Awhile back I wrote a blog post called “Truth vs. Reality.” What I’m about to share is in many ways a continuation of the same discussion.
When I was about nine or ten I began reading books from a series called “Dear America.” “Dear America” is a series aimed at middle school girls, and plucks characters from the history books; or rather, it plucks their characters’ life circumstances, historical context, and cultural context from history. The individual girls–the protagonists whose journals are bared for the reader–are completely fictional. I remember one book in particular, My Brother’s Keeper, about a girl living in the Confederate half of the Divided States during the American Civil War. She hated Lincoln, and because her family was poor she didn’t understand why another man’s slaves (for whom she had little sympathy) should result in her only brother marching off to war.
Now except for the major historical facts none of this story was true. And yet it was true for thousands of girls and women who were part of the poorer white classes and thus had little contact with slavery. They watched their fathers, brothers, and sons march off to war and rose up as proud Confederate women to defend (as they saw it) the right of the individual to handle their own property affairs. The story of My Brother’s Keeper is true in a very real and historical way, but it is not factual.
Other examples of non-factual truths are the morality tales or the virtue stories some of us grew up with. We were raised to believe there were fundamental moral truths to be found in these tales, but we never (hopefully) believed them to be factual. (Then again, I have several friends who would (perhaps legitimately) argue that this is precisely what happens when children are raised to take scripture literally.)
Much the way narratives relate ideas in ways that are often more convincing to people on an emotional level (which has to be softened up first before the intellectual arguments can do their work), legend and myth sometimes encapsulate truth, not because they’re factual, but because they help us to understand fundamental (or at least occasionally practical) truths about our world.