I bought a MacBook pro with much enthusiasm. If you’re a fledging developer wanting to make something, and look cool while doing it, the MacBook is the way to go. After all, you see the startup milieu brandishing these machines at hackathons. Even Mark Zuckerberg has one.
Then I got a new phone and realized quickly Motorola had not updated its drivers for the latest OSX. I couldn’t connect my phone to the Macbook.
One would think a laptop as pricy as the MacBook would be as universal as Apple’s message – that design matters. Rather, we see the opposite. The MacBook comes to the user on its own terms. It does everything an average human being could ever want from a computer. It also forms a tight, and jealous family with all the other apple devices. Perhaps that is Apple’s greatest contribution to the world – its dogmatically insular attitude which frowns at the unpredictability and tumult of the outside world. “The world changes, and I shouldn’t”. This attitude also comes with a loss of freedom. But who’s complaining? (Except for me)
We are a culture obsessed with our freedom in what we consume. But this often leads us to existential anxiousness. The rise of Apple is an ironic development. The Apple product user doesn’t have to choose between hundreds of superior android phones – each with their advantages, drawbacks, and looks. The Apple user does not have to bother with the titanic diversity of the windows pc market. The Apple user is contented with the package that is Apple. Not having to choose is itself a type of freedom.
We should value freedom, as it is the greatest legacy of our current civilization. But it seems the monoculture has also come to value a different interpretation of freedom – one that Apple does so well at providing: the freedom from anxiousness surrounding the use of our ineffaceable machines.
There is a tranquility here at Valley Forge. I had come across a fork in the rode, and decided to take the path less travelled. It was a good decision. The sun flickered through the dense cover of trees and the rugged, rocky path – jagged rocks, exposed by centuries of soil degradation – ate away at my shoe soles. The silence of the trees was telling. A breeze blew once in a while, making me shiver as the sweat on my back evaporated with the wind.
These woods have a history. Centuries ago, in the chilly autumn of 1777, George Washington and his men had also trekked through here, heading north to make camp for the long haul that was the American Revolutionary war. Washington came here to keep his army safe from British raids. But he would encounter a new enemy.
That long winter took the lives of 2500 of his men, frozen, starved, diseased. Many of them are still buried here, their graves demarcated with small stones and a miniature American flag.
Some of these trees saw it all. I wish they would speak. I would listen.
Soon, I crossed a small bridge over a creek which time had dried, and came to a clearing teeming with dandelions. General Henry Knox’s encampment was only a walk away. He was one of Washington’s favorite generals.
It was there, in that clearing, that I saw it: a fallen tree, exposed at the roots, a sight both majestic, and out of place. The dandelion clearing was severed across the middle by the body of that fallen tree. The path led me behind, to the exposed roots. The scene reminded me of a dead lion with its guts exposed. You are saddened by the scene and fear the lion no more. You reflect on the parts that made the whole.
The mold of congealed soil, dirt and vegetation that made up the entrails of that fallen king of the forest overwhelmed the eyes with detail. Here, looking at that entangled web of dirt and root, of soil and grass, I knew the tree.
“We are usually amazed by the height of the tree.” my friend quipped, groping the ropy vines around the grave site. “But it’s really the roots. It’s really the soil.”
I imagined how it fell, this creature Knox perhaps stood awhile to admire, this creature a different type of people might have taken for their god. Over the centuries, the soil in these parts might have thinned due to erosion, eternally sloping towards Valley Creek. Maybe that was all it took for the roots to give in: an awkward, leaning, unsustainable stance. Branches groaning and roots snapping, it must have come crashing down to earth in that bitter divorce from the soil, warning its friends of the transient nature of existence.
The tree relied on the soil. The soil seemed insignificant to me.
Perhaps Washington also understood his success to be tied to a greater, more mundane force than himself.
The corpse remained silent, passing onto me the timeless lesson of living: little things matter. What was once great is no more and new life will grow out of its cadaver. We are all in a process of constant resurrection.
These articles serve as short summaries of the Radio Show In Our Time (IOT) with Melvyn Bragg. This week, we begin with the IOT: Top ten essentials list.
