Reno Odlin's Letter on Adventures in Unhistory

Adventures in Unhistory: Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends.
by Avram Davidson. Philadelphia: Owlswick Press, 1993. xii + 307 pp. $24.75 US, cloth-bound.

Dear George Sanderson:

     I really had intended to write a straightforward Book Review of Avram's book. Long before the melancholy news of his death punctuated my day on May 8, 1993, however, it had become obvious that this was unfeasible, for reasons I shall touch on briefly below. But because I promised you something -- and, of course, because I want people to know the book is available, and worth seeking out -- I have bunched together, under the general pretext of a Letter to the Editor, such materials as I had assembled before the impropriety of a formal review had occurred to me. Perhaps that will serve.

     Japan's Cultural Properties Act -- I think that is its name, but there can be little doubt of its identity -- designates certain highly skilled practitioners of ancient and dying crafts Important Intangible Cultural Assets, or Living National Treasures; and assures them access to raw materials (or, as with the Minoru, performance) and guarantees them pupils, that their knowledges and skills may not go with them to the grave. Of course Japan is still in many respects the land of Toyotomi Hidéyoshi, where only the elite may arm and defend themselves.1 Of no nation in the world might a Piers Plowman have said with less colour of truth "There the poor dare plead": for not too long ago, as these things are measured -- let us say, in my grandfather's life-time -- it was still true that behaving in an unexpected manner was ground for a peasant's instant decapitation by any handy samurai. (Compare Latin insolentia, for which the same summary punishment might be inflicted by any member of the Equestrian Class).
     In Ireland, they tell me, the law (the Haughey Tax Exemption of 1969, to give it its official name) still exempts from taxation those whose main income is derived from the creation of Works of Cultural Merit.2 But with the example of Erskine Childers (Childers père, the author of The Riddle of the Sands) before us -- death by firing squad was his lot, for mere possession of a small, almost a toy, pistol which had been given him by Michael Collins himself -- who would entrust life and limb to an Irish Government?3
     Meanwhile, back in the Good Old You Ess of Aye, fifty years of service to the craft he professed -- with something of significance published during every one of those fifty years -- left Avram Davidson to cope with the Veterans' Administration Bureaucracy, and with the armoured bipeds which staff its Hospitals, for his very breath. There ain't no justice.
     (There are, I am reminded, various National Endowment Grants which ought by rights to have covered such exceptional cases. What a hope!)
     And now, of course, he is gone -- and if you consider the number of terminal illnesses against which he waged daily combat during these last four years, you may breathe with me for him a heartfelt Nunc dimittis.
     I believe I may be the first soul to have mentioned Davidson's name in the pages of The Antigonish Review. That was in a review of a collection of Saroyan pieces, a year or so ago. The short story 'The Slovo Stove' was cited, I recall, and the Adventure (included here) 'A Postscript on Prester John.' In securing the author's permission to quote at length from the second of these two masterpieces -- for such I take them to be -- I set out on what have become rather a number of prolonged and for the most part amicable correspondences.
     During the course of these I learned -- among many things less immediately pressing4 -- of cash-flow difficulties which were holding up publication of the present volume. It was my good fortune, and my civic duty (my personal reason was that I wanted to have a copy of the whole bloody book to read before I died), to contribute what little loose cash I could afford toward speeding publication. This got me mentioned on the copyright page, among the dedications.=I set all this down for no other reason than to enable the well-disposed reader (di star con l'altre tu non aj talento) to gauge the extent of my bias. So much for that.
     Here, in any case, the book is, after so long a-waiting. What sort of a book is it?
     Pound had an occasional calm moment, even in midmost of the maelstrom of the Thirties. In one such moment5, he drew up a list of "earlier guides to Kulchur or Culture," posing the names of Plato and Plutarch, Herodotus, Montaigne, Rabelais, "even Brantôme," maybe Pater and MacKail (the author of Latin Literature), possibly Lionel Johnson, Fontenelle, Landor, even Bayle and Voltaire, and concluding:

