Avram Davidson’s Adventures in Unhistory: Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends

davidson-unhistoryI have had the distinct pleasure through the years of being in line for a number of reissues and new editions of works by some of the great writers of the Golden Age of science fiction and fantasy. Maybe it’s just that no one else is old enough to remember these authors and so snatch them up, but we won’t follow that line of inquiry past this point. One of these treasures is the late Avram Davidson’s Adventures in Unhistory, originally published in 1993, the year of Davidson’s greatly lamented death.

Davidson was, indeed, one of the stars in my firmament as a youth. He won the Hugo, the World Fantasy Award (three times), and both the Queen’s Award and the Edgar Award in mystery (like everyone else during those days, he seems to have written a couple of Ellery Queen mysteries). I remember him mostly as a fantasy writer (Peregrine Primus, The Phoenix and the Mirror, Rogue Dragon) one of those who, like L. Sprague de Camp and Gordon Dickson, approached the genre with suitable gravity and a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek humor.

What makes this collection of more than passing interest, and particularly appropriate for Green Man Review, is that it is, quite legitimately, an exploration of the mechanisms of folklore. Call them lectures, call them essays, call them wild speculations with a solid foundation in the ways people rationalize their universe, they are a series of madcap, breathless adventures in the histories of many of our archetypes. Starting off with the question “Where Did Sindbad Sail?” and going on from there, Davidson explores the origins of the phoenix; why, even though wombats are real and dragons are not, we all know what a dragon looks like and very few of us know what a wombat looks like (Davidson says none of us do — I do, but then I’m particularly fond of wombats); Prester John; unicorns; the Silk Road; and a number of other tantalizing legends. His approach is baldly historical. His methodology makes equal use of fact, humor, supposition, and a deep understanding of human psychology.

For example, “The Secret of Hyperborea” treats of the legends of a land far in the North where winter never visited and the people lived in a country of mild breezes, warm sunshine, and eternal bliss. Davidson sets out to find Hyperborea and comes up with a surprise (well, it surprised me — I was rooting for the Isles of the Mighty, because of the Gulf Stream — palm trees do grow very nicely in southern Ireland and Cornwall, you know — but my timeline was off by a few million years). His erudition is astonishing (so many books, so little time!), and his reasoning is solid — even his flights of fancy make sense. He draws in the Delian Apollo, Alexander Pope, Herodotus, Pliny the Elder (a regular in these essays; the roguish Sir John Mandeville is a frequent visitor), ancient trade routes into Europe from the Mediterranean, amber (that’s an important clue) and other sources, references, sages and scoundrels too numerous to mention. Even the footnotes are priceless.

I mentioned the mechanisms of folklore. Each of these Adventures is a study in which facts, fancy, dreams and hallucinations all contribute, through the agency of poets, priests, historians, geographers, and even merchants, to build the archetypes that have come down to us. Davidson not only explores where these things came from, he examines what they have come to mean and what they meant way back when. Read Joseph W. Campbell and you will get a thorough and erudite explication of the process. Read Avram Davidson and you will understand how the process feels.

And they’re funny, with a kind of droll humor that sometimes seems to edge toward cynicism but winds up being avuncular — Davidson had a lot of sympathy for people, even at their least admirable. That’s another thing about this book — Davidson as a person really comes through in these essays. They are immediate, seemingly off-the-cuff, and, as Peter S. Beagle points out in his Introduction (itself a gem), there is a fundamental verbal quality to this book — and indeed, many of them began as lectures. I mentioned madcap above. Yes. Free association, sometimes, but always on track. Humor. Erudition. Solid scholarship (or maybe not, which is one of Davidson’s most often-used phrases). I seriously recommend this one, and I equally seriously recommend that you take it in small doses — maybe one Adventure at a time. More would be greedy.

(Tom Doherty Associates, 2006 [orig. Owlswick Press, 1993])

About Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don’t always.

It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we’ve done the centuries.