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The Fanes' saga - Researches on the legend

My own proposal for a methodology

Since the first moment it was published, the Fanes’ saga focused the attention of many people both for its intrinsic poetic value and the charm of the environment where the story develops, but also for the intriguing question that spontaneously arises: “may it have happened for real?”
A question like this will always be met with scepticism. Ulrike Kindl, who analyzed Wolff’s sagas to a great depth, substantially from the philologic point of view, concludes for the virtual impossibility of finding an answer, more so, for the absurdity of the attempt itself, because, she says, a legend is “imaginary reality”, no representation of real historical facts. Indeed, a legend is always the result of the relentless alteration, over several centuries, of a tale that may have been originated just out of sheer imagination, or worse out of an intricate commixtion of imagination and reality; therefore, any attempt to read it as if it were newspaper news cannot but inescapably lead into a blind and futile labyrinth of illations and illusions.
There is, however, at least one indisputable concrete fact, and it is that the legend, in our case the Fanes’ saga, does exist. There is no good reason to believe useless a priori the attempt to evaluate - rationally, analitically, cautiously, - the whys and hows that lead to this evenience: which circumstances, either in the area of reality or in that of imagination, may have triggered the process, and when; how the tale first took shape, and how this shape was distorted and altered over time, finally to acquire the shape we can see today. Our procedure must obviously start from the analysis of the structures and contents of the legend as it has been handed down to us. We must carefully avoid the risk of drifting away in a misty cloud of self-referenced abstractions, only apparently ballasted by the usage of very long and scientific-looking words. Therefore, we must quickly find the way to anchor our analysis to a robust coordinate system; this cannot but consist of the sequence of cultural backgrounds that the legend itself has crossed while being handed down one century to the next, since when it was told for the first time.

In the study of the legend, it is of primary importance to discriminate between the critical discussion of the meaning that can possibily be attributed to the described situations (be they or not traceable back to real events) and the reconstruction of the cultural background that surrounds them. This background consists of the many small “environmental” details often almost inadvertently dispersed by the first storytellers, as an obvious part of their world. Later narrators usually repeat them “beacause they have always been there”, at times even not understanding their original meaning any longer. The original background of the story can be reconstructed by correlating them together, and on the other side by verifying the absence of those different details that would certainly have been present if the legend had been originated at a different time and within a different context.
The capital importance of this cultural context, that can be read “between the lines” of the legend, resides in the fact that while, even in the best case, at the end of the analysis at least a wide margin of incertitude remains on the claimed historicity of the narrated events, on the contrary the background sometimes emerges crisp clear and hardly unmistakable, in the light of the data that have been made available today by modern research - historical, archaeological etc. The emerging environment not only allows assigning the legend to a well defined period, but sometimes attains the unexpected result to - at least indirectly - outline the schematic contours of the supposed historical events that might possibly have triggered its origin. This is exactly what happens in the Fanes’ case.

It is very probable, however, that several legends handed down to us have no connection at all with really happened events: myths, fables, or just fiction conceived to glorify a hero or an ancestor, or the mix of all these elements together. Good. Anyway, let us take it the other side up. Even in a society that masters writing, and more so in an illiterate one, whenever a remarkable, “historical”, event takes place, it is memorized by its witnesses, who recount it to others. This may not yet be the starting point of a legend, but already contains all required elements to become one, if the socio-cultural situation is favourable. We can state, therefore, that at the root of at least a few of the legends that were handed down to us from a misty past, there might have been events which today we would define as historical. There is plenty of examples of legends long believed to be just myths and later on confirmed by undisputable archaeological evidences: from Troy to Rome of the early kings. Obviously, the process through which the narration of a really happened event can become a legend is long and complex; it involves the heavy and repeated distortion of the first-hand reports, which in turn may not have been completely trustworthy and exhaustive. However, if we have some knowledge of the psychological and motivational processes that lead to the transformation of an historical fact into a legend and to its later modifications, as well as of the cultural background within which these processes took place, it is conceivable, in principle, to follow the same route backwards and understand whether the legend has been assembled from a core of real occurrences or not, and what these may have been. It is clear that by this method we shall never be able to collect a solid system of documental evidences, possessing an absolute historical value: at most we shall obtain a web of clues, strongly connected however with a framework already known otherwise, within which they can at least assume the value of a direction for further research. It may well be, anyway, that at the end of the process of legend dismantling, we remain empty-handed, that is, we must conclude that no really occurred event lies at the root of the legend. Sometimes, maybe very often, this will be the result, and paradoxically it will contribute to the validation of the method we have followed.