     They obviously do NOT exaggerate their own knowledge. They are unpretentious in that they do not ask you to suppose that they know it all, and yet from Montaigne or Rabelais you would, I believe, acquire curiosity by contagion, and in a more mellow form than from the 18th century collectors of heteroclite items laid out all of 'em from the same point of view, all dealt with by an identical process, whereas Montaigne and Rabelais are handling them with a more general curiosity. To any such list, I think we must now without serious question add the name of Avram Davidson.
     And yet he has other antecedents more humble than these, if often more enjoyable: possibly the Hawthorne of Twice-Told Tales and of Grandfather's Chair; very very certainly the Kipling of Just So Stories. From the chatty Kipling, indeed, (who would typically open a Story "Once, in the High and Far-Off Times, O Best Beloved...") he might have acquired the liberty to write his own overtly and joyously spoken prose. Or perhaps not. It doesn't greatly matter where it came from, its deployment allows him some outrageously funny effects:      ... here I am reminded of an Incident. Which took place in Greenwich Village during the very late 1950s or very early 1960s, when I went to call upon a friend, Wilma Case (not her real name), then recently married to a friend who is a well-known writer of science fiction under a pen-name. Wilma had not yet gotten used to life in picturesque Greenwich Village; in fact, she was still a bit nervous about it, so when I knocked at the door she did not open it, but asked cautiously, "Who is it?" Well, I must confess that the devil entered into me, and instead of saying something simple, as it might be, "The man from Abercrombie and Fitch, with the snowshoes"; instead, I said, "National Lycanthropy Week, help the poor werewolves. OW-wooo!" And the dog next door (did I know there was a dog next door? No. People don't tell me these things), the dog next door went OOO-woo-OO. And the dog upstairs went OW-wow-WOWW. And the dog across the way - but by this time poor Wilma was piling the furniture up against her door, and I had a lot of talking to do before I could persuade her to unpile it and let me in. (By that time, of course, I had resumed my human shape.)      This trait has been found displeasing by two separate reviewers in the February issue of Locus -- by Gary Wolfe, who finds that, "at its most trying, Adventures in Unhistory recreates the experience of being trapped in a corner of a con[vention] suite by a brilliant but unbalanced fan whose obsession with -- say, Paracelsus -- has ruined his social life" -- even thus did the Wedding Guest bemoan his buttonholing by the Ancyent Marinere! -- and by Carolyn Cushman, who complains "The essays are often difficult going, with their oft-interrupted train of thought, chatty asides and frequent name-dropping of ancient sources" -- although, in truth, how one could refer to an ancient source without "dropping" the name of that source is not revealed.
     (With Mr. Wolfe's further complaint that the somewhat recently fashionable names of Jung and Campbell (Joseph, not Roy!) are not dropped in the book, it is impossible to pretend any sympathy at all. Why not add Frazer as well, and be done with the whole trendy trinity? Davidson was concerned with the possible reality of the things discussed, not with their "mythic" or "archetypal" qualities, if any.)
     Of course distinctions must be made: Kipling, simulating a devout Lamarckian in his Just So Stories, tells us of How the Elephant Got His Trunk, or How the Camel Got His Hump, without ever expecting us to believe in the personnel or processes described in those Stories, except provisionally, by way of a temporary suspension of disbelief. Davidson has examined some real historical (or unhistorical if you like: hence the book's title) mysteries, not mysteries invented ad hoc; and come up with what, concededly, are provisional solutions, but solutions to be examined in the light of every-day reality for all that.
     We do not ask even that they be true: merely that they satisfy our criteria more stringently, or allay more of our reservations, than such explanations as we may have encountered before. Thus, when Mr. Geoffrey Ashe writes of The Discovery of King Arthur,6 we can accept for the time being his identification of Riotimus or Riothamus, a man called King of the Britons (by Jordanes) under the Byzantine Emperor Leo 1 (fl.457-474), the Roman Emperor Anthemius (467-472), and Pope Simplicius (468-483) -- and a known correspondent of Sidonius Apollinarius -- as the historical substratum or underlayment for Arthurian legend. This Riotimus -- a title not a name, a title meaning in its (presumably P-Keltic) original something like "High King" -- vanished from history after the retreat from Bourg-de-Déols (just north of Châteauroux) in 470, after a battle (with Euric's Visigoths) caused by the treason of the Imperial Prefect, or Emperor's Deputy, Arvandus (Modred? Why not?).7 The identification once provisionally accepted, we can sit back and watch with delight Mr. Ashe's dealings with refractory details, his correction of Geoffrey of Monmouth's chronology and so on. Such investigations justify themselves. They open the soul. Who cares if they be true?
     I suppose a brief run-down of the Contents of this book might help the undecided reader to determine if it is the sort of thing which would interest him. They include werewolves and dragons and mandrakes and unicorns and mermaids and Hyperborean amber and the gigantic birds encountered by Sindbad the Sailor and the funeral pyre of the Phoenix and quick-frozen mammoths and shrunken heads and a number of other things -- a fairly "popular" list you will agree.
     Nobody could handle all of this with equal felicity: but what if he should, in fact, have set alight, over any or several of these durable mysteries, the twin flares of science and intuition? I myself think that, in explaining the Phoenix legend by the "anting" behaviour of birds, he probably has answered that one; that his belief that Aleister Crowley was Yeats' "rough beast" -- given that the Second Coming was at once the poem's title and its subject -- would take a far deeper investigation into Yeats' theology than I am disposed to undertake in order to deny it; that the connection between rabies and popular tales of lycanthropes8 scarcely needs proving; that his essay on the extinctions of bird species -- emus and dodos and the liver-flavoured, polystercorous, crop-devouring Passenger Pigeon, and all -- is not an enquiry of the same kind as these others, not at all; that his query, had dragons (or dinosaurs) gizzard-stones? might rightly be answered with a resounding affirmative -- and that further speculations on the Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs might have led us to wonder if it was not rather gold nuggets from the gizzard which that imprudent bird disgorged, and thereby sealed its fate - but that his conclusions here are not very conclusive. More so is his summary later on: that "although the wombat is real and the dragon is not, nobody knows what a wombat looks like and everyone knows what a dragon looks like. Also, a unicorn." That is solid. That you can get your teeth into.
