Don Webb's Review of Adventures in Unhistory


Adventures in Unhistory. Philadelphia : Owlswick Press, 1993. ISBN 0913896-29-2

The Secret of Magic is to transform the magician.

If America were to become a police state, there would be certain books banned. Most would be banned in accordance with their slants -- a right wing state would ban the Communist Manifesto, left wingers might not have much use for Mein Kampf. But any totalitarian state would be well advised to ban Adventures in Unhistory for it is the kind of book that will make the young dream dreams and start off on Quests. This is the perfect book to give people who are a little too sure about the world. The book is a collection of fifteen essays by Avram Davidson on as the subtitle says the factual foundations of several legends. The topics are wide ranging from mermaids to mandrakes, and mammoths to the theft of the mulberry tree. The sources of the essays seem to follow (for the most part) the career of editor George H. Scithers, who bought my first pro story and has other crimes to answer for, -- Asimov's in the early 80's, then Amazing, then Amra, then Weird Tales.

Davidson uses a light and entertaining prose for presenting his scholarship, sort of like Mircea Eliade done by Dave Berry. But the light tone does not hide the two key words here: scholarship and a sense of wonder. This book is in some way the opposite of a bad fantasy novel.

Instead of dragging out old stodgy fictions of dwarves and elves and expecting you to be amazed, Mr. Davidson shows real wonders and allow you to think about this universe that is stranger than we know. Many of the essays are accompanied by bibliographies. The range of works cited in each is astonishing. On the essay on the dragon among the fifteen books included are Mircea Eliade's The Forge and the Crucible, Jacob Grimm's Teutonic Mythology, and Philostratus' Life of Apollonius of Tyana. This magical curiosity has impelled him to research the topics with love and care and time far out of proportion for the money paid for the work. This is a love affair between one man and the mysterious. He senses something's out there and has looked in the best new scholarship and the older dust covered volumes of curious and forgotten lore. But most important this is done in a critical spirit rather that fuzzy way common to writers on occult and pseudoscience topics.

This is a book of Runes, a Germanic/English term meaning literally a "Mystery" or "secret". Or if you would prefer the polysemy that Mr. Davidson himself delights in: in Latin it would be a book of "Arcanum" and in Egyptian "Seshetat" Magically it signifies the internal or subjective sense of the hidden, which is the driving force of all true becoming. It is the inner key to the power of curiosity without which Those who Know would never have set out on their Quests. Runes are thought to exist (though hidden) both within the subjective universe, and in some "place" outside the subjective universe. Because of their obscure outer edge of hidden things, the necessity of the development of objective foundations and of Methods of Understanding of such foundations in the usually all-too-murky world of the occult is