Obviously, we must carefully keep away from the capital mistake of fitting the collected elements into a pre-conceived mental picture, more so if this picture is the one we would like to see emerging. To avoid such a mistake, we have no other choice but using no background picture at all, out of what turns out from the objectively known data. These may be available with reference to geography, geology, climatology, archeology, history, ethnology, linguistics and whatever else may be pertinent: so that our research assumes an essential feature of multi-disciplinarity. Obviously, it is not required being an expert at every single discipline (more so, being specialized in one or more might even lead to a slightly distorted vision of the matter): what is needed is being correctly informed on the results of them all.
Each single step of the analytical procedure of research described above must be taken, therefore, having in mind this framework of independent pieces of information, beyond the mere internal coherence of the reconstruction. We also ought to keep in mind that, whenever several different scenarios, each one fitting the available data, appear as a possible outcome, it is advisable not to discard any and consider them as equally possible, at most providing each of them with a careful evaluation of its relative probability.
A special attention must be paid also to the presence of different legend variants; be it that they can be ascribed to the versions of different eyewitnesses (and these are the most clarifying ones), be it that they must be attributed to later modifications, because in this case they contribute to clarify how the legend was perceived by the storytellers of a given age: and this aspect also can be significant for decoding it.

I wish to make very clear that I have no intention to cast doubt over the methods and the results of anthropological research, when they explain the collective inconscious mechanisms that lead, over time, to assign specific symbolic significance to themes, concepts or characters of a myth or of a legend. This research has the purpose of taking account of the imaginary components of the legend; beyond any doubt, these components are very often present, sometimes alone, sometimes mixed with the remembrance of real facts in an almost unextricable fashion. Anyway, the overlapping of these fictional components does not at all exclude that an historical root may have triggered the storytelling mechanism; for this reason the two methods of research are certainly complementary and, far from negating each other, on the contrary they may validate each other’s results.

I believe that the above described procedure, when used honestly and carefully, may bring to propose sustainable and not trivial interpretations, at least in some happy cases. I have to admit that I am no specialist: I’m not even sure whether what I’ve been proposing above is already well known and even old-fashioned, or it contains some new elements. I tried to apply these concepts to the analysis of the Fanes’ kingdom saga – almost for fun, at first – and the results I have eventually obtained were partially a surprise for me too. Obviously, I do not believe them to be the end of the story, but just a step, that I hope to be of some interest and significance, on the route of a knowledge process that is still far from having been completed.

