Now you take "Cinderella," a story that is never out of the news for long. Someone has asked my opinion of that glass slipper, which raises the fairly cosmic question what stories are all about.
The slipper may not have been glass, to begin with. The French word is verre, but the word for ermine is vair. Hence ermine becomes glass.
Odd, of course, that only Cinderella's dainty hoof happened to fit, even though common experience shows that when you try a shoe on 600,000 nubile maidens there will be more than one foot that squeezes in. The conclusion is plain enough--the prince wanted Cinderella and no other. Why not just claim her? He may not have been free to choose, without a competition, even though he controlled the contest.
But the point of the story is simply that two dandy young creatures found each other in spite of hostile circumstances.
Which brings us to a thought that applies not only to fairy tales, but to histories, myths and the legends of nations, corporations and families: you start with the desired ending, and construct a story to reach it.
In histories, of course, the writers and editors are scrupulous to tell the truth. All the same, histories have a way of resembling fairy stories and myths in some ways, and the question can reasonably be asked of any writer, what is truth?
Take any war, any assassination, any astonishing crime, and you will see that the result you get depends a good bit on which facts are thought important, which are thought true, and of course it makes a difference who does the thinking about these judgments; in other words, who is the writer?
Such is the richness of life that millions of facts touch even the slightest of human actions and they cannot all be dealt with, even if all could be known. Besides (as every writer knows and deplores) one fact contradicts another, and how are these to be sorted out?
Take King Solomon. It did not occur to the many writers of his history in the Old Testament to question his legitimacy to rule over Israel. That was not their task, yet in their accounts they consciously or unconsciously did all they could to establish his right to the throne.
And they had their work cut out for them, as any writer does who is bound by religious principles and a moderate regard at least for what seems the truth.
Solomon's throne was divinely ordained, and, for that matter, Israel was chosen among all other nations to be, as it were, the people with a favored and special relationship to God.
The only reason they had their land, according to their history, was that God gave it to Abraham and his seed forever.
Already, before the time of Solomon, enormous difficulties arose. Any non-Israelite neighbor might say the Israelites simply conquered the land by military force, just as David conquered Jerusalem by strength of arms and moved his capital there from Hebron.
Still, if God gave Abraham the land, then why did he think it necessary to buy from a Hittite land given by God, or why did David buy the site for the temple in Jerusalem?
Title to land was through inheritance only, from Abraham.
There were also divine laws against incest, but incidents figure in Solomon's ancestry. On the surface, these might be thought to cloud his claim.
Another iron law regulated marriage, which in theory could occur only within the tribe of pure descent, not with foreigners. Still, some foreigners were more foreign than others. But Moabites and Ammonites, for example, could never become part of the congregation of Israel even after many generations. Solomon's ancestry, however, includes foreigners who seem on the surface of it to violate this central law, and he himself married women of the Egyptians, Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians and Hittites.
Marriage with foreigners simply occurred, for all the thundering of the prophets.
There are centuries of learned analysis of the Old Testament to this day, as well as continuing interest in such figures as Solomon. "The Legitimacy of Solomon" by the social anthropologist Edmund Leach (Cape, 1969) considers the question of how the Old Testament historians worked out some of these contradictions, that seem open violations of the most serious law, but which in the end do not affect the legitimacy of Solomon's claim to the throne.
None of the writers of the sacred history, it may be assumed, dared tamper with the facts as known to them--they do not disguise incest, exogamy, etc.--and the Lord knows they are withering enough in their examination of their kings.
Can incest, a crime, also be a good thing? Can a foreigner be turned into a nonforeigner? In a narrow sense, of course not.
Still, there a nation is with a throne to be filled and there the historian is, unable to tamper with the facts of Solomon's ancestry.
The wonder is that things can be worked out.
But within limits they can be. Never underestimate human ingenuity and dedication to the task. If you require airtight logic and have no truck with legal fictions, ingenious laws, mercy, special interventions and so forth, you are in large trouble, not only as a historian and writer but as a man, for human life is full of irreconcilable contradictions that nevertheless must be reconciled somehow if life is to go on with any cheer.
All the same, the conscientious storyteller's lot is not an easy one, doing his best to bring order out of chaos.
"Cinderella" is not a bad place to begin gently teaching a child that there are other things beside common sense and logic, and a bit later on, the story of Solomon may advance the lesson, so that in due time one is perfectly at home in Washington.