Objects alone could take us hours to list: swords, shields, spears, axes, hammers, bows, arrows, slings, crowns, cloaks, robes, rings, charms, games, mazes, fruits, drinks, rivers, springs, stones, bridges, boats, ships, tables, thrones, treasures, relics, drums, harps, horns, looms, lamps, baskets, cups, mirrors, bridges, gates…on and on.
History and folklore also have given us legendary figures: Johnny Appleseed, Billy the Kid, Nat Turner, Black Hawk, Tecumseh, Ip Man, Rob Roy, El Santo. Some legends are possibly not real: King Arthur, William Tell, Molly Pitcher, John Henry. Still others are obviously fictional yet so vivid that we may believe that they were based upon real people: Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, Chen Zhen, Juan Bobo, Zorro, The Scarlet Pimpernel.
Mythical places, too, grip our imaginations: Atlantis, Camelot, Avalon, El Dorado, Tír na nÓg, Álfheimr, Ryūgū-jō, Zerzura. Other legendary places are so ingrained in our culture that we may almost forget they were born in works of fiction: Xanadu, Oz, Vanity Fair, Erewhon. The word “utopia” itself was created in a work of fiction, Utopia by Sir Thomas Moore in 1516.
Legendary people, places and objects are terrific tools in storytelling, but what actually creates the sensation that stirs in us the feeling that what we’re reading about is legendary? Legendary has to start somewhere, and often that is not with what a person, place or object actually does in a story but in what he, she or it has previously done.
When a character’s outsized reputation precedes him or her, for instance, the legend is already walking, just not yet arrived. That factor is important. The legendary effect depends on other characters in the story having prior knowledge of, or belief about, a legendary figure, as was the case with Heathcliff, Dracula, The Magus, or Kvothe.
At the same time, legendary figures have an aspect that is unreal. Feats are ascribed to a legend which seem incredible or even impossible. There is an aura around the legend that inspires or terrifies in advance. Anticipating the legend’s arrival is key to this effect. The legend’s appearance is delayed, sometimes long-delayed. Indeed, in some cases it may be that the legend may never actually show up on the page, as with Godot or Big Brother.
Marisha Pessl’s sophomore novel Night Film (2013), concerns investigative journalist Scott McGrath, who is obsessed with a darkly legendary horror film director, Stanislav Cordova, who has not been seen in public for thirty years. Little is known of the man except for the scant information he revealed in a brief Rolling Stone interview long ago. His films were shot entirely at his remote estate in the Adirondack Mountains, The Peak. Actors were eager to work with him, but afterward never spoke of the experience and usually left the business or dropped from sight. A bizarre, obsessive and sinister fan culture has arisen around the man and his work, with its own dark internet containing vast speculation about Cordova and the existential meaning of his films.
Cordova’s films themselves are said to be disturbing in the extreme. Dropped by his studio, Cordova’s films are now only available in rare and expensive bootleg copies, or at secretive “red-band” screenings arranged for aficionados in underground or abandoned places. Viewing the films has resulted in mental breakdowns, fainting in sheer terror and inspired, in one case, a man to become a murderer. There is no doubt that Cordova’s power is legendary. As Scott McGrath says in the novel’s opening: [Read more…]