August 17: escape in a basket

There is little evidence for many of the legendary scenes in folklore. Robin Hood (if he existed as an individual) probably wasn’t around during the reign of King John and Richard the Lionheart, so we probably never had the scene where the famous outlaw recognises the absent king in the greenwood. William Tell never shot an apple off his son’s head with his crossbow. St Paul almost certainly never underwent the conversion on the road to Damascus (it is never mentioned in those terms in his own letters and in Acts of the Apostles written many years after Paul’s death the text seems to be lifted verbatim from Euripides Bacchae). These old texts are all subject to the usual collage, bias, literary manipulation and ideological weighting that invisibly inform legend and myth. A nice one that has been on my mind this week for some reason is St Paul escaping the city of Damascus in a laundry or small cattle basket lowered down out of the city walls. This might be closer to the truth as St Paul mentions it himself in his letters. It is a rare moment of concrete picaresque adventure in what are otherwise rather abstract epistles. I wish we had a bit more of that kind of stuff from Paul. In Jules Vernes’ Around the World in 80 Days there is no scene in a hot air baloon, although most illustrations of the book show such a scene, simply because of its pictoral value, I suppose, and because there was such a scene in the classic film with David Niven. The other one I like in a similar vein to the Paul basket story is Charles II of England hiding in an apple tree with Roundhead soldiers below him. I remember it made a lovely illustration in my primary school history book with the perspective from Charles’ point of view looking down on the metal helmets of Cromwell’s troops.

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