The most delicate part of the process through which a legend may be generated out of an historical fact is no doubt that of the first or at most the second generation after the occurrence: the stage when eyewitnesses are still alive and, consciously or not, “decide” what to hide and what to tell, and how to tell it. It is well known that there are psichological effects according to which, even in absolute good faith, but generally according to what the audience expects, some episodes or details may be deleted from memory, and other ones may be even invented, so that often the witness himself (of course variably from one individual to another) can be self-convinced to remember the events differently from the way he would, or he did, report them just after they had happened. When there are several eyewitnesses, as it often occurs, and not all of them witnessed exactly the same events, or witnessed them from different physical or mental points of view, it may easily happen that a collective consensus arises about a versions that consists of a weighted mean of many different reports; this version is finally reported as true even by those who, according to what they had witnessed themselves, would have reported it quite differently. All of this happens every day in police offices and in the courts of justice. Until now I only discussed inconscious mental processes, i.e. those happening in total good faith. But we must also take into account that certainly at least a part of the eyewitnesses had good or bad reasons to wilfully conceal a part of the truth or to inflate another, while on the other hand we can be sure that episodes possibly not eyewitnessed by anyone will be reconstructed out of guesswork, and no one will label them as such. This said, it can be taken for granted that, just a short time after the facts, the version reported as standard must be carefully filtered if we want to extract anything similar to what happened in reality. Nor can we forget that consensus is by no means the only psychological process to be active: in every case someone is going to claim his own version as true, different from the “official” one, often (but not always) with some fundament. Thus we can expect that what will be handed down to the next generations will be a “standard” version, obtained through a more or less generalized consensus, with a small number of variants, diverging on details that may even be of some importance.
Obviously, if this holds true for the sequence of the events, it holds even more for the motivations that lead to those events, for the intentions and the sentiments of those people who accomplished them; intentions and sentiments that are an integral part of the story, conferring significance and depth to it, but allow widely different interpretations, even more than concrete facts, and may be easily misunderstood or willfully distorted.

This substantially is the way legends are born, but it also is the way History is born, because up to this moment there is no basic difference in method, and things change very little even if someone takes care to write them down quickly. When we say that it’s the winners who write down History, we basically mean that: not only the interpretation of the facts, but the facts themselves, take a completely different hue and meaning, and may look to have been different, according to the relative position of the witnesses who are authorized to recount them, as well as according to the emotions and expectations of their listeners.

A problem apart is how the legend, once constituted, may be handed down. Some people claim that the oral transmission of historical facts cannot last longer then three to four generations after the events. Others talk of “three centuries”. Both these limits are quite probably reasonable, case by case, but only if they are referred to family memories in a society where the official recording of historical facts is entrusted to the written word, and the act of handing down reminiscences is not perceived as a social effort of any real importance for the collectivity. There are, on the contrary, several instances of events that, in the absence of written recordings, have been handed down orally over much longer time lapses, even if at times heavily distorted and transformed into legend or even myths. There is no need to refer to societies very far away from ourselves, we can take as examples the tales about the war of Troy before Homer composed his Iliad, or the stories concerning the kings of Rome, today confirmed by archaeology in their essence, before they were frozen on paper by the historians of the late Republican age.

We cannot forget, however, that the creation of myths – tales that represent in their essence a moment of clarification about the big questions of existence, at both an individual and a social level, a source of certainties, a conceptual reference point to which the whole cultural structure of a collectivity is anchored – is an unescapable need of primitive societies. Often these myths are just built around the lives of great men who actually existed, modified according to the needs in such a way as to make them unrecognizable and rationally not any longer plausible. These effects must be as far as possible removed; as well as the distortions that may have been introduced willfully, for instance on political purposes.

With the above mentioned exceptions, in an illiterate society there is a good chance that the legends have a tendency to stabilize after the first few generations, because the emotional impact of the narrated events decreases, and there are no longer ideological or practical interests to modify their reporting again. On the contrary, the adherence to the original model is constantly considered as an important measure of the narration quality, and therefore of the narrator’s ability as well. Problems arise as far as time goes by, when the cultural background itself, within which the events have occurred, inevitably modifies. The meaning of several original details may become not any longer understandable at all. While the legend plot usually is preserved, what may happen thence is that the details that appear weird and puzzling are not suppressed (owing to the “principle of conservation”), but better reduced to trifles, or put aside in a corner; or their presence is justified, a way or another, by means of logic twists or even the insertion of fictional passages having no correspondence with the original context. On the other hand, we can observe the easily explained tendency to naïvely insert new descriptive details that belong to the storyteller’s world, like renaissance artists who painted biblical characters dressed as contemporary people. These contaminations, which anyway have no impact on the story, are easy to identify as such and can be easily removed, although one cannot rule out the risk of mistaking a detail that by chance might work both in the later period and in the original background.

