the Avram Davidson electronic newsletter

Vol. II No. 1
8 May 1997
ISSN 1089-764X

Henry Wessells, Editor.
Cooper Wessells, Honorary Secretary.

Published bimonthly.
Contents copyright 1997 The Nutmeg Point District Mail and assigned to individual contributors. All rights reserved.

P.O. Box 43072
Upper Montclair, NJ 07043-0072


Use the electronic address for requests to be added to or dropped from the mailing list.

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The NEW URL of the Avram Davidson Website is:
Please update browsers and links accordingly, and tell all your friends.
The compiler 'umbly 'opes to have some dramatic new features and material available this summer.

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VERGIL AND THE WOMEN, or, 19th-century Scholarship through a Kaleidoscope

Vergil in the Middle Ages by Domenico Comparetti.
Translated by E.F.M. Benecke.
With a new introduction by Jan M. Ziolkowski.
Princeton University Press
41 William Street, Princeton, NJ 08540

A hundred years after its first publication in English, Comparetti's Vergil in the Middle Ages remains an acknowledged masterpiece of philological and literary scholarship. It is an unparalleled repository of material about Vergil, his poetry, and also about nineteenth century attitudes toward the classical and mediaeval periods. The introduction by Ziolkowski looks at the place of this book and its author in the intellectual history of the late nineteenth century. Comparetti (1835-1927) also shared in the patriotic sentiments that culminated in the formation of a unified Italy; certain anticlerical and "antiteutonic" propensities accompanied his pro-Italian fervor. In 1853, Comparetti wrote: "To the foreigners who visit the monuments of Italy, an epigram. These monuments admired by you still show you the Latin might [virtu latina], but the deep ruins which cover them show you of whom you are the descendants." Ziolkowski comments that, "The understandable political suspicions of Italians toward the Austro-Hungarian empire were imposed retrospectively upon the Middle Ages. . . ."

This phenomenon will not surprise readers of the District Mail or of the works of Avram Davidson. Consider this, from the Author's Note to The Phoenix and the Mirror:

"From the Dark Ages to the Renascence the popular view of the ancient world as reflected in the Vergilean Legends was far from the historical and actual one in more than the acceptance of legend and magic and myth. It is a world of never-never, and yet it is a world true to its own curious lights -- a backward projection of medievalism, an awed and confused transmogrification of quasi-forgotten ancient science, a world which slumbered much -- but whose dreams were far from dull."
The reissue of Comparetti's work on the magician Vergil prompts me to read through Vergil in the Middle Ages in light of Avram's novels. Scandalous, and post-modern, perhaps, but such a process shows how completely Avram transmuted the heterogenous record on magician Vergil into his own unified vision of Vergil Magus. This is not, however, an analysis of Avram's sources for the Vergil Magus cycle. It is, instead, something of a portmanteau book review and essay, a reading of the overlaps and divergences between Avram's work and Comparetti's mediaeval lore of Vergil the necromancer, magical adept, and protector of Naples.

Your reviewer confesses openly that he lacks sufficient training in classical studies to do justice to the book's first part, "The Vergil of Literary Tradition," which traces the evolution of the idea of Vergil from the Empire to the Divina Commedia. I will however quote from one section of the first part, an examination of the Vergil of the Dolopathos, a 13th century literary romance modelled on the ancient tale of the Seven Sages (originally of Indian origin). In this version, which Comparetti notes is different from all other European forms of the story, Vergil plays an essential role: "In the Western versions the education of the prince is generally entrusted, not to one of the Sages, but to all seven; in the Eastern versions (in those at any rate yet known, which all go back to an ancient Arabic text, now lost, called the Book of Sindibad) he is delivered over to Sindibad, as the wisest man in the kingdom. It would appear therefore that the Hauteseille monk had before him a text, or more probably, had heard a version, which kept to the Eastern form of the tale, and so, while retaining the idea of the prince's single tutor, . . . substituted Vergil for the Sindibad of the original In doing this he was guided by his monastic education; and his knowledge of Vergil is not merely popular, as was the case with the other authors of romances, but he gives evidence of a first-hand acquaintance with his poems. . ." (This is a little more than a mere curiosity when one recalls that Avram wrote an Adventure in Unhistory entitled "Where did Sindbad Sail?")

The second part of Comparetti's book, "The Vergil of Popular Legend," deals with topics rather more familiar to readers of The Phoenix and the Mirror and Vergil in Averno. That is to say, Vergil the protector of Naples (or Rome, take your pick), intimate of the Sibyls, who kept a talking head, and kept flies away from the city of Naples with a magic bronze fly,so on and so forth. Comparetti discusses the textual evidence for the rise of these legends about Vergil, and recounts many of the fantastic deeds attributed to Vergil. Performing an alchemy as prodigious as the manufacture of the speculum major from scarce virgin ores of tin and copper, Avram distilled something genuinely new from what Comparetti calls "puerile stories" of Vergil the magician.

