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March, 2008 : Feature:

Dragons, Mermaids, and Prester John

Avram Davidson's Adventure in Unhistory

I've wanted to read Avram Davidson's Adventures in Unhistory for some time, but it's one of those rare books in this day of the Internet that I could not get a copy of. Adventures was published in one small edition in 1993 and never reprinted. Copies of the original are as rare as the fabulous beasts Davidson discusses in the book and tend to sell for $500. Despite the absurd amount of money I spend on books, even I cannot drop that sum on one book, so I was pleased when Tor finally republished it a few months back.

Davidson was one of the more erudite and learned writers in SF and fantasy, publishing hundreds of short stories and several novels, perhaps best known for the Virgil Magus fantasy series. Despite his evident talent, Davidson's eccentric and learned fiction sold poorly, and he struggled to make a living as a freelance writer, eventually dying in poverty at a VA hospital. In recent years—thanks to Grania Davis, his ex-wife and literary executor, the Avram Davidson society (see The Avram Davidson Website), and his ardent fans—much of his work has been republished and rediscovered.

Unhistory contains an abundance of Davidson's esoteric and unusual learning, reading like a combination of Pliny the Elder and Borges. The book contains fifteen of what would normally be termed essays, although Davidson labels them "adventures." Montaigne coined the literary term "essay" (which means "trial" in French) because he described his writing as an attempt to test his responses to ideas and situations. Just as Montaigne "tries" to understand himself and his response to situations, Davidson "adventures" to trace the factual origin of fantastic legends: the book's subtitle is "Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends."

Davidson did not write the adventures for money. Considering the number of quotes and citations, as well as the complicated connections he discovers between ideas, the amount of research and time he put into them was immense. The topics covered include mermaids, giants, mandrakes, the phoenix, Prester John, Sinbad, and werewolves. Davidson cites dozens of authors, obscure and otherwise, such as Willy Ley, L. Sprague de Camp, Sir John Mandeville, Pliny the Elder, T.H. White, Borges, Charles Fort, Herodotus, and Sir Thomas Browne.

The essays cannot be summarized because Davidson organizes them not on the basis of an introduction, body and conclusion as we were taught in high school, but through the associations between ideas. He discusses literary anecdotes, legends and folklore, and then connects them around a central theme, demonstrating his vast knowledge of everything from paganism to magic to literature.

He describes his adventures coming together through magic and serendipity, the discovery of ideas via happy coincidence after a lifetime of extensive reading and notetaking. Over the course of the book, Davidson details his working habits. He refers repeatedly to his extensive files and notecards and complains that someone borrowed and never returned his annotated volume 4 of Grimm's Teutonic Mythology. It would be fascinating to look at the extensive files of notecards and the marginalia in the books he accumulated over the years. I once had a graduate professor say that when you have a shoebox full of notecards you're ready to write a book. I suppose now one would use a laptop, but the principle is the same.

Davidson says of his adventures:

[T]hese 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. (304)

Davidson's description of the connection of ideas for an adventure could describe the artistic process in general. I think it is important to recognize Davidson's adventures as works of literature, which are just as imaginative as fiction.

Adventures in Unhistory is a unique, deeply personal book despite the fact that it is a scholarly book of essays. Borges wrote a poem about learning Anglo-Saxon, which some readers objected to because a lyric poem should be about something deeply personal, such as falling in love. To Borges, the fanatical reader, studying Beowulf in the original language was as emotional as falling in love. Because of the importance of research and reading to Davidson, tracing the associations and sources for ancient legends is equally meaningful to him.

In "Bird Thou Wert, But Art No More," Davidson produces a fascinating essay about extinct birds. He knows quite a bit about extinct and nearly extinct birds such as the dodo, the Carolina Parakeet, the Bermuda Cahow, the flightless moa of New Zealand, and the giant bird of Madagascar, the aepyornis, which gave rise to legends of Sinbad and the Roc. He discusses the evolution of flightless birds, pointing out the danger of extinction to birds that become overspecialized—such as many island species—and to birds that lay their eggs on the ground rather than hiding them in a nest. He provides a fascinating and absorbing litany of facts leavened with humor. The adventure reminds me a bit of Howard Waldrop's dodo story, "The Ugly Chickens," as well as Willy Ley's science essays for Galaxy.