Not difficult to recognize, but much more delicate to remove, - maybe impossible - is the occurrence of characters having been turned into archetypes. Those who once were men and women in flesh and blood, with a personality of their own, with complex feelings and motivations, over time are gradually turned flat and adherent to stereotypical models of behaviour, or on the other hand are identified with their role, like puppets or characters of an improvised comedy. This process can advance so far, that even their name may be completely forgotten (a process made easier when the language, used to hand the legend down, changes as well), or replaced by another character’s name, no matter if historical or mythical or related to a different legend, but in any case defining the archetype on which the character is unrecoverably categorized.
At the same time it may happen that events that have repeatedly occurred along time, or happened stepwise, involving maybe different persons playing the same role (like, e.g., several generations of kings) are resumed and synthesized as if they were a single event that occurred to a single person, who adds up personality and deeds of each single person who was actually involved. More specifically, there is a good chance that the complex occurrence of a social or cultural evolutionary process, that storytellers maybe can perceive as such, but can’t effectively express through an abstract concept (what legends always evade), is condensed into the narration of a single episode, maybe derived from the circumstances of one really happened event, which therefore assumes the features of a symbolic representation of the whole process.
Even worse, it may happen that storytellers take characters, initially separated even by a wide time span, and melt them into a single one, because they can be seen as “re-embodiments” of the same archetype, and they act within a gross situational equivalence. Entire passages of totally different legends can thus be overlapped and mixed together. By this procedure real fictional chimeras can be created, the parts of which can be separated again only on the basis of the hopeful difference of backgrounds; the risk that in such an operation some pieces are shifted to the wrong side, is always present.
Last, it may well happen that elements or themes of a legend are considered discreditable according to the ethic, political or religious beliefs of a later epoch, and as a consequence are ironed out or masked or even drastically suppressed from the tale.

Having considered all this, is there still nowadays any concrete hope to unravel the knot, unwind the process back and remove the distortions that, consciously or not, have been applied? Of course there is no universally valid answer to this question. First, it is clear that we are defenceless against a legend that constitutes, totally or partially, an authentic “historical novel”, i.e. a narration of fully fictional events, but perfectly and coherently framed within a cultural and situational background that really existed. This risk must always be accounted for, although, to our good luck, it seems that this type of fiction, which belongs to a much different intellectual environment, has very little chance to be assembled and handed down by oral transmission.
This said, we can state that a complete and objective knowledge of the facts intrinsically represents a limit that can be approached, but never attained, not even if we were able to immediately collect the reports of each single eyewitness. Every subsequent distortion process generates a further unknown element, that may be corrected only provided we can recognize it as such and un-apply it back, on the basis of our knowledge of the historical and cultural context that has caused its application. Such a reconstruction will be as closer to reality, as our analysis of the hows and the whys of the original distortion will improve. Even so, we may be able to recognize, but hardly to reconstruct, the details that may have not just been altered, but bluntly removed. We must also notice that the result, obtained by applying a given filter to a given scenery, is univocally determined, while it is far from certain that the same result may not be obtained by applying the same filter, or a different one, to a different original scenery. As a consequence each step, even if we are able to recognize the presence of a distortion, increases the fuzziness of the reconstructed original environment, but also increases the probability that in its correction we may have introduced a serious blunder.
Once we have brought the procedure of reconstruction of the original core of the legend to an end, against all odds, we must also understand who its witnesses may have been, how large and which part of the story each of them may really have been acquainted with, if and how much he may have had an interest or may have taken pleasure in distorting, concealing or inventing: and how much the process of consensus with the audience may have been active, and in which direction. Only at this point, it will be possible to hazard stating whether real occurrences, and what, may have played a role in the formation of the legend.