Drakon Inspiration: The Ossian Hoax

“What do you say to that, Tarasov? The dragons have a language—they even write poetry, whether or not it’s any good.”

“Are you sure it isn’t a hoax? A kind of … scholarly prank, devised by bored young men who know too much Greek and too little of the world?”

In these inspiration posts, I want to talk about events from history or cultural artifacts that inspired a few lines of Drakon. Hardly any spoilers here; only a little background.

Only a few days before I started writing Drakon, one of my professors introduced me to the greatest literary hoax of the eighteenth century: James Macpherson’s Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse LanguageThese fragments were the precursor to Macpherson’s much better-known anthology The Works of Ossian, which was what got him into real trouble.

As Macpherson told it, he happened to acquire some verses of ancient Gaelic1 poetry in the Highlands. Although these poems occasioned some polite interest, very few Scottish people understood the language well enough to comprehend them, and even fewer of a literary bent knew enough to attempt a translation. Macpherson, though, had been waiting for a chance to try his own hand. The “spirit and force” of these works kindled a poetic fire in him, and he dashed off a translation and shared it with a few Scottish literary contacts. Soon, all of Edinburgh was abuzz with the news: the poetry of their ancestors still lived. There was a man who could tell them the stories they’d forgotten.

Their astonishment and adulation convinced Macpherson that his translations would find a market. Buoyed by the promise of an eager reading public, he worked tirelessly to track down other fragments that had withstood the centuries and to render them in English. At last, Macpherson compiled his first volume of translations: Fragments of Ancient Poetry. He would later refine it into The Works of Ossian, named for the blind bard who had originally recounted the tales.

This is a familiar story to anyone who is familiar with the antiquarians, anthropologists, and archivists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Macpherson’s project was ostensibly the same as that of many other collectors, including the celebrated Brothers Grimm, Francis James Child, and Elias Lönnrot (many of whom he inspired). He went among the people of the countryside, learning stories and songs so old that time had veiled their origins, and he returned to the city full of tales and mysteries. The intellectual luminaries of Scotland praised him to the skies for teaching them to say what they’d been trying for centuries to articulate: We are a people, because we have a story.

The only problem was, Macpherson was making it all up.

Even in his own day, skeptics called his story into question. Even Macpherson’s most ardent supporters wanted to see the ancient manuscripts; his detractors outright implied that they’d never existed. Macpherson clearly felt the pinch. His 1760 Fragments of Ancient Poetry began with a rather formulaic preface that situated these “genuine remains of ancient Scottish poetry” in “an aera of the most remote antiquity.” In 1761-2, though, when he published Fingal, he included a defensive advertisement claiming,

Some men of genius, whom he has the honour to number among his friends, advised him to publish proposals for printing by subscription the whole Originals, as a better way of satisfying the public concerning the authenticity of the poems, than depositing manuscript copies in any public library. This he did; but no subscribers appearing, he takes it for the judgment of the public that neither the one or the other is necessary.

(These “men of genius,” of course, hadn’t seen his “Originals,” either.) By the time Macpherson got around to publishing The Works of Ossian in 1765, he’d received enough hatemail that he started arming himself with “A Dissertation Concerning the Antiquity &c. of the Poems” and a dedication that implied the approbation of Lord Bute. For all the uncertainty surrounding its authenticity, the book was wildly popular, with multiple editions released within the span of a year.

One of Macpherson’s greatest doubters was Samuel Johnson, best known today for his dictionary.2 Johnson’s remarks on Ossian were often scathing; at his most charitable, Johnson wrote,

I believe [the poems of Ossian] never existed in any other form than that which we have seen. [Macpherson] has doubtless inserted names that circulate in popular stories, and may have translated some wandering ballads, if any can be found; and the names, and some of the images being recollected, make an inaccurate auditor imagine, by the help of Caledonian bigotry, that he has formerly heard the whole.

Outraged at the unceasing criticism and the demands for the originals, Macpherson wrote to Johnson demanding retractions. If he didn’t outright challenge Johnson to a duel, the language of his letters came close enough to a formal challenge that Johnson clearly felt the threat. His own writing suggests that he was more than willing to throw down, if it came to blows.

With Johnson and his fellow skeptics keeping the authenticity dispute in the public eye, Macpherson was forced to remain on the defensive. He tried to salvage his good name, eventually producing “the Originals” — or at least, poems in Scottish Gaelic — for inspection. The ruse eventually fell through when readers actually familiar with the language denounced them as ill-made back-translations of the English verses.

At the time of Macpherson’s death, many still believed in the authenticity of his Ossian. Macpherson had himself enshrined in Westminster Abbey, among the storied dead of England.