In his mermaid essay, he points out that mermaid legends may have derived from manatees.

I'm a little skeptical; I saw the Tom Hanks movie and the manatee doesn't look anything like Daryl Hannah. That's a face only a mother or another manatee could love. But I did find a picture on the Internet of a manatee kissing a diver. Who knows if a horny sailor at sea for six months got kissed by a manatee and then...well, the rest of it is too disturbing to imagine.

Davidson proceeds through his associative logic from mermaids to selkies (shapechangers who shift from humans to seals) to the sirens. He theorizes that seals are the factual foundations of the siren legend. Sirens are mermaids that sing and lure ships towards the shore until they crash against rocks. When they are on the shore, seals "sing"—or at least squawk. In the days before navigation charts, if a ship was close enough to hear the seals then the ship was too close to the rocks. Much like the siren legend, if a ship followed the seals' singing then it would crash into the rocks. Ultimately Davidson's conclusions—like the seal/siren connection—are fascinating and conjectural; most of the point is the thought process.

Davidson's factual conjectures rarely seem reductive, nor do they destroy the mystery of the legends. At no point do they read like an episode of Scooby Doo in which the supernatural creature is exposed! He proposes that some mermaids were feral people found near the water, and quotes a number of mermaid accounts in which the mermaids did not have the tail of a fish and they were simply mutes found near water. He connects the phoenix legend with people observing birds anting themselves. Werewolf legends may derive from rabid wolves and the effect the rabies has on people after they are bitten. In the dragon essay Davidson points out:

It [the Dragon] is more real to us than many an actual animal. Children can describe it. How many of us can describe a wombat? Certainly no one ever sat down and made up the dragon. The legend had an origin hadn't it? The fact is, that like most legends, it had more than one origin. And so, perhaps after all the dragon did exist...if not, indeed, just as the legend had it. (41-42)

He suggests a number of origins for dragons: lightning, meteorites, volcanoes, crocodiles, etc. The proliferation of ideas and different origins helps Davidson avoid reductiveness.

Davidson provides a fascinating account of the silk trade in Byzantium and China, which were more alien societies to us than many of the creations of science fiction writers. In Europe people have often found the bones of giants buried in the Earth, thus leading to legends of giant races of men. What were they? Wooly mammoths, of course. The skull of a wooly mammoth looks remarkably like a giant human skull.

Hyperborea is an ancient Greek legend of a golden warm land far to the north. Davidson wonders how this myth could have been created; after all, the Greeks understood that the further north you go the colder it is. Hyperborea means the land beyond the northern wind, so the Greek myth was that the northern wind created the cold, and if you could get beyond it you reached a warmer climate. Davidson's theory is that the myth is connected to amber, a valuable northern European trade good derived from tree sap. Insects and plants often lay embedded within amber. Davidson suspects that the Greeks saw animals and plants from tropical regions like scorpions, palm trees, etc. embedded in the amber and reasoned that the far north must be warmer. The Greeks did not know that the amber was fossilized, and the creatures suspended within it derive from millions of years in the past when the climate was warmer.

Davidson's book will appeal to anyone who enjoys his erudite novels and short stories as well as anyone fascinated by unusual facts and legends or the genre of the familiar essay. I fear it will not appeal to someone who wants a quick or simple read, or who is limited by a small vocabulary or mind. Davidson did not get his due when he was alive; the rediscovery of his work in recent years is welcome. Adventures radiates its author's fascination with the curious and unusual in literature and history and provides a unique chronicle of Davidson's life of reading and thought.

Copyright © 2008, Robert Bee. All Rights Reserved.

About Robert Bee

Robert Bee is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. For his dayjob he manages a library in Trenton. He has published over 30 short stories and a dozen book reviews in magazines, e-zines and anthologies such as Outer Darkness, Parchment Symbols, Letter Magazine, Blue Murder, Parageography, Alienskin, Glyph, Cabal Asylum, Welcome to Nod, Nocturnal Ooze, Dark Krypt, Kings of the Night.


Mar 19, 03:12 by IROSF
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