Yes, I Meant Fiction — Sort Of
For the last month I have looked forward to my "turn" to read to my 8 year old son every other night. That is because of the book I have been reading to him. I found it years ago in a used bookstore, drawn as much to the blockprint black and white art as anything about the text. But once I began reading Ella Young’s The Tangle-Coated Horse, I fell in love. The book is a retelling of a cycle of myths about the great Irish hero Fionn. Recently we had a colleague of Marina’s over — a professor who reads and speaks Gaelic. He is suspicious by nature, and was dubious about the book. But once he began reading it, he loved as much as I did. Since we are about to finish it, I researched the book last night. Turns out Ella was a part of the Irish Renaissance, a good friend of Maude Gonne — Gonne, you will recall, was the love of William Bulter Yeats’s life. And, to my delight, the book was a Newbery honor in 1930. Good going librarians, you got it right.
Why mention the book here, in a blog about nonfiction? One of the joys of the book is that line by line the syntax is not at all American or even British. It is not just in story that it reflects a different culture, but in every aspect of expression. Any class that is studying Irish history, or the history of Europe in the pre-Christian period, should read it. It is a joy and a pleasure as a set of tales, but it is the most useful entry into a culture very different from our own. Yes Young’s own Theosophical beliefs are surely there — so the book is not a direct feed from pre-Christian Ireland — but, like Beowulf, or Gilgamesh, or a less familiar book that I will get to in a moment it is fiction that belongs at the heart of social studies.
Did any of you catch the exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in 2005-06 called "Pearls of the Parrot of India"? www.metmuseum.org/special/Pearls/images.asp The show featured minatures from a book created for Akbar, the great Mulsim emperor of India. The art illustrated and accompanied a retelling of the story of Alexander the Great, envisioned as a Muslim hero. Like The Tangle-Coated Horse, the art and the book are not "accurate" as depictions of their subject. But they are the richest, most fascinating, most engaging entry into the entire world of Greece, Persia, Afghanistan, China, and India from Alexander’s time in the 300s BC to Akbar — who was an exact contemporary of Elizabeth I.
I feel that great fiction (and I know folktales are classified as nonfiction, but we all know that is useless in this context) must take a central place in how we teach history. Fiction offers pleasure, delight, and the opportunity for questioning and exploration. I am not arguing for historical fiction written today. Rather I am saying that fiction that comes from a different culture should be woven in to any study of the history of that culture. So I end this year of fighting for nonfiction by making a special place for fiction. And all of you who have not had the recent pleasure of reading The Tangle-Coated Horse owe it to yourself to rush out and get it — it is a great way to start the new year.