     One could very nearly conduct an entire book review out of his piece on Prester John. But do I have to explain to your readers who Prester John is, or was? Perhaps I should anyway. Very well. Prester John was given out as a great mystery-man and shadow ally of the West, a sort of Priest-King, ready to uphold and advance the banners of Christendom in partibus infidelium. This potentate sent a letter, it is said, in 1165, to the Emperor Manuel Comnenus, proposing this modest rôle for himself and professing a desire that his Church should be instructed by and reconciled with Rome;9 and Pope Alexander III is said to have sent him in turn a letter (several years later), advising that he be less boastful, and offering an instructor in the form of his personal physician and confidant Philip. And then, half a century after that, the sorties, raids and actual wholesale conquests achieved against the Muslemany by the Mongols of Genghiz Khan and his successors led, it is supposed, to the renewal of excited rumours in Europe about Prester John.
     The Eleventh Edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica -- the last wholly commendable edition of that quondam household staple, although some few isolated items, particularly in Egyptology, are better handled in the Twelfth Edition -- distinguishes two such legendary figures, a 12th century Asian and a 14th century African.10 Most references nowadays concentrate on the Asian, and mention the Mongol inroads on Islam, and pockets surviving throughout Hither Asia of Nestorian Christians as probable sources for various elements of the legend; but no writer, so far as I have learned, has sought very earnestly among such pockets for a possible contender. Davidson has done so:      Following the Mongol conquests the Nestorian Church maintained itself chiefly in the mountains of Kurdistan, an area now divided between Turkey, Iraq, and Iran; having vague affiliations with Christian congregations in South India and Ceylon ... both of them being places, as we have seen, connected with the legend of Prester John. From early in the 19th century Christian missionaries from the West worked among these people, who, in order to have a national as well as a religious identity, began to call themselves "Assyrians." One such missionary was an Episcopalian, an American, and after his return to the United States, became the minister or priest of St. John's Episcopal Church in Yonkers, New York. And it happens that this is my home town. I was born and raised there.
     Because of the presence of this friendly clergyman, and because Yonkers is so near to New York City, many Assyrian emigrants settled right there; almost I might say that I grew up amongst them; Yonkers now has the largest Assyrian community in the USA.[...] Some of them remained members of the Nestorian Church of the East, others were Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, or Presbyterians. Time and again, however, I was told, "My family belongs to the [whichever] church, but we regard Mar Shimon as our leader." Who was Mar Shimon? The words mean Lord Simon. [...] The Mar Shimon, then, was believed to be the legitimate successor to St. Peter, a claim also made, perhaps more effectively, by the Pope. I believe that the Mar Shimon of my day was the 22nd.[...]
     So, there in the mountains of Eastern Turkey, Northern Iraq, and Western Persia or Iran, dwelt from ancient times a Christian nation ruled by its own patriarch -- its own high priest, one might say. Is this not suggestive? [...]
     Thanks to Nestorian friends, I was able to read several books printed by them in English: and I realized that, there in the mountains of lower West Central Asia, down to the First World War, these Christian mountaineers lived almost independent of the Sultan of Turkey, under the local rule of hereditary chieftains, much like the Highlanders of Scotland prior to the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 18th century. These eastern chieftains, however, were not known as "lairds" (lords). They were known as malics.
     And malic means king ...
     There it was, not only in black and white and by word of mouth, but there were the photographs as well.
     I sum it up: in Asia, surrounded by non-Christians, lived a Christian people whose head was a priest, who ruled over Christian kings, and of whom we thus might say that he was -- unofficially -- an emperor. I submit my case that in the Patriarch Catholics of the Church of the East, in the Mar Shimon, we have the original of Prester John. [...]
     (I really dare not quote more from this intensely satisfactory Essay; but after all, it is not the function of a humble Reviewer, and still less that of a mere Letter-to-the-Editor writer, to scratch all the itches he may have awakened, but rather to indicate where the scratching-post is to be found. Is it not so?)
     There was a time, not too long ago, when the 14th century Prester John, the African bloke, was the one most important in the minds of those who thought at all on the subject. (The wresting, or restoration, in 1268, of the Ethiopian throne by the Christian "House of Solomon" from an intervening Falasha dynasty would have afforded a bonnie pretext for Europeans to look southward for a White Hope.) Certainly John Buchan in his time -- see Prester John, Houghton Mifflin 1910 seqq., a splendid bit of belated Rider-Haggard romance -- was looking at Africa and no other where, and mixing into his yarn the Great Necklace of the Venda11 and God knows what-all else. And he was nothing if not conventional, was Buchan, through and through.12
     Is the book chatty? Damned straight it is. In a sense, it is a portable substitute for a Fireside Chat13 with a great-uncle of genius. And that avuncular persona is admirably sustained: even the copious quotations are taken, most of them, not straight from the works cited, but from his own sometimes smudged notebook entries of those quotations. The footnotes (an art form to which only Gibbon's come to mind as remotely comparable)14 emerge as asides uttered sotto voce, so as not to distract from the main line of enquiry -- which has become side-tracked in any case, to such an extent often that only a new paragraph can cut through the confusion. In short, these are not only essays about their subjects, but re-enactments as well of the processes which led to the essays.
     We have seen the penny-a-liners complain of Davidson's "erudition," or learning. Pish and tush! What he had was an indefatigable curiosity: over an incredibly wide field of knowledge he asked wonderful questions. And to the last day of his life he never lost this curiosity. That is among the great lessons a human life can teach us, and it is here to be learned.
     He managed his extraordinarily wide-cast net with such flair, indeed, that in the end it became indistinguishable from that Indra's Net of which, in high good humour and with an abiding passion, he spoke on the very last page of his book:      [...] Although I had certainly heard of the phenomena of "feral children," it never had occurred to me that there might be a conceivable connection with the mermaid legend, until I "accidentally picked up" the Singh-Zingg book. I would be surprised... if this had not happened to me a thousand times.
          I tell you very sincerely, very simply and very humbly: these things are made by magic. The net which caught the siren mermaid does catch us all. It is Indra's Net, a net of almost infinite dimensions, and where any two cords of it come together, there come together a line of time and a line of space, until every moment in time and every point in space are connected.
          And each connection, it is said, shines and glitters like a jewel.
     Real sheets sewn into honest signatures! The whole cased in real cloth, with a discernible thread-count, Suitable To Be Read In The Schools! And this in 1993!
     Having said all which, I must add what is but too literally true: We Shall Not Look Upon His Like Again. I shall miss this abrasive, astringent, oddly touching personality more than I can say; and I am the more grateful for the portrait of his mind at play afforded by this, the last book we shall ever have from him living. But you are tir'd, and so am I.
                                              Farewel. 15

