On Lore

As used today the word lore suggests esoteric knowledge without practical application, probably of the sort belonging to seasoned Dungeons and Dragons players. Certainly there is a hint of the smoky mead hall about our old Anglo-Saxon terms. But in fact lore is related to the word learn, and “learning” (taken as a noun) seems to be its original and rather straightforward meaning.

There are many lores. There is a lore, for example, of gardening, a lore of birdwatching, a lore of pottery making. There are lores of cooking, of car repair, of marketing, of Lutheranism, of doctoring, and of guppy breeding. Any particular activity or occupation may have its own lore. And then there are the broader lores of cultures. There are lores that belong to being a Frenchman, a Malay, a Zulu. I wonder if there isn’t a lore of our individual personhoods too, an inward pool of knowledge belonging to each of us which is irrevocably fenced off to others.

Lore may serve supremely useful ends. I’m reminded of a story my grandfather told about the early years of the Great Depression, when he was twelve or thirteen. Following the death of his mother, his grandmother came to take charge of the household. There was an excess of homemade butter threatening to spoil which she determined to make into soap. With no money for lye to convert the butter to soap, she made lye herself from wood ash. Again, having a mountain of cucumbers but no vinegar to pickle them with, she made her own vinegar from wild clover blossoms gathered at the roadsides. These feats seem almost magical to me even as an adult, though for all I know their secrets live still in the lore of the Midwestern countryside.

At its less practical end lore blends into ephemera. When I was a boy my parents would invite friends over to dinner and after the meal sit around the table playing Trivial Pursuit. Following the progress of the game, I felt like a child in a hallway overhearing the recitations of a catechism class. It impressed me when my parents correctly answered questions I thought impossible. I understood there was no cash value to this sort of knowledge, but it gave me a glimpse of them as something more than father and mother, as possessors of a generational lore of adulthood which was still mysterious to me.

Trivia is another interesting word the sense of which is not, perhaps, unrelated to lore. It is Latin, of course, and literally describes a place where three (tri) roads (via) meet. At the crossroads of the ancient world, travelers from different cities and villages might stop awhile for refreshment, to unburden themselves of talk, and to hear news and descriptions of distant places. Bits of lore collected in this way may prove merely trivial, but owning such knowledge may also make you feel yourself a citizen of something larger than your own little hearth, a member of the wide world.

Temporarily living with my in-laws, my kids and I have taken to watching Jeopardy on television. This is a welcome distraction from the fact that grandma is suffering through late-stage cancer. I wonder if I impress my children with my own trove of useless knowledge, like my parents once impressed me. But it’s the role of the show’s long-serving host, Alex Trebek, that fascinates us: how the contestants present themselves before him like souls for judgment; how Trebek stands apart like a Plutonic loremaster to test them and enforce the rituals of examination (“Make your response in the form of a question, please”). Doom is writ in his slightest grimace or drop of tone, and you’re well advised to be careful what you wager.

Ancient religions and myths of the afterlife often involve a scene of judgment like that faced by Jeopardy contestants. Atheists of course are spared anticipation of the dread interview, but most of us down the ages have expected, when face to face with the Cosmic Trebek, to be asked very specific questions requiring very specific answers. Confounding these expectations, when Jesus describes the judgment of souls there is no quiz at all. Instead he suggests that we are judged based on whether we have shown love to those who were put in the way of our love. This is ignored by most Christians today who seem to prefer the idea of a Bible quiz – perhaps because loving others is so much harder.

Whether or not our lore will serve us in the afterlife, we nonetheless look to it here below to obtain for us a measure of belonging. Of course there’s more to fitting in with a desired social group than mastery of its lore, as the recent news story about former NAACP chapter head Rachel Dolezal demonstrates. Insufficiency of lore, however, may quickly reveal imposture. In Woody Allen’s Zelig the title character – nicknamed “The Human Chameleon” for his ability to blend in with Jazz musicians, doctors, rabbis, etc. – is destroyed by his fear of being unmasked among the literati should it finally become obvious that he never read Moby Dick.

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