Remembering Richard Hillary: the birth of a myth

Three months after Richard Hillary died, Arthur Koestler published an article about him entitled ‘The birth of a myth.”

The famous writer had known Hillary and corresponded with him. His musings sparked a theory that Hillary’s return to flying was prompted by a wish to commit suicide. This idea was further fueled by John Middleton Murray’s essay ‘Richard Hillary’.

Koestler didn’t overtly start that Hillary had intentionally killed himself. Instead, he related the fallen hero to his theories of myth. He had an image for the growth of myth. The public and artistic backgrounds- books, newspapers, the word on the street- were like molecules trying to find a coherent pattern; the individual was the core about which they crystallised.

He made much of Hillary’s distinction between his ‘instinct’, which told him that he would survive and his ‘reason’ which told him he must die. He suggested that Hillary was more or less a willing victim of the forces of myth. He came to no simple conclusion about Hillary’s reasons for flying, preferring to describe ‘a pattern composed of all the threads we have picked up, and followed for a short while and dropped again. For the pattern is more than the sum of the threads; it has its own symbolic design of which the threads know nothing.’ In other words, Hillary’s motives were mixed, but he was ultimately affected by the pressure of public expectation into making some kind of exemplary death(Faulks 213-215).

His essay ends rhetorically with an attempt to understand what fashioned Hillary’s life into a symbol: ‘a man’s longing for the Holy Grail may become so strong that he flies like a moth into the flame; and having burned his wings, crawls back into it again. ‘

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