1.     See my review of Ezra Pound and Japan, TAR No.71-72, pp.150-I for Hidéyoshi's Edict initiating the Great Sword Hunt of 1588.=And what a delicious irony to hear Margaret Thatcher crying out Arms for the Bosnians! that they might defend their land and their families!=But wait: what special cachet have the Bosnians, in her view, that her own (disarmed) English have not? or the beleaguered Irish, indeed, whom she has characterized as Brutes and Beasts during the whole of her public life?
     For "unexpected manner," below, see Lafcadio Hearn, in Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation, 1904.

2.     Of course it is more complicated than that. Anne McCaffrey 'writes "... with one minor hiccup: those of us under 65 have to pay a % for social insurance. We argued vociferously about that 'tax' because that's what it is, and double taxation since we also still pay social security to the US of A."

3.     In that same grandfather's life-time (vide supra) a man was broken on the wheel for the sole crime of speaking Irish in his own land of Ireland.

4.     Among those "things less immediately pressing" was the discovery that the book's publisher George Scithers was a boyhood friend of the poet David Gordon and his brothers, back before Deucalion's Flood.=You cannot imagine how much this fact eased my efforts to stay informed concerning the book's slow progress toward publication.

5.     Guide to Kulchur, Faber & New Directions 1937, 2nd. edition n.d. (1953).

6.     Anchor Press: Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1985.

7.     Arvandus was recalled to Rome, impeached and banished -- rather a mild sentence, one might have supposed, for outright treason.=Although his letter never reached Euric, the publicity of his trial guaranteed that its message did.

