Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Impossible Journeys by Matthew Lyons

Source of book: I own this.

My brother is a Folio Society leech. He quits or threatens to quit so that they give him discounts and free stuff. A great side effect of this is that he gives me awesome gifts. This book is one of them. Another was Trafalgar, reviewed here.

It’s a bit difficult to explain exactly what this book is about. The journeys described are in some cases not precisely impossible, but are so changed that they would be unrecognizable to those who undertook them. In general, these are the stories of journeys, real and “embellished” that took place before the world was really known. Most are set in the times of Queen Elizabeth I of England and the two hundred or so years thereafter. The book opens with the real but somewhat embellished tale of Thomas Coryat, who walked through Europe and Asia, eventually making it as far as India. It closes with the decidedly realistic and tragic tale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s explorations of Guyana.

In between are tales such as AndreĆ©’s ill fated attempt to reach the North Pole in a balloon; Pegolotti’s trip to China and back via the land caravan route - most of the cities mentioned disappeared for the same reason towns dried up along the old Route 66; and purely fanciful descriptions of imaginary lands described by explorers willing to exaggerate to please their audiences.

Lyons tells these stories with a bit of a dryly humorous tone, but also quotes extensively from the original writings, which is also rather amusing. The original writers wanted to entertain, and used overwrought language that has an unintentionally comedic effect in the case of the exaggerations.

On the other hand, it is pretty amazing to see how many people were willing to just set off into the unknown, knowing the odds that they would return alive weren’t that great. And many of them didn’t.

The capacity to take risk and to just do crazy stuff is a testament either to the human spirit or to reckless insanity. Maybe both.

AndreĆ© put it this way: “There is in our days only one way of retaining a belief in ideal efforts, and that is by endeavoring to make them oneself.”

On the other hand, you can really see the attraction of exploring the unknown. As the author puts it in the introduction, this book is for “those who half-regret the slow, empirical death by discovery of a world in which almost anything was possible because no one really knew what lay over the horizon.”

Along the way, there were some interesting real and imaginary discoveries. I note that Coryat got a tattoo of a cross in the Holy Land in the 1610s, before the word “tattoo” entered the lexicon (after Cook’s voyage to Tahiti). So no, religiously significant ink isn’t exactly a new thing.

I also found it interesting that wherever explorers went, there were tales of the Amazons. That is, the female warrior race, where the men were relegated to the fringes of society - if they were even allowed to survive after mating. The legend dates at least from Greek mythology, but it reappeared everywhere, from the tales of central Asia to Greenland to North America to the tropics of South America where it gave the name to the second longest river in the world.

This was a fun book to read. The tales were pretty short, except for the extended Raleigh tale, so it goes fast. The book itself, like all Folio Society books, feels delightful in the hands. A testament to the visceral pleasure of a physical object.

I think of this picture of Sir Walter Raleigh whenever I get irritated at having to wear a suit and tie in hot weather.

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