One of the more interesting chapters of this book looks at tales connecting Vergil with various women (the daughters of the Emperor of Rome and the Sultan of Babylon, inter alia). Comparetti opens his discussion with a blast against the way women were treated by the medieval Christian church and Chivalry alike. "In spite therefore of certain ideals of chastity presented by the Christian hagiographies, in spite of the incense burnt at the altar of Woman in romances, at tourneys and in the Courts of Love, there was never a time in the world's history in which women were more grossly insulted, more shamefully reviled, or more basely defamed than they were in the middle ages, by men of every class, beginning with the most serious writers of theology and going down to the mountebanks of the street-plays. The number of anecdotes, trivial or obscene, that drag women in the dirt is simply infinite. . . ." (Recollect that this book was first published in Italy in 1872.)

Comparetti transmits many of these stories. In the case of the daughter of the Emperor of Rome, who spurned his love and made a buffoon of him, Vergil exacted his revenge by extinguishing all the fires in Rome (Vergil Magus says, "Student of the secrets of fire, you see that I have studied the secrets of fire as well as you. But I studied them in Sidon and not in Tyre.").

Comparetti writes, ". . . the Emperor's daughter is brought into the public square, the Romans get fire from her in a way better left undescribed, and Vergil is avenged."

When the Sultan of Babylon attempts to burn him alive for daring to seek his daughter's hand, Vergil turns the fires into a river and flies away in the sky (but then finds a Spanish nobleman to marry the Sultan's daughter). Another story tells of a marble head into the mouth of which women whose chastity was called into question placed their hand when swearing their innocence (the mouth closed upon the hand in the case of a lie). Comparetti traces this to its Indian origins and notes cognates in Mongolian texts and in versions of Tristan & Isolde.

"As always, when he began, had begun, to be attracted by a particular woman, the air seemed full of little flecks of gold; so, even here, in the thick, hazy, stinking air of Averno."
Consider the various women who attract Vergil's attention in Avram's Vergil Magus cycle: Vergil's relations with these women have more in common with Jack Limekiller's love-life than with tales of courtly love: in place of the mediaeval misogyny of the Vergil Legends, Avram has himself projected backward a view of relations between men and women that owes more to the late twentieth century than to the thirteenth century or to classical antiquity.

Readers of Avram's Vergil will find much of interest in Comparetti's Vergil. Comparetti follows the legends (which, like Avram's Vergil Magus cycle, do include accounts of Vergil's death) beyond the mediaeval writings to folkloristic survivals connected with various southern Italian landmarks. One can easily imagine an exchange of letters between the Italian Comparetti, who wrote a monograph on the tales of Sindibad, and that other nineteenth century student of the unusual, Eszterhazy of Bella, capitol city of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania.

Henry Wessells

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"Room For One More" appeared in the final combined issue of Whispers and Weirdbook. It is a chilling tale from inside the bowels of the veterans hospital system. Far darker even than "Leg," it is a notable addition to Avram's many stories on retirement and the fate of senior citizens (others include "A Quiet Room with A View" and "Mr. Folsom Feels Fine.").

Grania Davis sends several publishing news items :
A Russian language edition of  Marco Polo and the Sleeping Beauty, by Avram Davidson and Grania Davis has been published by Azbooka Publishers in St. Petersburg, Russia. The translation is by Dmitri Starkov. The first print run of this edition was 30,000 copies. Russian litterateur and agent for the estate Serge Barros negotiated the transaction.

"Vergil and the Dukos" will be published in the November issue of Asimov's Science Fiction. (Editor's note: This Vergil Magus story was originally entitled "Hic Inclusus Vitam Perdit, or The Imitations of the King.")

"The Cobblestones of Saratoga Street" has been reprinted in the anthology Death in Dixie, Eds. Mosiman and Greenberg (Rutledge Hill Press).

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continued from Vol.I, No.6

David Langford, writing from England, sheds new light on aspects of "The Stone That the Builders Rejected," and provides chapter & verse for the quotation Avram alluded to in the title:

Gosh, one I can answer at last! It's from Luke 20:17 in the King James Bible.
Furthermore ... this practice [of ritual murder during construction] goes (or has been said to go) back a long way. I have seen it suggested that the jingle "London Bridge is falling down" alludes to it. After various suggestions for saving the bridge ("Build it up with bars of iron"), all rejected as flawed ("Bars of iron will bend and break") there comes "Set a man to watch all night" -- which in its literal sense is obviously of no practical use, but perhaps if he were built into the foundations as a sacrifice....
Barry Hughart uses the trope in Bridge of Birds -- a sentinel entombed in a wall -- and most of Hughart's old Chinese fragments are traceable to actual legend.
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WHERE? WHICH? A short quiz (published works only)

The prize is one grumpkin (redeemable in the New York, New Jersey, or Philadelphia area in vino or in coffee).

What did "The Man Who Saw the Elephant" see?

Extra credit given for answers in essay form.

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ANSWERS TO WHERE? WHICH? from the sixth issue

Stories with religious concerns and themes:

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The editor reminds readers that letters, anecdotes, contributions and fulminations are welcomed.

Payment will, of course, be negotiated in the form of grumpkins.

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The Nutmeg Point District Mail is an electronic newsletter sent free to all who request it.

There have recently been a number of requests for paper copies of the newsletter, and with the start of volume II, these requests will be accommodated.
To receive a paper copy of volume II (six issues) by first class mail, send a cheque for $21 payable to Henry Wessells, P.O. Box 43072, Upper Montclair, New Jersey 07043-0072. Subscribers will also receive a complete set of volume I on paper.

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Next issue will appear at the end of July 1997.

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