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Eternal lines: telling the story of history

Lines of thought

How have the great events and leaders of the past been recorded? Long before the development of evidence-based history, this was done through story-telling. Stories that elaborate on myths, legends and folk memories accumulate down the years, connecting successive ages with their past, and influencing writers of the present. In the Western European tradition fables inherited from classical antiquity have been passed down the centuries to inspire countless reinventions and retellings. Themes and characters from Homer’s Odyssey, for example, surface again and again in literature, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Margaret Drabble’s novel The gates of ivory.

The plays of William Shakespeare, gathered here in the 'First Folio' of 1623, are a highwater mark of imaginative literature. Their fictional depiction of real people and real events, such as Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, can shape our understanding of historical events. Fantastical fictional writings such as Dante’s Divine comedy also draw on figures of the past for their protagonists, or use allusion to pass on subtle messages. Folk stories, whether written on ancient papyri or in a modern novel, weave their way through Cambridge University Library’s collections and through our collective imaginations.

John Wells, Senior Archivist and modern literary manuscripts specialist, discusses this theme in a specially commissioned film made amongst the books themselves in the Library’s secure bookstacks.