Is He Real, or Is He Fictional?
A look at some popular characters from history. Were they real or fictional?
by Brian Dunning
January 27, 2009
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Let's take a break today from serious investigation and take a walk on the lighter side. There are many well-known characters in popular culture, many who became famous in works of fiction. But some of them are based on real people who actually lived. Most people will probably know most of these, but I bet you nobody will know all of them. Let's get started with some really easy ones, from ancient history; starting with:
Norse hero Beowulf: Fictional. This hero of the Old English poem of the same name is said to have lived some 1,500 years ago, 500 years before the great poem was written about his battles with the monster Grendel and other creatures. There is no historical reference to any such person having actually lived, outside of literature. And thankfully, no historical reference to any of the monsters either.
Ancient Greek hero Ulysses aka Odysseus: Probably fictional. Although history can't tell us for certain whether there was an actual Greek king of Ithaca named Odysseus, we also don't have reason to believe there wasn't. Certainly the tales told about him in Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey were purely fiction, but they were also full of real people, places, and events. Surprisingly, it's actually more likely that Odysseus himself was a real person than his storyteller, Homer, who is considered by most scholars to have been a fictitious name attached to the works of multiple poets.
Persian adventurer Sinbad the Sailor: Fictional. The only seven voyages this seagoing adventurer ever took were in Western translations of the book One Thousand and One Nights. It's not known who originally wrote the tale of this ancient Persian adventurer, but along with his fellow popular characters Aladdin and Ali Baba, Sinbad never actually appeared in Arabic versions of the Nights.
You probably got all of those. So let's move on to American history and see if you can keep your streak going, beginning with:
American icon Uncle Sam: Real. Sam Wilson owned a meat-packing company that sold barrels of beef to U.S. soldiers during the War of 1812, stamped "US" which the soldiers joked must have stood for Uncle Sam. His reputation was that of a man of great character and honesty, and 150 years later in 1961, an act of Congress officially saluted "Uncle Sam Wilson" as the progenitor of America's national symbol.
Tree-planting folk character Johnny Appleseed: Real. John Chapman earned the nickname Johnny Appleseed by planting nurseries to grow apple trees, beginning on his own land grant that he received as a revolutionary war soldier fighting under George Washington. A man of great piety and faith, he lived an almost hermit-like lifestyle of service. He founded nurseries throughout northern Ohio and encouraged his managers to sell or give away the trees as cheaply as possible.
Railroad hammer man John Henry: Fictional. This railroad spike-driving hero of folklore is said to have worked himself to death winning a contest against the new steam hammer. Although such a contest may have actually happened in the 1870's or 1880's, and although there were hammer men named John Henry, attempts to reconcile the name with the time, place, and event have been post-hoc efforts.
Frontier adventurer Daniel Boone: Real. Often confused with Davy Crockett, the Congressman who died at The Alamo, Daniel Boone lived 50 years earlier. He was a Revolutionary War soldier who went on to blaze a trail for 200,000 pioneers into Kentucky. Despite fighting many Indian battles, Boone actually lived with the Shawnee Indians in Kentucky for some time.
Indian maiden Pocahontas: Real. The daughter of the Powhatan chief did indeed marry an Englishman and travel to England in 1616 where she promptly died of pneumonia, but she didn't marry Captain John Smith as many think. She married the tobacco pioneer John Rolfe. Captain Smith did tell how Pocahontas successfully begged her father to spare his life, but although heavily romanticized in fiction, the only evidence that such an event ever took place was Smith's own dubious account.
Hero of folk song Tom Dooley: Real. The popular folk song is based on Tom Dula, a Confederate soldier who returned home after the war and was famously convicted and hanged for the murder of his fiance Laura Foster. For over a century, historians have fruitlessly debated whether he was guilty, or whether the true killer was Laura's sister Ann, Tom's first love, and who is said to have confessed to the murder on her deathbed.
Railroad engineer Casey Jones: Real. John Jones, a train engineer from Cayce, Kentucky, died in 1900 trying to stop his train before a collision. While others jumped, he stayed at the brake and was the only person killed. Casey was known for such heroics throughout his career, including one time when he swung out onto the cowcatcher and snatched a frightened little girl from the tracks.
Lumberjack Paul Bunyan: Fictional. Tall tales from the logging industry were first retold in print in 1910 by James McGillivray and other writers. What scholarly doubt exists is not so much whether there was a real logger named Paul Bunyan (there wasn't), but whether even the stories themselves ever actually existed among lumbermen at all; or were simply made up by the authors.