With the benefit of historical hindsight, it would be easy to dismiss Macpherson as a man striving after celebrity. But what makes his story interesting to me isn’t just the hoax or the controversy that followed; it’s also why so many people believed in Ossian the bard.

There’s the obvious answer: Scottish nationalism. I empathize with that powerful longing for a story that binds a people together — when I first read the Kalevala in translation, it felt like coming home, although I’ve never been to Finland and don’t speak enough Finnish to hold a conversation. The Kalevala was the story of my grandmother, though, and the story of her people before her, and it linked me to them like a shining silver thread.

But as Tolkien wrote of the Kalevala, the language also offers a thrill of the unfamiliar that one often mistakes for the ancient:3

 The almost indefinable sense of newness and strangeness … will either perturb you or delight you … trees will group differently on the horizon, the birds will make unfamiliar music; the inhabitants will talk a wild and at first unintelligible lingo. … This is how it was for me when I first read the Kalevala — that is, crossed the gulf between the Indo-European-speaking peoples of Europe into this smaller realm of those who cling in queer corners to the forgotten tongues and memories of an elder day.

For me, the versification of the Fragments is a big part of why so many believed, despite Macpherson’s almost comical refusal to produce the original verses. Initially, he claimed to have been reluctant to publish because the works of the ancients “would be very ill relished by the public as so very different from the strain of modern ideas, and of modern, connected, and polished poetry.” Even now, these fragments read something like a fever-dream:

I sit by the mossy fountain; on the 

top of the hill of winds. One tree is 

rustling above me. Dark waves roll 

over the heath. The lake is troubled 

below. The deer descend from the 

hill. No hunter at a distance is seen; 

no whistling cow-herd is nigh. It is 

mid-day: but all is silent. 

Compare this verse to a more typical work published in 1763 (George Keate’s The Alps, also about a landscape):

In this wild Scene of Nature’s true Sublime

What Prospects rise! Rocks above Rocks appear,

Mix with th’ incumbent Clouds, and laugh to scorn

All the proud Boasts of Art. In purest Snow

Some mantled, others their enormous Backs

Heave high with Forests crown’d; nor midst the View

Are wanting those who their insulting Heads

Uprear, barren and bleak, as in Contempt

Of vegetative Laws.

The simplicity of Macpherson’s language (like a literal translation, little embellished) and the clarity of his images stand out against the rigid iambic pentameter and soaring abstractions of Keate. This was before the rise of Wordsworth and poetry as imitating natural language; but for a few outliers like the rapturous Christopher “Kit” Smart, almost no one was writing poetry that sounded like Macpherson’s work. We may acknowledge the justice of Johnson’s quip that “many men, many women, and many children” in the modern era could have written such poetry, but the fact remained that many didn’t. For readers raised on the stately Classicist verse of the early eighteenth century, the novelty must have been thrilling. Here is the work of a mind alien to the Greeks and the Romans, some must have thought. Here is a poetry that makes trees group differently on the horizon, and birds sing unfamiliar songs.

When I was writing about the poetry of the dragons, this is what I wanted to convey: the sense of having stumbled upon something that felt at once ancient and viscerally new. Something that convinced one of its authenticity not through logic or evidence, but because it reframed the world like a lightning strike.

If you want to read more about the Ossian controversy, Thomas M. Curley has written a very pro-Johnson article that has some excellent primary source quotations. You should also read Ian Haywood’s book The Making of History: A Study of the Literary Forgeries of James Macpherson and Thomas Chatterton in Relation to Eighteenth-Century Ideas of History and Fiction.

1. Today, “Gaelic” is often used promiscuously to refer to any language in the Gaelic/Goidelic language family (Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx). Eighteenth-century British writers had similar issues with nomenclature; they often used “Erse” (Irish) to refer to the Scottish Gaelic vernacular of the Highlands.

2. Samuel Johnson’s own forays into poetic and dramatic literature, such as his play Irene: A Tragedy, have for the most part been forgotten. I don’t care for them much on their literary merits, but I respect their historical significance.

3. The Kalevala is a significant departure from the runot sung by the women of Karjala (Karelia). Although Elias Lönnrot did record parts of these poems faithfully, he reorganized them into his own heroic teleology and rewrote parts of them entirely to suit his narrative needs. While Lönnrot’s Kalevala  would indeed have been full of “memories of an elder day” to Tolkien, who was writing around a hundred years later, it is by no means an untouched record of the ancient songs of the Finnish east. Juha Pentikäinen has done some fascinating research on this topic, and his works are well worth a look.

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