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 essential. In this Davidson has succeeded, doing for popular readers what Mircea Eliade has done for specialist. This book will be a seed for many a lifelong quest -- it shows the method and the reward. It would be the absolutely perfect High School graduation gift. The only other book that goes as well for High School graduation would be Baltasar Gracian's The Art of Worldly Wisdom, but I digress. George Barr has provided a series of well crafted illustrations, and Peter S. Beagle, whom I normally find irritating, has given a good introduction to who Avram Davidson is -- although I suspect that if you deal with a bookstore that carries Owlswick works you probably already know.

Something a little scary happened the day I got the book. I had been discussing the aeon of Horus and its successor with a member of the O.T.O. (I have several black magicians in my sphere of personal acquaintance.) The O.T.O. is a group dedicated to perpetuating the legacy of Aleister Crowley. My friend was talking about synchronicities being one of the ways the god spoke to us. I was dismissing the argument when the U.P.S. (the U.P.S. is the group dedicated to preserving the legacy of the postal system) truck pulled up and delivered the yellow wrapped book. I told Gordon that I really, really wanted to review this book because I knew otherwise I would be buying it. I unwrapped the book and Mary suggested that I try bibliomancy. So I opened the book after a remark about Crowley sure enough to a page in the Crowley essay in which after some delightful remarks about the Crowley-Yeats rivalry was the passage my thick index finger rested on, describing the reception of the Book of the Law :

Aleister and Rose went to Cairo: and there on April 8, 1904, he had a vision, if that is what it was, which was to prove of immense effect: the "minister" of Horus, the ancient hawk-headed Egyptian god, appeared to him in the form of "a dark king about his own age with the face of a savage king." and, standing behind Crowley's left shoulder, dictated words which Crowley wrote, down: O blessed Beast and thou scarlet woman of his desire, Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. . . .

The New York Review of Science Fiction, June 1993.

Copyright (C) 1993 Don Webb, whose electronym is:

Reprinted with permission


Return to the table of contents page