) their improbable and outlandish qualities.
These distortions represent an archaic style of thinking that requires, to a modern, rationalist sensibility, a suspension of disbelief. But while we hold that their authors ‘must have known’ they were writing a fantasy, or an allegory, to regard all such tales as false ones is an anachronism. Indeed, The Oxford History of Western Philosophy goes as far as to place the origin of Western thought in the myths which originally helped us to define ourselves, describing them as a potent blend of political realism and fantasy. Told with the purpose of relating something about the world, even their distortions were not without purpose. Using this reasoning, the elves and ogres inhabiting the madly speculative world of archaic myths are a one-time poetic reimagining of the Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or erectus surfacing from our collective unconscious; surreal stories cataloging the strange experience of meeting something so like and unlike ourselves.
Using narratives of these kinds to explain an often overwhelming reality is the originality of mythic thinking: myths fulfil a human need for a structure through which we understand the world. Whether that structure is evidentially true or false is irrelevant. A modern audience might say that it is impossible, empirically speaking, for a god’s tears to form islands in the sea, for a child to grow out of a thicket of bamboo, or for Ethiopia to be populated by headless humanoids with eyes in their chests. But from an anthropological perspective, we can recognise that the myths that come to define the cultures that spawn them are a blurred and distorted image borrowed from experience. In this sense, the Plinian peoples arose from a psychological need, perhaps even an urgency, on the part of their creators. At their most basic level, they served to define ‘humanity’ — in this case, a Greece which regarded itself as a pioneer of culture and enlightenment — by what it is not. This act of conjuring is as much political as it is social or psychological. It is a need to define ourselves as having a vantage point, a superior perspective, when compared against a discernible, less sophisticated Other, and this need necessarily manifests itself in deliberate and imaginative errors of perception.
Medieval Europe inherited this mode of self-definition from the classical authors they came to venerate. In map-edged medieval England, Plinian peoples became a theological question: were they inhuman monsters, or, like Grendel and his mother, were they uncomfortable relatives, bastard descendants of the outcast Cain? The more charitable Augustinian view would be to regard the humanoids as relations — strange, savage, but nonetheless possessing souls — though this is the more troubling alternative, evoking the uncomfortable proximity of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Maps from the period are a visual catalogue of the distancing attempt provoked by this discomfort. The Polychronicon, a fourteenth-century English work of general history, features a world map that places both Jerusalem and England near the map’s centre, while Asia and Africa are thin slivers of land thrust out towards the world’s edges. The significance of the placing is clear: Europe, and specifically England, is earth's enlightened centre, with spiritual endorsement of the fact provided by its alignment with the Holy City.
Postcolonial theorist Edward Said provides a cultural critique of how we have dealt with this unease provoked by proximity to an Other in Western society. He gives the act of representing Eastern cultures through the lens of the West’s own fanciful distortions a name: Orientalism. The real-world impact of such a representation cannot be ignored: in medieval England, the marriage of Jerusalem and England provided a potent political narrative, an origin myth representing England as a divinely ordained power: the twinning was eventually used as a basis for justifying the Crusades. Said emphasises the potential of perception to become political reality: ‘It is risky, I know, to move from the realm of interpretation to the realm of world politics, but it seems to me that the relationship between them is a real one’. The discomfort with which we view people so like and unlike ourselves leads us to widen the gap between us and the Other through fictions and distortions. Such distortions form a political narrative which justifies a sense of superiority.
Even as international trade and diplomatic relations grew between East and West, otherness remained a fundamental part of self-definition, helping to crystalise Western national identity from the medieval period onwards. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries brought with them both one of the highest points of cross-cultural contact in England’s history and a vigorous internal interest in its Anglo-Saxon ancestry. The Anglo-Saxons were considered emblematic of what J R R Tolkien calls a ‘pure Northern spirit,’ and while not explicitly a doctrine of racial superiority, ‘freedom’ was understood to be a specifically Germanic concept. Many key players in the American Revolution saw themselves as inheritors of this creed of freedom and independence from an earlier heroic age. Thomas Jefferson, for example, entertained a huge interest in the Anglo-Saxon origins of his forebears, even proposing the legendary founders of the race, Hengist and Horsa, take their place on one side of the Seal of the United States. And by the mid-nineteenth century, a coherent Anglo-Saxon identity of freedom, singularity and purity, recognised by English-speaking Western countries, had congealed into one of blatant superiority, a rationale justifying the subjugation of other races.
