My car’s a mini-bookmobile carrying a variety of books to match my potential moods. Under the front seat are classics “A Tale of Two Cities” and “The Jungle Books,” Joseph Campbell’s “Hero of a Thousand Faces,” some H.L. Mencken essays, a Robert Parker mystery and a Terry Pratchett satirical fantasy, “Brewer’s Dictionary of Fact and Fable,” and a few others, for I’m a man of many moods. They’re in the car when needed, so they are “travel” books, in that sense.
Travel books have been popular in libraries since Homer wrote “The Odyssey,” especially in Alaska, which seems to attract adventurous travelers. Back in 1188 CE, Gerald of Wales was a bestselling travel writer. An ambitious churchman who was clerk and chaplain for Henry II, Gerald accompanied Prince John (the bad one) to Ireland in 1185 and three years later published “The Topography of Ireland” which contained more history than geography, and some imaginative speculation.
Gerald considered the British Isles more suitable for habitation than warmer, more fertile lands in “the East” (i.e. southern Asia and Africa). He asked, “What wealth can Eastern lands boast that are comparable to the advantages of the Western climate? … In those countries all the elements … threaten wretched mortals with death, undermine health, and bring life to an end. Plant your naked foot on the earth, death is at hand. Incautiously seat yourself on a rock, death is at hand ... the safety of man is threatened and endangered by swift panthers of various kinds, by rhinoceroses allured by love of virgins, crocodiles fearful of their breath, lynx with piercing eyes … But when we come to the Western parts of the world, we find the soil more sterile, the air more salubrious, and the people less acute but more robust.”
Gerald knew how to sell books; his included anecdotes about hermits, demonic pet snakes, foolish charities, a tale of demonic infanticide, a brief discussion of incubi and succubi, and compared royal courts with Hell, but he wasn’t the first or last travel writer to misrepresent reality. In 944 CE, Al-Masudi, “the Herodotus of the Arabs” and “the imam of encyclopedism,” wrote extensively about dragons in his history of the world, “The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems.” Al-Masudi traveled throughout Persia and Egypt and as far as Georgia, India and the Caspian Sea, and he wrote 36 works, all except for “Meadows of Gold” now lost, including the alluring “The Secret of Life.”
Al-Masudi sailed the Mediterranean, Red and Caspian seas and the Indian Ocean, and wrote that dragons “are most frequent near the Atlantic … Some believe it is a black wind in the bottom of the sea , which rises into the air … It has the shape of a black, shining serpent.” According to HistoryofIslam.com, “Al-Masudi’s observations were grounded in geography, ethnography, ecology, anthropology and historical facts. He finds the principle of movement in history the work of man and his environment, not in the supernatural.” Herodotus, for comparison, wrote 1,700 years before Al-Masudi and “found an explanation for historical events in the whims of Greek gods.”
Al-Masudi studied at the “House of Wisdom,” one of history’s greatest libraries established in Baghdad in the 700s CE. There the “Translation Movement” was created when Islamic rulers collected every Greek, Latin and Persian book obtainable and librarian-scribes translated them into Islamic, preserving priceless knowledge throughout the Western Middle Ages. Then Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis and brother to Kublai, came calling with his horde and besieged Baghdad in 1257. When it fell a few months later, his Mongol troops ferociously ransacked the city, including the House of Wisdom, for two weeks. “Survivors said that the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantity of books flung into the river.”
Unlike Gerald, Al-Masudi didn’t have much to say about rhinoceroses loving virgins. However, some research revealed that Pliny did, claiming that unicorns have “the feet of elephants” (like rhinos), “the tail of a boar,” (like rhinos), and “a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead” (rhinos again, except theirs are white). My car’s Brewer’s Dictionary states “rhino” is also slang for easy money, dragons are crocodiles with wings, and “traveler’s license” means “exaggeration.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.