Friday, July 10, 2009

The Arrow of Avalon

They say that in an hour of great need, King Arthur will return from blessed Avalon to save Britain and its people. Messiahs run deep in human belief, back to deepest antiquity, because there really is something primal about the desire for a grand, glorious, elevated leader to show us the light and save us from ourselves. It is the bedrock of myths and religions around the world, repeated again and again in the interest of building a bright future.

Mythologies can unify nations just as much as any great leader or historic charter. J.R.R. Tolkien created a mythology out of whole cloth in The Lord of the Rings, and as Google comes up with 4,080 hits as of this writing for "English-Quenya dictionary," it can hardly be argued that he missed the mark. I've seen it mentioned in a few places - though I can't find corroborating links at the moment, so take this with a grain of salt if you'd prefer - that one of Tolkien's goals was to create a uniquely British mythology through his literature.

Canada is a young country, and has a very limited national mythology - Mounties, lumberjacks, voyageurs, blackflies and log drivers are pretty much all we've got. It may be that this is a significant factor in the ongoing "Canadian identity" debate, and I see it as a definite relic of our colonial past. For the longest time Canada didn't need any identity of its own; hell, Canadian citizenship didn't even exist until 1947. It's only very recently in our history that the United Kingdom's coattails stopped being good enough.

It's possible for myths to be made. Every day there's a chance for a new messiah to be born. There's nothing in the rules that says a messiah has to be a person, though.

The Avro Canada CF-105 Arrow is one of those enduring what-ifs in modern Canadian history, a perfect component of what Michael Moore's Canadian Bacon called our "serious inferiority complex." A product of the 1950s need to do the Soviets one better, it was to have been one of the finest interceptors in the air and break records that the best aircraft today would struggle to meet. The prototypes flew, the project weathered governmental caprice, and it was poised to enter service and history - only for the program to be cancelled in 1959. It wasn't just cancelled, though, but practically annihilated. Today, the severed nose section of the last Arrow stands in the Canada Aviation Museum, and aside from a few fragments, it represents the only known remains of the five aircraft that were built.

Yet, for fifty years now there's been a whispered legend going around, once championed by the late June Callwood, that "one got away." The 1996 CBC docudrama The Arrow embraced the legend wholeheartedly, and ended with the last Arrow taking to the skies for an unknown destination. There it would sit, in secrecy and silence, perhaps until it was needed again...

It wasn't until more than ten years later that it struck me how similar this concept was to the myth of King Arthur. Instead of a person asleep on blessed Avalon or under Glastonbury Tor, we have the Last Arrow in a lonely hangar or hidden away in a farmer's barn. A triumph of science, technology and engineering, hidden from the small minds that would tear it down until it could one day return to the world and inspire a new generation to look toward the future.

Sounds like a hell of a national myth to me. Might make a good story. Hmm...

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