Dunstan eventually becomes a history teacher, a historian of sainthood, a biographer of Paul’s falsified history, and (in the form of the letter that the book consists of) an autobiographer, a historian of his own life. Accordingly, the novel is deeply invested in a discussion of how history is made and recorded, how history and myth are intertwined, and how we determine what is “real” (factual) and what is imagined, fabricated, and reinterpreted—in other words “mythological”—about our past.
Dunstan clearly believes that history should not consist simply (perhaps “merely”) of “fact.” He resents his students who wish to take a more “scientific” approach to history, and values historical accounts that include marvelous or unexplainable happenings. This is shown foremost by his own history—He maintains that Mrs. Dempster brought his brother back from death, and that her face appeared to him on the battlefield. He cannot verify these rather mystical events as factual, but, in his estimation, this should not prevent them from appearing in his history. He also believes in fate, and in the idea of destiny—in other words, that history is driven by a mythological power that essentially directs us to a certain fate. He borrows much of this thinking from the mythology of the Greeks.
His interest in the history of sainthood is also indicative of his belief that history and mythology should not be kept utterly separate. He investigates the deeds and lives of saints as one might investigate the deeds and lives of more traditionally historical figures. This earns him skepticism from his friends and contemporaries, but he carries on nevertheless.
The novel thus suggests how we might best understand history—whether it is our own personal history, or world history—as something more than the progression of verified factual events. We cannot fully understand history without grasping the non-factual elements of experience: impressions, interpretations, and misunderstandings also make history. Given that the book is a fictional account of a mythological history of its protagonist, we could say that in many ways this discussion of history and mythology could emphasize the importance of fiction and literature itself. Perhaps Davies is warning us against a view of history that excludes artistic, literary, imaginative or fictional accounts (such as Fifth Business itself.)
History and Mythology ThemeTracker
History and Mythology Quotes in Fifth Business
But what most galls me is the patronizing tone of the piece—as if I had never had a life outside the classroom, had never risen to the full stature of a man, had never rejoiced or sorrowed or known love or hate.
Can I write truly of my boyhood? Or will that disgusting self-love which so often attaches itself to a man’s idea of his youth creep in and falsify the story.
Nobody—not even my mother—was to be trusted in a strange world that showed very little of itself on the surface.
In later life I have been sometimes praised, sometimes mocked, for my way of pointing out the mythical elements that seem to me to underlie our apparently ordinary lives.
I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two, sides to him.
We are public icons, we two: he an icon of kingship, and I an icon of heroism, unreal yet very necessary; we have obligations above what is merely personal, and to let personal feelings obscure the obligations would be failing in one’s duty.
Now I should be able to see what a saint was really like and perhaps make a study of one without the apparatus of Rome, which I had no power to invoke. The idea possessed me that it might lie in my power to make a serious contribution to the psychology of religion.
“What good would it do you if I told you she was indeed a saint? I cannot make saints, nor can the pope. We can only recognize saints when the plainest evidence shows them to be saintly.”
Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable facts?...The marvelous is indeed an aspect of the real.
“Life is a spectator sport to you.”
The Autobiography of Magnus Eisengrim was a great pleasure to write, for I was under no obligation to be historically correct or weigh evidence.