In 1845, American columnist John O’Sullivan termed this doctrine ‘Manifest Destiny’ — a belief that Anglo-Saxons (here used, with a very elastic sense of history, as ‘whites’) would, and must, emigrate to new regions, bringing Western enlightenment and democracy in tow, and that by extension they had a divine mandate to expand into North America. Colonising therefore began implicitly to authorise a fairly ubiquitous justification for thinking of the Other as inferior. The travel-myths of the adventurous Megasthenes had dissolved into the figure of semi-mythic coloniser Colombus; and the ingrained concept of Plinian races informed colonialists’ perceptions of the ‘Indians of the New World’ as natural slaves.
The combination of the Anglo-Saxon origin myth, alongside the fantasy of monstrous races inherited from Pliny, is particularly pernicious: within its mythic toolkit there is not only an established stereotype of the Other as inferior, but a strong ethno-nationalist identity to bolster this picture of white superiority. As far as the colonisers of the nineteenth century were concerned, there was also empirical evidence for this doctrine: the ‘primitivism’ of New World peoples when compared with the ‘enlightenment’ of their European colonisers was considered more than adequate grounds for the expansion of racist ideologies. ‘Manifest Destiny’ is in this sense a doubly mythic move: conflating perceptions of European history and of the exotic Other in order to justify the American push West – to independence and ‘freedom’, and, seemingly without recognising the contradiction, to colonisation of the New Worlds and their peoples.
Trump’s wall is a twenty-first-century fever dream of ‘Manifest Destiny’. It is a last, desperate attempt to board out the Other that also fulfils the essential mythic requirements of being rooted in evidence in the loosest way possible. Mixed with very real economic concerns on the part of his voting base (though perhaps not ones that could be ameliorated by walling off the Mexican border), the nostalgia of the ‘Make America Great Again’ campaign slogan presents a compelling narrative, which is grounded in an implicit appeal to a potent ethno-nationalist instinct that has crystallised throughout past centuries. The association is what Joshua Green termed a ‘devil’s bargain’ in his 2017 book of the same name: for him, Trump’s victory is just as attributable to senior campaign advisor Steve Bannon, alt-right champion of ethno-nationalist issues, as it is to Trump’s own capacity for rabble-rousing. According to Green, Trump’s campaign is a cause – a reactionary, nationalist agenda arising from Bannon’s expert finger on the pulse of white, working-class Americans and their disillusionment with increasing immigration and globalisation. Trump’s symbiotic association with Bannon provided plausible deniability for his pursuit of the alt-right base. In turn, Trump’s campaign was a crucible for Bannon’s project to revitalise these ‘otherness’ myths. Bannon pushes a populist agenda reminiscent of classical narratives of race: there are traces of truth (the pinch of an economic reality that has had a nationwide impact on blue-collar workers), but they are expressed in willful and inventive errors of perception. Like any good myth-maker, Bannon is well-practised in the art of combining political realism and fantasy; he recognises the driving force of antagonistic narratives in weaving compelling cultural identities.
With the unwelcome tendrils of the alt-right brigade reaching back to the myths of America’s Anglo-Saxon ancestors, it is unsurprising that many modern-day medievalists are uncomfortable. In fact, there is an often-explicit modern marriage of ‘medievalness’ with the modern American white supremacist movement. We must, however, distinguish ‘medievalism’ from ‘medieval studies’. The former bears little resemblance to an actual time or place; it denotes a fantasy land more like The Lord of the Rings than any point of history. Dr Helen Young, Australian medievalist and associate at La Trobe University in Melbourne, researches online fandom communities. In 2011 as a postdoctoral fellow she found herself reading about the neo-Nazi love of Tolkien. She argues that this stems from an ‘unfortunate intertwining’ in the eighteenth century of medieval culture studies and the newly emerging study of race. A similar intertwining of pseudo-scientific conceptions of race with the narrative of Anglo-Saxon superiority, Young explains, is what makes Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings attractive to the same undesirable crowd: in the fantasy land of Middle Earth, race is a concrete reality. The home-made flags and shields used in last year’s infamous Charlottesville march show adherence to a similarly delusional pseudo-genealogy. Marchers took symbols like the Norwegian Nazi ‘Celtic Cross’, or the Black Eagle of the Holy Roman Germanic Empire, and painted them on their shields as if they were the heraldic crests of crusaders. (Twitter users were quick to point out the irony of the latter: the patron saint most associated with the crest, Saint Maurice, was in fact black.) From O’Sullivan through to Trump, the ‘imaginary Edenic past’ of racial purity to which they promise a return is one that never existed; it is little more than a sloganeering effort. The medievalism of modern white supremacist movements is likewise an excuse to retreat into a cosy white ethnocentrism that belies the messy interconnections of a world that has always been diverse — to combine politics with myth.
