It’s Always Gritty in Philadelphia
C’est quoi Gritty?” (What the heck’s a Gritty?) asked a reader of Le Monde in November 2020. “[Un] icône de l’extrême gauche américaine” (an icon of the American Far Left / of extreme American bad taste), replied the French paper. In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, the fuzzy, wild-eyed orange mascot of the Philadelphia Flyers had taken over leftist memes on Twitter and other online spaces. There, he operated guillotines, seized the means of production, awakened chaos gods, and smashed fascists. All this was quite the publicity coup for the hockey team, albeit a politically polarizing one. Gritty was everywhere; he had always been there, maybe, an odd mascot waiting for the right moment for viral internet glory.
Not so. Gritty premiered in September 2018, emerging, marketing materials claimed, from his secret lair after the noise from construction at the Flyers’ arena disturbed him and “forced him to show his face publicly for the first time.” For most of this century, the Flyers were one of only two National Hockey League teams to want for a mascot. They had not had one since “Slapshot” was hastily created and just as quickly abandoned in the 1970s.
If Gritty feels more than four years old to you—he certainly does to me—he is, in a way. Monsters who appear suddenly after having been disturbed by revelry and noise are hardly new, particularly if they come with a two-syllable name starting with gr.
Then a powerful demon, a prowler in the dark
Nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
To hear the din of the loud banquet
Everyday in the hall, the harp being struck
And the clear song of a skilled poet . . .
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
Haunting the marches, marauding round the heath.
It’s not exactly a revelation that we like to tell ourselves stories with the same shape again and again—though those familiar with hockey fans might raise an eyebrow at Beowulf characters suddenly appearing in their midst. But there is an interface between the fictions we tell ourselves and the realities in which we live. In fact, I’m often unsure that there’s much separation, or at the very least a strong one, between the two.
“Nothing,” it has been said, “dates harder and faster and more strangely than the future.” The possible futures we imagine are strongly tied to the point in time at which we imagined them. Science fiction is not just about the future, but an expression of the concerns of the present. And history, of course, is a concern of the present. Does the shape of the histories we tell limit the worlds we are able to imagine? It certainly seems so, as Carl Abbott and Diego Javier Luis discuss in these pages. Speculative fiction has become more brutal and less hopeful in the last half century, spawning the neologism grimdark. Mirroring the eschatological mood of the 21st century, in these stories there are no clear heroes, there is no true moral high ground, and there is no end in sight.
But if this is the case, does it therefore follow that the inverse is true? Do the worlds that we can imagine determine the shape of the histories we might tell? After all, well-written histories are story shaped: they begin at the beginning, and go on till they come to the end, and then stop. They understand and respond to audience expectations. Fiction determines our experience of reality, and as this issue shows, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful what we pretend to be.”
Leland Renato Grigoli is editor of Perspectives on History. He tweets @mapper_mundi.
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