06 December 2014

The Problem of the Vanishing Bishop


C
ertain characters in history are notoriously difficult to come to grips with—William Shakespeare, Billy the Kid, or Sherlock Holmes for example. Certainly nobody has ever said that Nicholas of Myra was an easy fish to catch. Nobody who made the effort to get the lowdown on the guy anyway. Every time you think you’ve got something on him, he wriggles off again into the darkness of the deeps, nestling among the rocks of myth and legend.
Last year Megyn Kelly, an eminent scholar and linguist—at least so I suppose from the certainty of her pronouncement—announced that she had found the elusive saint—and that he was in defiance of the probabilities, a white man. Presumably a fourth-century Lycian white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. She didn’t explain about the reindeer and living at the North Pole thing, but I suppose they were in there somewhere. They had to be.
Megyn Kelly unfortunately chose not to reveal the evidence for her remarkable discovery; I am still awaiting the definitive paper showing that it is a historical fact that St. Nicholas is a verifiable historical figure. Presumably it should settle matters once and for all, like the issue of Jesus’s wife or his brother’s bones. In the meantime we can only fall back on the cobwebby legends that have actually come down to us, dusty and frayed as they are.
What is a verifiable historical figure, anyway? Is William Shakespeare? I’ve talked with at least one person who maintained he was essentially the invention of seventeenth-century editors who needed an author for anonymous plays they wanted to foist off on the public. Ignoring this sort of revisionism, along with the Oxfordian lunacy, there is still the issue of the rural yokel poacher from an illiterate household who somehow rose from holding horses in London to become one of the greatest poets and playwrights the world has ever known. Did he exist? The actual records are unhelpful, being notices of baptism and burial, transfers of property and appearances before the court, payments and the other trivia that anyone leaves behind in the record-books during a life of more than a few moments. Between the legendary bard of Avon and the actual guy who was born, married, and died in Stratford there is a nearly impenetrable veil. The legend fills at least one rather thick book (Samuel Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives), but the facts take up a lot less room.
I suppose we mean was the legend inspired by a real person—did the legendary character have a historical counterpart? The legend of Billy the Kid is a rich tapestry of sometimes conflicting stories, but the life of his historical counterpart—a nineteenth-century bit-player in the Lincoln County War named Henry McCarty—comes down to a dry collection of legal documents and newspaper accounts. Is it fair to say that Henry McCarty was Billy the Kid, with no qualifications or caveats? I’m just asking; I don’t have an answer.
The thing is, even Sherlock Holmes had at least one historical counterpart, though he didn’t solve crimes or hang out at Baker Street. Precision is helpful. And in the case of Nicholas of Myra—well, precision reduces the legendary saint to dust blown away in a hurricane. There’s just no there there.
It seems fitting to conclude this St. Nicholas Day meditation with the words of another fictional character, one Kyle Broflovski:
Haven’t Luke Skywalker and Santa Claus affected your lives more than most real people in this room? I mean, whether Jesus is real or not, he—he’s had a bigger impact on the world than any of us have. And the same can be said for Bugs Bunny and—and Superman and Harry Potter. They’ve changed my life—changed the way I act on the earth. Doesn’t that make them kind of real? They might be imaginary but—but they’re more important than most of us here. And they’re all gonna be around here long after we’re dead. So, in a way, those things are more realer than any of us.

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