The Intersection of Myth & Truth

handsBy Victor Porcelli

Fairy tales are not the only place for the mystical, the magical, the mythological; in fact, these characteristics are essential to the human experience. Humans tend to believe in what they know — they can be confident and comforted by knowledge they feel to be certain, the type of knowledge which often guides their thoughts and actions. Yet they rarely recognize how their own humanity, their own experiences, corrupts their worldview.


In Fifth Business by Robertson Davies, the protagonist Dunstan Ramsay is a history professor who focuses on the interconnection between history and mythology — particularly saints. Davies uses a motif of mythology to show that rather than there being a separation between fact and fiction, history and myth, the truth is a more complicated combination which manifests differently in each person. In Fifth Business, Dunstan Ramsay struggles with guilt over a childhood accident in which his best friend Percy Boy Staunton threw a snowball at him, which he dodged, leading to Mary Dempster being hit and seemingly driven mad. Later on, Ramsay develops a passion for saints, leading him to question his beliefs and wonder if Mary Dempster is in fact a saint.

Myth manifests in ways besides the saints that Ramsay chases around the world: in many ways, people form their own mythology in order to best suit them. Take the case of Joel Surgeoner, the hermit turned priest who believes his transgressions with Mrs. Dempster — which at the time resulted in him being kicked out of the town — led to his ultimate redemption. Looking back, Surgeoner finds “‘it wasn’t all over with me that moment,” instead, “it was glory come into my life,” a unique rationalization that changes the event from one of unwarranted pain to necessary growth. He goes on to describe the experience to be like going into Hell and coming back “on a clear, pure pool where I could wash and be clean,” (135).

Water imagery is common in religious texts and mythology, often signifying rebirth — like the religious rebirth of a baptism. Surgeoner seems to believe that his hardships resulted in this rebirth as a wiser and better man. In Greek mythology, there is the River Styx, the boundary between Hell and Earth, also thought to give Achilles his invulnerability. This quotation alludes to the River Styx, mentioning passing through Hell, coming out stronger. Surgeoner is motivated to believe that this is the case, as it makes his suffering worth it and provides his life with meaning and purpose, even if there is none there: as in, his hardships were simply hardships, his redemption simply the result of having to change to survive. But, rather than look at it this way, Surgeoner forms his own mythology, with Mrs. Dempster as the saint that cleansed his soul.

Another example of this is Padre Blazon’s idea that when Jesus returns “it will be to continue his ministry as an old man,” admitting that “Everybody wants a Christ for himself and those who think like him,” (176). Although no mention of such a thing in the Bible, Blazon creates his own myth concerning the return of Christ, his own belief, which suits himself. He acknowledges his bias, knowing that “Everybody wants a Christ for himself,” but importantly asking: “am I at fault for wanting a Christ who will show me how to be an old man?” (176). This question is much harder to answer — what is wrong with shaping your beliefs to suit yourself? Well, Davies shows that in the case of Percy Boyd Staunton, it can result in living illusioned, separated from reality. Boy constantly makes himself the hero of his mythology, using Ramsay as an outlet and confirmation for his stories, such as why cheating on Leola is truly righteous, and how “he should become the leader of the Conservative party” and “deliver the people of Canada from their ignominious thralldom of the Liberals,” bending the truth to justify his actions (233). Mrs. Dempster also shapes her beliefs to suit herself, as when Ramsay informs her that Paul Dempster, her son, is alive, rather than acknowledge that Paul has grown older, she creates a mythology that pits Ramsay as the villian, “a snake-in-the-grass, an enemy, an undoubted agent of those dark forces who had torn Paul from her,” allowing her to continue her belief that Paul remains a child (232). In this way, she does not have to acknowledge that her son had grown old, that she had lost him and been unable to find him. Yet it remains hard to say that believing in something you wish to be true puts you in the wrong: this human characteristic, the ability to shape your own reality, defines our race as one which can create out of pure belief.

