When conducting anthropological surveys of the Southern United States, Zora Neale Hurston (peerless writer of the Harlem Renaissance and my favorite fashion icon) recorded the story of a figure in African American folklore called John the Conqueroo, or High John de Conquer. He was an avatar of sorts for the dreams of the enslaved Africans trapped on American soil. John could shape shift, and he eventually mounted on the back of a great crow called “Old Familiar” to return to his homeland after wooing the daughter of the devil. Ever the troublemaker for his captors, be they man or demon, John left behind a root that blooms a brilliant fuschia and grants powers to anyone who dares wield it.
That is the power of folklore, mythology, and Fantasy; when all else fails, when all we have left is the ground below our feet, the tales we craft imbue us with that same unstoppable self-determination. It’s through our heroes, our stories, that we’ve crafted our immortality.
The original tale of King Arthur and his knights was that of a Welsh pagan spirit, green like the wilds and powerful beyond measure. He acted as a barrier between the dangers of the natural world and his believers, fending off the onslaught of Romans, animals, and the unseelie haunting the edges of our reality. It is fitting, then, that Zora Neale Hurston likened the tale of John the Conqueroo to the legendary Arthur. She wrote:
“Like King Arthur of England he has served his people. And, like King Arthur of England, he is not dead.”
We took to etching ourselves into the world around us in an attempt to beat out the inevitable, which, by no small stretch of the imagination, was successful. The oldest cave paintings made by humans were found in Sulawesi, Indonesia, depicting giant boars and humans, telling the story of their cohabitation. There are handprints on the walls of caves around the globe, outlined in ochre beside pictographs of the lives, fears, and mythologies of our forebears. Each bit of the past has endured for millenia, down to the fairytales we share with our children.
The foundation of Fantasy, of the stories we craft, is survival. In bonding with nature, which will outlast us all, despite how we have changed it, we achieve a kind of immortality; when we are gone, the rock art and the roots remain. Our heroes are similarly meant to remain timelessly powerful, despite being a reflection of the woes that conjured them. This is why we return to Arthur, John, Batman, Wonder Woman, or Athena. They stand apart from our humanity, instead becoming forces of nature in their own right.
We leave our stories everywhere we go. Whether in the belly of a cave, in circles of carved stone, or on the page, humans have found ways to endure. They serve us like sentinels in their immortality, standing still where we will fade.