Travels: Sir John Mandeville & William Bartram

Illustration of alligators on the St John River of Florida by William Bartram
My wife will tell you that I am a poor travel companion. I like the idea of travel but the facts of it do, at least briefly, bring out the worst in me. I fall sometimes into stupors of indecision over questions of where to stay, how to get there, where to park, and what to eat. I also dislike being out at night. The happiest part of travel, in my opinion, is the rediscovery of home comforts, but I acknowledge that this pleasure is available only to those who leave home in the first place.

Travel of the arm-chair variety I am more comfortable with. Travel writing is allegedly a form of non-fiction. Under scrutiny, however, most travel books will be seen to edge now and then into fiction. This should upset no one. Some effort of mind is necessary to synthesize and represent any experience whatever through the medium of language. I do not require perfect factuality from authors of travelogues.

Someone (it might have been Nicolas Bouvier in The Way of the World) once called travel itself a creative act. This is a fairy notion, if you ask me. Traveling, I suppose, is no less “creative” than any other act is creative, but it’s hard for me to see why it should be more so. If travel were essentially creative, however, this might further explain why travel writers so often slip into otherwise unlicensed imagination.

On this theme, I offer below some brief reading notes for two very different books, both admixtures of fiction and non-fiction, and both titled Travels.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville

Dear reader, eschew all modern “translations” of this book. The true original seems to have been written in Latin or some kind of mongrel Romano-French, but English texts of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville survive from circa 1400. You will not regret this older version of the book for all its sithens and clepes and y-bornes or for all the lovely, impossible spelling variations of Middle English. If you managed Chaucer in college, you’ll do fine. In fact, the 1920s Everyman’s Library edition I read was easier than Chaucer. The bulk of Mandeville’s travelogue is utter hogwash, of course, and Mandeville himself was very likely a fiction, but this Mandevillian hogwash is hogwash of the best sort. Where else are you going to learn how Seth (third son of Adam) buried his father with seeds from the Tree of Knowledge (a cypress) in his mouth, which sprouted the trunk which was felled for the wood of the cross of Christ? Or where else will you learn that gold-mad Christians are strangled by invisible devils in the Valley Perilous, or about those islands bordering the Kingdom of Prester John where a tribe of men perish if they lose the smell of apples and another tribe grow feathers over their faces and dine only on raw flesh? Herodotus, Pliny the Elder, and Marco Polo offer their own tall tales, but the English Mandeville’s charm lies in the diction and pace of his story, and the besmudged clarity of the medieval world’s reflected self-image. To read Mandeville is to lovingly pore over an antique mappa mundi, tracing a path from the relatively familiar districts of western Europe step by step into the outer circles of the world, where strange monsters rise from mountaintops and men order their lives by incomprehensible rites on the shores of alien seas.

Travels, William Bartram

About the time the American colonies were forcibly dissolving the political bands which had connected them to England, William Bartram was running around the wilds of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida looking for undiscovered plants and making sketches of alligators and Indian sachems. His father, the Quaker John Bartram of Philadelphia, was a noted amateur naturalist and proprietor of a nursery that supplied New World trees, shrubs and flowers to Old World gardens (read more about him in Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners). As the youngest son, William had struggled through several failed ventures before finally determining (to his father’s dismay) to seek fortune as a writer on natural history. Travels is the fruit of that determination. It would seem from all this that Bartram’s book should be a very different sort of thing than Mandeville’s had been. But while it’s undisputed that Bartram was a real person who really visited the places he describes, an honest examination of his narrative (as provided, for instance, in the lengthy historical introduction of the Lakeside Press edition) reveals the extent to which Bartram’s interests and disinterests, his temperament, and his clearly artistic goals shaped the final product. He was a romantic who painted in the colors of Eden, and he found in the world of men and nature a single fathomless index of wonders. In fact, Bartram very conveniently discovers in the anciently unsuspected western hemisphere something very like the exotic cultures of men, the natural curiosities, and the terrifying monsters of the wilderness that Mandeville and his contemporaries imagined resident in the farthest east. A telling sketch made by Bartram of two alligators at the St John River of Florida looks suspiciously like a sketch of two dragons. He even gives them smoke issuing from their nostrils.

I don’t know why anyone should require a definitive unraveling of truth and fiction in travel literature. It would spoil the fun. Besides, if we’re going to have anything to do with them, even real places must be imagined, and even purely imaginary places must own a sort of reality to the minds in which they are conceived and to which they are communicated.

Allow me to note in closing that the microscopic type of my two-volume OED grudgingly admits the fact that “travel” and “travail” are, etymologically speaking, the same word, so perhaps there’s something after all to that fairy notion I derided above. Travel really is toil, suffering, the labor of childbirth. Travail is to journey from one place to another. At any rate, the writing of travels will constitute a creative act even if the trek itself does not.

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