Davies shows how one’s personal mythology directly influences their actions, thoughts, and reality: creating a world of real consequence out of the mythological one they exist in. Paul Dempster spend his life knowing that “it was my birth that robbed her [Mrs. Dempster] of her sanity,” shaping his existence as he “had to carry the weight of my mother’s madness as something that was my own doing,” (148). This kinesthetic description displays the more concrete effect that can come from thought, as the myth told by his father weighs him down. Perhaps the weight is lifted when he discovers the truth, that Boy had thrown the snowball: yet the past is unchanged.

Additionally, it is not as simple as “truth is good, falsity is bad.” Sometimes, the mythology mentioned lifts the weight truth can lay on an individual. The rationalization previously mentioned aside, Davies alludes to Dr. Coué, who had “great success with auto suggestion . . . If you fell asleep murmuring, ‘Every day in every way, I am getting better and better,’ wondrous things came of it,” displaying the effect one’s mindset and belief can have on their physical person (154). Thought influences outlook, action, mindset — the mythology one spins, however untrue, can be threaded into reality, sewn together to morph it into something new. For Ramsay, his belief in mythology, his love for saints, has “coloured your life with beauty and goodness; too much scientizing will not help you,” says Padre Blazon, who recognizes that through Ramsay’s faith, Ramsay has found happiness (249). Ramsay’s mythology, believing Mrs. Dempster to be a saint, and taking in the stories of many others, is the paint which “coloured his life,” creating a mysticism not found in fact. Belief allows one to look through life through a different lense, not creating fiction but perhaps distorting truth, in this way it creates real changes that determine how one acts and feels. In this way, mythology can be a tool used by oneself to decide how they live.

How mythology is formed is not always decided at the individual level, as societal expectations can lead to the same rationalization and subjectivity, except on a larger scale. After his experience in the war, Ramsay receives the Victoria Cross from the King, he notices that him and the King are “public icons, we two: he an icon of kingship and I an icon of heroism, unreal yet very necessary,” for the two of them “have obligations above what is merely personal,” (87). Ramsay feels it is necessary to maintain the myth that he is a hero, he describes it as his “duty,” for that is what the people expect. The juxtaposition of kingship and heroism emphasizes the different needs of society: a strong leader, who they see as above them, unattainable, and a strong hero, who they see as their equal, relatable. Often, people idolize others, but also wish for someone who they can see themselves in: this is what motivates the mythology Ramsay feels the need to maintain. Then there is the story of Orph, Mrs. Dempster’s aunt’s lawyer, who had been investing his client’s money until the stock market crashed, and was relying on the revenue from his clients to survive; when Mrs. Dempster’s aunt — Miss Shanklin — dies, he is left unable to pay his expenses, and so kills himself. But the myth told to the people is that he “had unaccountably got the end of the barrel into his mouth, which had so astonished him that he inadvertently . . . blew the top of his head off,” (161).

Due to social pressure, rather than tell the truth, this story is told. Oftentimes, these stories are told to maintain pride, like when Ramsay steps down as Headmaster after the war and asks Boy to tell people it was by choice, or when he is angered by Leola writing a suicide for him despite being married to Boy, or when the newspapers, which previously had denounced Boy, paint him as a respectable man postmortem. Mythology is needed in these cases, because the consequences of truth are too heavy to bear in many of them. On the other hand, in the case of Leola there is a worry that the truth will become myth, as people may believe she had an affair with Ramsay. The truth can quickly become lost in gossip, begging the question: what is more true, the thing that happened, the way someone was, or the thing that people believe happened, the way people believe someone was?

Ramsay “learned something about the variability of truth as quite rational people see it from Boy himself, within an hour of his death,” as the different truths which had guided Boy, Ramsay, and Paul are seen to have distinctly affected their lives (254). When Boy threw a snowball which hit Mrs. Dempster, and caused her to be out of it for then on, three different stories were told. Ramsay told himself that because the snowball was meant for him, and he ducked, the responsibility lay on him, leading to his care for Mrs. and Paul Dempster. His visits to Mrs. Dempster, eventually believing her to be a saint, caring for her up to her death, etc. all stemmed from his guilt, which also lead to him teaching Paul sleight-of-hand, and becoming intertwined with his adventures. For Paul, the myth told to him was that he had caused his mother to go mad, and this guilt, which he could not even understand as a child, weighed on him. It is what led him to resent his parents and go join the circus, and led him to commit his final act of redemption against Boy. For Boy, his self-centered mythology did not even allow him to remember this instance. Any wrong he committed as a child was erased, dismissed as a phase, eliminating any responsibility. So, despite all of these accounts holding an essence of falsity, each of them shaped the person’s life more than the truth, created a reality for the believer of the myth.