An ancient rhyme goes
“Lithe and Lysten, gentylmen,
that be of frebore blodel shall tell of a good yeman
His name was Robyn Hode
Robyn was a proude outlawe
Whyles he walked on grounde
So curteyse and outlawe as he was one was never none yfound.”
These lines are from William Langlan’s epic poem Piers Plowman, dated back to the 1370’s. They contain the first ever reference to Robin Hood, a ‘yemen’ (pronounced ‘e-yomen’) or a freeman according to the poem, and a ‘proude outlawe’ who has captured English imaginations for centuries. Robin Hood was allegedly a master swordsman, bandit, vigilante, and a hero. Oh, and also a master archer, wearing his conical Lincoln green. We now know him as the heroic outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor. But studying the old ballads present us with a different picture of the proud thief. In fact, none of the earliest ballads mention Robin Hood ‘robbing from the rich to give to the poor’. So how did the myth develop?
The many ballads of Robin Hood (RH) were one in a sea of folk tales on the lips of the English peasants, transferred orally through ale houses, taverns, and village festivals during the middle ages. RH’s ballads however, were unnaturally popular among the local people, so much so that in another classic ballad, a priest complains he does not know his prayers but has every song about Robin Hood memorized! The popularity of these ballads no doubt, troubled the established authority of the church. Unsurprisingly, the early Robin Hood was a fierce opponent to authority of every kind – particularly the church. The early stories were also a tad gruesome, and certainly not ‘kids’ material. For example, one particular early ballad has RH arrested by a monk and his men. Only a short while later, RH and his friend Friar Tuck kill the monk and his boy assistant, buries them on the side of the road, and then goes on their way. There seems to be no indication of regret or horror in the text, but rather codonment, as if RH killing a holy man was justified in this case and we shouldn’t bat our eyelashes at all. Another story has RH engaged in a fierce battle in which he decapitates his opponent, and then carries around the head in his hood. The early RH it would seem, was a strong figure of masculinity, a fighter of local corruption (he didn’t care much about the King, but would deal with local corrupt officials in a gruesome manner), and a no-do-gooder. He is portrayed as a rabble rouser and an entertainer, and would hold great comedic events in the countryside or in the forests of Sherwood where entire villages would gather together to have a good time (these events were supposedly held on Sunday). He is the first green man, or a man of the forest, drawn by the boundaries of civil society, and the limits of freedom. In a sense, his ballads were a reflection of the wishes of the populace.
But as times changed, so did Robin Hood. The modern RH begins in the 17th century, with Anthony Munday’s ‘The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntingdon’, an Elizabethan play that reinterprets almost every quality of the then popular Robin Hood and turns him into an aristocrat. And rightly so, since this play was aimed at the posh, Victorian upper class. Even the rich needed their myths. In The Downfall, RH, is not so anarchic. He is an upholder of ‘good’ authority by being on the King’s side. He is less masculine, and more of the do gooder. Ironically however, Munday’s RH meets a bitter end in the forest. The forest is a foreign place for RH and he is not a man of the world and of the trees like the earlier conceptions. This is an example of Victorian royalty adopting popular myths for their own usage. In this conception, Robin Hood becomes the gentleman, whereas the previous RH was just a bandit killer.
RH is not a unique English myth. It is one among thousands of ballads about heroic bandits and outlaws. So why has it persisted? The credit for this goes to the great Romantic writers of Scotland, most notably Sir Walter Scott. Scott repackages Robin Hood as a cool, collected man of skill and honor in his celebrated Ivanhoe. It is in Ivanhoe we get the first mention of Robin Hood splitting an enemies arrow right down the middle like a badass. Scott’s writing catered to the English lust for a Romantic history, and additionally to a wider audience worldwide. He is the first to create the Robin Hood we know of today: utterly masculine, romantic, heroic, pensive, and vigilant. He is both the killer and the gentleman.
But what of historical accuracy? Is there one Robin Hood in history? This question would seem irrelevant to the early ballad singers, because to them, RH existed in their voices, and in the effects their songs had on other people. The concept of ‘historicity’ is a modern invention and for the people of the past, the myth was both perfectly true and perfectly false. It would evolve into whatsoever was required in its time. This is how stories and legends retain their relevance, by speaking to the wishes of their readers and listeners. This is certainly what the legend of Robin Hood has done and continues to do (see Hollywood).