Dueling families The Hatfields and the McCoys: Real. Sometimes confused with the fictional feud between the Grangerford and Shepherdson clans from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Hatfields and the McCoys were real. In the 1880's, the Hatfields lived on the West Virginia side of the Tug Fork river, and the McCoys lived on the Kentucky side. The McCoys got the worst of it, losing nine killed; until the law put a stop to it by arresting eight Hatfields, hanging one and imprisoning the rest for life.
Now let's cross the pond and take a look into European personalities. European history is a lot older than that of the Americas, so there's been much more time for tales to grow taller and annals to become obfuscated in time and retelling.
Archer and outlaw Robin Hood: Fictional. For hundreds of years, minstrels have been singing ballads of the legendary outlaw of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire with almost supernatural archery skills. Much scholarly work has tried to prove that he was real, but there is simply no good evidence. There was (and still is) an Earl of Huntingdon, Robin Hood's legitimate title; but the lineage of the title is well documented and includes no outlaws. One complication is that Robert or Robin Hood were very common names, and certainly some of them were on the wrong side of the law.
Grail-questing sovereign King Arthur: Fictional. Historians have consistently failed to find any Arthur Pendragon wielding a sword named Excalibur among the known principal leaders in Britain during the 6th century, although there are good candidates for much of the Arthurian legend. One is a 2nd century Roman officer in Britain, Lucius Artorius Castus, who commanded armored soldiers who fought with swords and lances on horseback, beneath a dragon-head (or Penn-dragon) banner.
Marooned sailor Robinson Crusoe: Fictional. The star of Daniel DeFoe's castaway novel is completely made up. People keep trying to point out actual castaways as "the inspiration" for Robinson Crusoe, but it's not like it's so abstract a concept that DeFoe needed a true story to copy from. Most plausibly, the father of DeFoe's publisher had previously published a book by one Henry Pitman who escaped a penal colony only to be marooned on an island. DeFoe and Pitman may have actually met, giving DeFoe just such a true story first hand.
Famous prisoner The Man in the Iron Mask: Real. This state prisoner of Louis XIV lived out his life in the Bastille and other prisons, though he was well treated and lived in great comfort. Letters indicate that he probably only wore a mask when he was transported, and it was probably made of black velvet, not iron. There are dozens of theories of who he might have been, but the one most historians agree is false is the best known, that he was Louis XIV's twin brother.
Keeper of the ocean's dead Davy Jones: Fictional. For centuries, sailors have spoken of "going to Davy Jones' locker" at the bottom of the sea. He's the mariner's version of the devil. History is full of sea captains, pirates, and tavern keepers named Davy Jones, but none ever achieved any particular note; and despite a fair number of reasonable sounding theories, there is no clear Davy Jones in history that would be a good match for this legend.
Archer William Tell: Fictional. Although most Swiss believe their national hero actually did take his famous shot in 1307, historians have simply found too many other versions of the exact same tale in other cultures from other centuries to give the William Tell version any special credence. In these tales, the archer disrespects an official's hat by shooting it, and as punishment, is made to shoot an apple from his son's head. He draws two arrows, intending to kill the official if he misses. Whether or not all these stories stem from an actual event has been long lost to history.
Rat exterminator the Pied Piper: Fictional. According to an ancient stained glass window in a church in Hamelin, Germany, the Pied Piper played his fife and lured all the rats out of town and drowned them in the river. But the town refused to pay his bill, and so he returned and played his fife again, this time luring all the children from the town. The town chronicles say in 1284 that "it is ten years since our children left," but no record survives that says what might have happened, and for which the Pied Piper story is a presumed allegory. Theories include disease, an accident, or emigration.
Detective Sherlock Holmes: Fictional. Although purely the literary invention of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes is often believed to have been a real private eye. He's been incorporated into so many other authors' works as if he were a real person that the confusion is understandable. Mark Twain employed Sherlock Holmes as freely as he did actual characters from history, and a number of Sherlock Holmes biographies and family histories have been written.
It makes you wonder if many years after you die, people will wonder if you ever existed or were just a story. In a thousand years who's going to know how many Hollywood movie characters were based on real life people? Spinal Tap might end up being remembered as one of history's great rock bands, and children might sing nursery rhymes about John F. Kennedy. It all goes to show yet again that no matter how sure you are about something, it always pays to be skeptical.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Is He Real, or Is He Fictional?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
27 Jan 2009. Web.
6 May 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4138>
References & Further Reading
Morgan, R. Boone: A Biography. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007.
Nelson, S.R. Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc, 2006.
Price, R. "The New England Origins of "Johnny Appleseed"." The New England Quarterly. 1 Sep. 1939, Volume 12, Number 3: 454-469.
Tilton, R.S. Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Ward, A. W., Waller, A. R., Editors. The Cambridge History of English Literature. Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1908. 27.
West, J.F. The Ballad of Tom Dula. Boone: Parkway Publishers, Inc., 2002.
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