Real or Fictional?

by Kevin Jon Heller

When I was in grad school, my friends and I loved to play the “alive or dead” game, in which one of us would name an intellectual and the others would then try to guess whether that person was alive or dead. My ace in the hole was always Claude Levi-Strauss, the great structuralist French philosopher. My friends always guessed dead, but he was still alive — and still is alive, on the verge of turning 100.

Now UK students have unwittingly invented a new game: real or fictional. Unfortunately, the students aren’t very good at it:

A fifth of British teenagers believe Sir Winston Churchill was a fictional character, while many think Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur and Eleanor Rigby were real, a survey shows.

The canvass of 3,000 under-twenties uncovered an extraordinary paucity of basic historical knowledge that older generations take for granted.

A fifth of teens surveyed thought Sir Winston Churchill to be fictional

Despite his celebrated military reputation, 47 per cent of respondents dismissed the 12th-century crusading English king Richard the Lionheart as fictional.

More than a quarter (27 per cent) thought Florence Nightingale, the pioneering nurse who coaxed injured soldiers back to health in the Crimean War, was a mythical figure.

In contrast, a series of fictitious characters that have featured in British films and literature over the past few centuries were awarded real-life status.

King Arthur is the mythical figure most commonly mistaken for fact – almost two thirds of teens (65 per cent) believe that he existed and led a round table of knights at Camelot.

Sherlock Holmes, the detective, was so convincingly brought to life in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels, their film versions and television series, that 58 per cent of respondents believe that the sleuth really lived at 221B Baker Street.

Fifty-one per cent of respondents believed that Robin Hood lived in Sherwood Forest, robbing the rich to give to the poor, while 47 per cent believed Eleanor Rigby was a real person rather than a creation of The Beatles.

Sad results indeed — although the world would certainly be a far more interesting place if the students were right!

2 Responses

  1. Maybe two of those stats are related: students believing Robin Hood to be fictional may well be inclined to lump in King Richard I with the fictitious prince of thieves. It can be tricky if fiction takes in real history. Also, giving a king a catchy name like Lionheart, rather than a numeral, may not help.

    Not that that’s much of an excuse…

    Winston Churchill a work of fiction? Who would have believed that?

  2. Sometime around the very early nineties a NYC radio station used to do a trivia contest, “Canadian? Or dead?” Not quite as bad as the Churchill ignorance, but bad in its own, frightening way…

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