Myth, legend and reimagining England’s past – An interview with Dr Susan Owens

How English myths have inspired and helped to shape art and our understanding of history

For as rich and dramatic as English history is, the myths of England are sometimes even more enticing to authors and artists as they look for inspiration. Dr Susan Owens, former Curator of Paintings at the V&A, has been unpicking the common threads of those inspirations, looking at how the modern context of those creators saw them amend and morph the myths to say something about their own time. As she prepares to speak at the Chalke History Festival on 27 June, we were delighted to catch up with her to learn more about her work and interest in English history and art.

Photo by Stephen Calloway

What first inspired you to start researching how England’s past has been reimagined throughout history?

The history I learned at school was bizarrely patchy. We were taught themes like the History of Medicine or the American West without being given any idea of chronological structure. It was like trying to make jelly without a mould. When I arrived at university I suddenly found myself among people who thought in terms of historical facts and dates, and realised I had a lot of catching up to do. But one friend had had a similar educational experience to mine, and we would often joke together about that hazy, romantic period we called ‘the olden days’. We were both fascinated by history, but perhaps had more of a creative response to the past than our fact-drilled contemporaries. So I have been thinking about myths, legends and imaginative versions of the past for some 30 years – this book has been gestating for a long time. My previous two books had approached these subjects obliquely – one was a cultural history of British ghosts, the other, Spirit of Place, was about how artists and writers have reimagined the British landscape over the centuries. Having written those two, I realised that the final part of the jigsaw – the third in a loose trilogy, if you like – was a book that focused on the imaginary past itself.

From a modern perspective, what are the most outlandish mythical histories of England that people have believed were true?

Britain once had a glamorous foundation myth that stretched back to Aeneas, a hero of the Trojan wars. The story went that Aeneas’s grandson, the wise and brave Brutus of Troy, was guided to these shores by the goddess Diana. He sailed here from Greece with his entourage, landed at Totnes, killed the giants who lived here and became Britain’s first king. He even founded London and called it Troy Novant or Trinovantum – the new Troy. It was only later that the city was renamed after his descendant, King Lud. Virtually everyone once believed this story and it was accepted well into the 17th century – but who remembers Brutus now? 

Stonehenge has long been a focus for imaginative speculation. In medieval legend, the ‘Giant’s Ring’, as it was once known, was brought from Mount Killaraus in Ireland to Salisbury Plain by the wizard Merlin, and set up as a monument to noble Britons killed in Saxon raids. Later, it was suggested that it might be the tomb of Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni tribe who fiercely resisted Roman rule – though it was admittedly rather a long way from her East Anglian home. Others wondered whether it was a pagan temple, built for mysterious Druid rituals – which is how these ancient priests first became associated with Stonehenge.

Image Credit: Public Domain/wikimedia/

What would you say are the most common reasons that people have always looked to the past for artistic and literary inspiration?

The idea of a past golden age has been a source of never-failing inspiration for cultures around the world. Whether the nostalgia is for a period of perceived harmony and community spirit or for glorious artistic, intellectual or military achievements, it is a potent emotion. I think it can be particularly powerful for those starting life in a new country and thinking back to what they have left behind. Beowulf, the earliest surviving poem in English, written by someone whose forebears had migrated over the North Sea, actually begins by inviting the reader to contemplate the ‘geardagum’ – the days of old. So English literature as we know it begins by looking back. Beowulf is an enchanted lens, offering its readers a view into a past world in which glorious heroes fought monsters and dragons.

Times of rapid change can also make people nostalgic for the past. The Victorians are a case in point. While communications and travel were being transformed and improvements in material comfort was changing many people’s lives, what did they do? They turned to look wistfully over their shoulders at the days of old. Artists and writers alike became bewitched by fantasies of Merrie England.

Ironically, though, today’s Steampunks repurpose the trappings of the very industry that appalled Victorians like William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, in their own protest against an increasingly bland and digitised world.

Are there any particular mythical figures or events that seem to have particularly resonated with English writers and artists, and why do you think that is?

Brutus may be forgotten, but King Arthur is here to stay. Arthur – if he existed at all – was a warlord of the late 5th or early 6th century, who became a hero of many ‘wild tales’ celebrating brave but ultimately doomed British resistance to the dominant Saxons. He is the first underdog. This warlike Arthur was reinvented in 12th-century stories as King Arthur, a sophisticated figure who presided over an elegant court – a more fitting figurehead for an age which valued new aristocratic ideals of civility and courtly elegance. He faded from view for a while, but in the early 19th century, when industrialisation began to change the world, he came back. For writers like Alfred Tennyson and artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Morris, Burne-Jones and Julia Margaret Cameron he represented chivalry, nobility and heroism – all qualities they felt had sadly disappeared from the modern, industrialised world. If today’s books and films are anthing to go by, Arthur the flawed hero, valiantly resisting impossible odds, still lives vividly in the British imagination: we still love an underdog. He may never have lived – but he certainly shows no signs of dying.

What can an audience expect from your upcoming talk at Chalke History Festival?

I am going to be talking about Stonehenge, druids, forgers, a spectacularly lavish coronation, the fancy-dress party to end them all – and about Morris, Paul Nash and other artists and writers who fell in love with the past and reinvented it for the present and the future. Just don’t expect to hear too much about facts and dates. 

Banner image credit: Image by Jonathan Gordon

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