Shame-faced Brits are increasingly confusing fact and fiction when it comes to historical knowledge – that's the verdict of a compelling new study which found that most people believe that fictional figures such as King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes and Eleanor Rigby really existed.
Well, yes, but not in the way they mean.
Here’s the list:
Top ten fictional characters that the British public thinks are real
• 1) King Arthur – 65%
• 2) Sherlock Holmes – 58%
• 3) Robin Hood – 51%
• 4) Eleanor Rigby – 47%
• 5) Mona Lisa -35%
• 6) Dick Turpin – 34%
• 7) Biggles – 33%
• 8) The Three Musketeers – 17%
• 9) Lady Godiva – 12%
• 10) Robinson Crusoe – 5%
OK, I think we can quibble about Arthur. I think there’s a good case to be made that there was an Arthur who was a significant historical figure, even if he probably wasn’t a king. And there probably was a historical outlaw called Robin Hood, even if he wasn’t much like the legend.
Dumas’s Three Musketeers are heavily fictionalized, but they, like d’Artagnan do seem to have been based on living individuals. There was certainly a real Lady Godiva, although that probably isn’t how they spelled her name in the Domesday Book. There was a historical Richard Turpin, famous highwayman. Mona Lisa was a real woman.
What are they teaching young folks who work for television stations these days?
Furthermore: Steve Muhlberger’s reaction to the survey brings up the overlap between history and fiction. Many figures from the past that matter to us are lightly historical, like Roland, Macbeth, Gruoch*, Lady Godiva and Sir Nigel Loring. The historical facts about them could be summed up in a few sentences. The fictional pearls that grew around the fragment of historical grit matter more to us.
Then there are the fictionally overshadowed figures who we actually know a fair amount about: Cleopatra, Richard the Lionhearted, William Wallace, Henry V, Vlad Tepes Dracula, Richard III, John Smith, d'Artagnan, Cyrano de Bergerac, Captain Bligh, Davy Crockett. Even if we know how the historical figure differed, it’s hard to keep the fictionalized version out of our head.
Finally, there are the self-invented personas of historical figures, intentionally created from a mixture of charisma, self-promotion and selective disclosure; possibly the truth but not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Ben Franklin, Winston Churchill ("History will be kind to me for I intend to write it") and JFK, for example.
*AKA Lady Macbeth. She is never addressed by name in the Scottish play. Now you know why.