As a medievalist with a strong interest in postcolonial literature, I've recently been faced with the uncomfortable truth that the medieval studies discipline (or a loose interpretation of it) has historically been used to justify colonialism and imperialism, the very things that postcolonial authors are attempting to counter. To write a novel about race and culture in the twenty-first century is to engage, at least in part, with some of the issues raised in this article. Origin myths matter to people. Perhaps they are even more crucial in a world where cultural identity is more fluid, less certain. Race is widely accepted to be a social construct but myths about its objective existence still prevail in large online supremacist communities; and it is these myths which have been used to fuel the systematic domination of others.
Is literature a space in which authors can attempt to combat the inaccuracies of politicized myth-making? Emily Dorman, wife of the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, once said: ‘I think fairy tales are to be blamed for half the misery in the world. I never let my children read.’ Her husband was a key figure in the ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration’: he died on one of his most legendary expeditions. Perhaps we can understand where she was coming from. But it seems clear that we must engage with this human tendency to be held in thrall to the myths we have woven, and to do so in the medium through which they have been conceived and propagated. William T Vollmann, one of the most unconventional authors writing in America today, attempts to do just this. His particular brand of ‘gonzo humanitarianism’ has led him to Afghanistan, battling alongside a troop of Mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan War, to the depths of brothels, interviewing prostitutes, and to extensive travel in extreme weather around the Arctic Circle. He describes his writing as ‘creative non-fiction’, or ‘speculative history’: while grounded in meticulous research, it is a poetic retelling of events, characterised by a fascination with the tension between human compassion and violence.
His most ambitious project to date is his seven-novel cycle Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes, a series detailing various points of contact between native peoples and the first European settlers and explorers. In a distant, inverted echo of Megasthenes, he uses the politically charged format of travel-writing to revisit the discovery of new worlds, blending modern journalism with a semi-mythic writing style that borrows from the origin tales of Norse, Mi'kmaq, and Inuit peoples. In his first novel of the series, The Ice Shirt, he describes the semi-legendary first contact between Germanic peoples and Native Americans in an effort to show how ‘Manifest Destiny’ narratives surrounding the act of discovery had soured before they had even fully begun. Vollmann ascribes each point of colonisation in America’s history to ‘ice-myth’ pitted against ‘trees and tribes’. ‘I hear you want to bring winter here’, says the Mi’kmaq deity Kluskap to the despotic Norsewoman Freydís Eiríksdóttir. This is exactly what she wants: her exploration of the Americas is a thinly veiled quest for personal glory and wealth at the cost of the native Mi’kmaq tribes, whom she considers physically repulsive and easily manipulated. In exerting her perceived right to dominate them, she wears the cruel ‘ice-shirt’ of her forebears. Vollmann makes the connection between this ‘first attempt’ by the Norse at colonising the Americas and later well-attested expeditions explicit in the novel’s preface, as the narrator sadly intones:
We thought we must amend whatever we found, nothing of what was being reflected in the ice-mirrors of our ideas. Yet… if history has a purpose, then our undermining of trees and tribes must have been good for something.
We might regard the fictitious Plinian races as ludicrous and backward, but our modern reality still contains grossly stereotyped images used for political ends. It always has done. Vollmann provides a blueprint for one way in which we can understand and respond to origin myths in the twenty-first century: by using literature as an expository space. His novels represent an attempt to recover humanity from a melting-pot of a world that, in a mess of political realism and fantasy, creates extreme and distorted oppositions but refuses to be understood by them. Vollmann’s engagement with these oppositions is to suggest that the human capacity to understand fantasy or allegory need not be confined to antagonistic myth-making. Perhaps fiction, by using a similar toolkit, can provide a space to correct those perceptions. Vollmann’s speculative histories are not literal, but they don’t pretend to be: they are an attempt to relate a kind of mythic truth, in a perfect inversion of the narratives used for so long to dehumanise and subjugate. Such an attempt will never alleviate the real-world brutality committed in the name of interpretation, and it doesn’t attempt to. However, in many ways it seems fitting to gesture to a correction of the myths of world politics by using another kind of interpretation. It’s a start, anyway.
HOPE SUTHERLAND reads Medieval English at Magdalen. Over Christmas she found out the
Icelandic for toilets was ‘snyrtingar’ and this makes her very happy.
Art by George Wilson