For Boy, his inability to reconcile myth with truth is what leads him to remain as his namesake suggests: a Boy. When myth and truth lie too far apart, he experiences a sort of cognitive dissonance, as his beliefs and actions are based on a reality far from the truth. Ramsay tells Boy that he “want to pass into oblivion with your armour on, like King Arthur, but modern medical science is too clever to allow it. You must grow old, Boy; you’ll have to find out what age means, and how to be old . . . Whom the gods hate they keep forever young,” (242). The significance of Boy’s nickname lies in this quote: due to his image of himself, his mythology of perfection, heroism, beauty, and grandeur, he remains a boy in his own eyes.

His resistance to acknowledging what comes with age, to confronting his own mortality, stops him from finding any true meaning in life. As Boy ages, he begins to feel less satisfied with his life, less sure that it will be the perfect story he had told himself, in which he is the hero. The problem is that a hero’s death often comes early, in order to fight against some great evil. Real life does not allow this, and Boy must confront that, as all people do. For “as we neared our sixties the cloaks we had wrapped about our essential selves were wearing thing,” the mythology of each man becoming more clearly flawed, as death presents a deadline for truth (242). Padre Blazon faced a similar dilemma, trying to figure out what it meant to be old. He notes that his faith relies on the preachings of Jesus, who only lived young, and wishes for a God that can teach him to be old. The myth that underlines all of humanity is that man is immortal — as foolish as it sounds out loud, it is an unspoken belief. Before death, in order ebb the dissonance this causes, one must accept the truth. Ramsay’s saints become a model for conflicting myth and truth, perfection and mortality. Coming in with a belief in the perfection of saints, Blazon tells him:

“Thomas Aquinas was monstrously fat; St. Jerome had a terrible temper. This gives comfort to fat men and cross men. Mankind cannot endure perfection; it stifles him. He demands that even the saints should cast a shadow. If they, these holy ones who have lived so greatly but who still carry their shadows with them, can approach God, well then, there is hope for the worst of us.” (174)

While the then-young Ramsay may believe the purpose of saints was to be a paragon of humanity, the older Blazon tells of the need for imperfection. It is the acceptance of these flaws that allows for humans to ascend past their mythology and embrace the truth, for it is the saints ability to be good but “carry their shadows” that allows them to approach God. Ramsay begins to learn this as in getting Boy to realize he is no hero, that his truth is myth, he is “simply trying to recover something of the life,” only holding “the bad with the good” can allow him to “possess it as a whole,” (264). Only through recognition of one’s one subjectivity can they begin to gleam truth, the knowledge that one cannot obtain truth being the key to obtaining it.

Davies presentation of mythology in its various forms, and his depiction of characters grappling with its meaning, presents a nuanced view of the basis of truth and belief. One naturally distorts the truth, on the individual or societal level, and this unique ability allows humans to have power over reality through their perception of it. Ramsay’s wish for his belief that Mrs. Dempster is a saint is a foolish one — as Blazon says “‘if you think her a saint she is a saint to you. What more do you ask?” (174). More important than the objectivity of Mrs. Dempster’s sainthood is “What figure is she in your own personal mythology?” (177). How Ramsay perceives Mrs. Dempster — and why he perceives her that way — is more significant. It says more about him than anything else, and allows him to better understand himself, to see his life as whole. Ramsay asks himself, as he is writing his largest work:

“Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable facts? And are marvels brought into being by their desire, or is their desire an assurance rising from some deep knowledge, not to be directly experienced and questioned, that the marvellous is indeed an aspect of the real?” (199).
Truth and myth are fundamentally connected. Whether through the belief of the people or the truth of the world, this combination creates an existence unique to each individual. Through Davies work, the reader is able to see this complex connection and its powerful effect on humanity. He suggests that rather than fighting for Truth, we should embrace our subjectivity in a way that allows our actions to become as mythical as our thoughts.