8.     "In the 17th century, modern science, as it then was, prescribed the wearing of a wolfskin as a cure for rabies and epilepsy ... epilepsy, that dread scourge, has been largely held in check in so-called 'developed' countries, by the use of a drug called sodium dilantin, and by the further use of phenobarbital. Against rabies we have the Pasteur shots. Against lycanthropy ... well, I do not know what treatment modern science prescribes ... if any. Only a few years ago in England a 17-year-old boy, after watching a horror movie, called up a friend by phone at three in the morning and cried out in agony that he was turning into a wolf, that fur was growing and claws developing. Help could not come in time; he stabbed himself to death." Compare:

In those that are possess'd with't there ore-flowes
Such mellencholy humour, they imagine
Themselves to be transformed into Woolves,
Steale forth to Church-yards in the dead of night,
And dig dead bodies up: as two nights since
One met the Duke, 'bout midnight in a lane
Behind St. Markes Church, with the leg of a man
Upon his shoulder; and he howl'd fearfully:
Said he was a Woolffe: onely the difference
Was, a Woolffes skinne was hairy on the out-side,
His on the In-side: bad them take their swords,
Rip up his flesh, and trie ....
                                      The Dutchess of Malfy, Actus V Scena II
9.     Less unlikely than it might seem, this: because to the best of my recollection the Great Schism was not to open for another century, and the Eastern Church would still in 1165 have been nominally in communion with Rome. Besides, in Avram's account, the letter went out in triplicate, one to the Byzantine Emperor, one to the Emperor Frederick, and one to the Pope.

10.     It will do no harm to remember that during the centuries in question, the names Africa, Asia denoted a homogeneous smear around the edges of the map. I have in my possession a copy of Pliny's Natural History printed in 1510, in which, among many things now totally illegible, a contemporaneous hand-written marginalium informs us: "Smyrna est civitas Affricae."

11.     For which see Eugène N. Marais, Versamelde Werke / onder redaksie van Leon Rousseau, Pretoria, 1984, Vol.2, The Road to Waterberg, chapter 11, 'The Bavenda's Sacred Beads,' pp. 1255-60.
     I believe The Road to Waterberg was published as a separate book -- posthumously edited perhaps by Robert Ardrey, like the marvelous Soul of the Ape -- but I have never seen a copy.
     Of another piece collected in The Road to Waterberg, 'Notes on Some Effects of Extreme Drought in Waterberg,' Guy Davenport wrote me in 1962: "The one piece of Marais in English that I tracked down is absolutely amazing prose: study of falling water tables in Africa, but so beautifully written that it is a kind of prose Waste Land. Date: 1914 (in Annals of the Smithsonian)." This appeared first in the Agricultural Journal of the Union of South Africa, Vol. VII, "en is later ook, volgens Marais se mededeling, deur die Smithsonian Institution in die V.S.A. uitgegee." (Editor's notes in Versamelde Werke, op. cit.)

12.     Lord Tweedsmuir, after all! Governor-General of Canada! Stodge personified! or so one innocently supposes.

13.     In a sense far more wholesome than FDR's, where one perceives -- but decades, decades too late -- the politician too obviously and too contemptuously urinating over the hapless voter's lolly-pop, avant de le lui offrir.=It has been suggested that I eschew comment on other "statesmen" both here and in the USA....

14.     "Even the great Gibbon indulged in it; all those immensely impressive footnotes, Slawkenbergius, xxi, 13; Berzelius, xxx, 121; Isidore of Isphahan contra Manichaeus, vl. 3 -- you think Gibbon actually read them all? No ho ho. Gibbon lifted the refs. in toto from others. And when he presented vol.II of the great Decline and Fall to His Royal Highness William Duke of Gloucester whose Patronage of Learning, and all the rest of it, HRH exclaiming, 'Another demned thick square book? Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?' -- why, people sneered behind their lace jabots, called HRH 'Silly Billy.' Only maybe he wasn't so silly. Being younger brother to George III is not absolute proof of feeble-mindedness. Almost, though. Well, and how do I know all this? I read it. Somewhere. Forget just where. Couple of places. Nyaa."

15.     'A Letter, from Artemisa in the Town, To Cloe In the Country.' in POEMS, (&c.) On Several Occasions: with Valentinian; A Tragedy. Written By the Right Honourable JOHN Late Earl of ROCHESTER. London: Printed for Jacob Tonson, at the Judge's Head, near the Inner-Temple-Gate in Fleetstreet, 1696.

Originally published in The Antigonish Review, Number 93-94. Reprinted with permission.

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