Adventures in Unhistory by Avram Davidson Review

Imagine if you will that, when you were younger, you had an older relative — a grandfather or great-aunt — who was something of an armchair historian regarding mythology. Every now and then, when you were visiting, you’d make your way to their study, sit in one of the overstuffed chairs by the fire, and ask a question. “Where exactly did Sindbad sail?,” you’d ask; or, “who was Prester John?” or “were there really ever dragons, rocs, or unicorns?”

 Avram Davidson

Your older relative would get a youthful gleam of excitement in their eye and start pulling down a collection of books from the shelves with which to answer your question. “Maybe,” they’d say, opening an ancient-looking tome, “and maybe not. I once met an elderly gentleman named Mr. Dong who claimed to have seen a unicorn while on safari in Africa…but I’ll save that story for later. First, let’s see what old Pliny the Elder had to say on the matter….”

Adventures in Unhistory was first published by Owlswick Press in 1993, the year of Avram Davidson’s death at age 70. Davidson was one of the stalwarts of the “Golden Age” of speculative fiction, winner of Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, but never achieved the popular renown of many contemporaries because (at least in part) his greatest successes were in the form of short stories rather than novels. The recent resurgence of interest in Davidson has been aided by the appearance of several posthumous anthologies, notably 1998’s The Avram Davidson Treasury and now this volume. Adventures in Unhistory, newly reissued by Tor in 2006, is subtitled “Conjectures on the Factual Foundations of Several Ancient Legends.” It collects fifteen of Davidson’s nonfiction essays on that theme: Where Did Sindbad Sail; Who Fired the Phoenix; An Abundance of Dragons; Who Makes the Mandrakes; The Boy Who Cried Werewolf; The Great Rough Beast (on Aleister Crowley); Postscript on Prester John; The Theft of the Mulberry Tree (on the silk trade); The Secret of Hyperborea; Heads I Win, Heads You Lose (on the practice of head-hunting); The Spoor of the Unicorn; What Gave All Those Mammoths Cold Feet; Bird Thou Wert, But Art No More (on the extinction of species); The Moon; and The Prevalence of Mermaids. These investigations into legend were originally separately published (mainly in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine) in the early 1980s — although many were apparently developed as lectures before then.

Lectures they may have been but read privately they conjure up the intimacy I hinted at above, a quiet fireside chat with an avuncular relative. There is a fundamentally spoken quality to these works (“verbal” Peter Beagle terms it in his introduction) that give the lie to the dry, academic connotations of the word “essay” as much as their contents give lie to the word “nonfiction.”

Dragons have generally had a reputation for being anti-social. Liberals may attribute this to a deprived childhood, Conservatives to mere idleness; after all, is that a way to go through life, coiled around some tree? Sir John Mandeville in the 1300s indicated something of this, in writing of “the isle Silha. In that land is full much waste, for it is full of serpents, of dragons and of cockodrills, that no man may dwell there.” Do you see what I mean? What about your real estate values? What about your tax base? How do you expect to attract industry? But Sir John is silent.

Is this really “nonfiction?” Perhaps; perhaps the other side of the coin from Borges’s “fictions.”

What Davidson-the-fiction-writer does better than most full-time writers of non-fiction is create interest in the investigative process of scholarship and in the processes by which history becomes folklore becomes legend. How is it, to repeat Davidson’s oft-mentioned wondering in this volume, that so many children can accurately describe a legendary creature, a dragon, yet so few people of any age can describe a real-life animal such as a wombat? To be clear, Davidson is not concerned with whether dragons — large fire-breathing winged lizards — ever factually existed. Rather, his questioning deals with what factual entities the idea of dragons might have emerged from, and how the idea developed over time and place. Early reports of crocodiles? Perhaps. Large snakes such as the python? Perhaps. Volcanoes and/or lightning? Perhaps. The snaky twisting of rivers, explaining the ancient association of dragons and water? Perhaps.

St. George killed his dragon near the seaport of Joppa (now Jaffa), just where Perseus had killed, earlier, his dragon. Jaffa is not far from the River Yarkon, in which crocodiles once tarried; it is quite a ways from Greece, even from Asia Minor, but not so very far from Syria, where flows the River Orontes: According to one account the River Orontes used to be called the River Drakon….Got that?

Davidson scorns as “primitive” the idea “of there being but one answer to one question,” and instead separately tugs at each thread of legend, pulling from them evidence and quotes to support their factual bases. That questioning is repeated in each of these nonfictions, from the millennia-old “Secret of Hyperborea” to the modern self-made legend of Aleister Crowley.

Adventures in Unhistory is an apt title; Davidson approaches each nonfiction as an adventure, as an opportunity for discovery. If writing fiction is fundamentally an act of creation, writing nonfiction is — for Davidson at least — fundamentally an act of curiosity. That curiosity bubbles over in the writing, infectious in its relentlessness. At the same time, Davidson brings all the tools of a fiction writer to his essays: a bad pun will make the reader chuckle; repetition makes us smile in familiarity; a seemingly innocuous aside (of which there are many) will by the end come back to reveal key information. While each nonfiction was written separately, stands alone and can be read in any order, there is a certain common pattern and connectedness that emerges, in the way that ideas can combine and change over time, in the way our goals and dreams influence our understanding of the world.

Fascinating and enjoyable as it is, Adventures in Unhistory is not perfect. Like many an older relative, Davidson occasionally interjects a comment on politics, culture, gender or sexuality that feels somewhere between dated (written as these were in the early 1980s) and parochial. Two or three essays seem insufficiently grounded in “ancient legend” to produce satisfactory “adventures,” such as the section on extinct and endangered birds. Davidson’s research covers few sources overall and there is a relative lack of sources from the Americas, Asia and Africa. Finally, the dense, chatty nature of these essays will not be to the taste of all readers, certainly not for the impatient. Indeed, like a strong after-dinner drink or a rich dessert, these nonfictions are best savored in moderation, one or two at a time.

Speculative fiction at its best encourages questioning in its readers; more than anything, Avram Davidson in Adventures in Unhistory is a statesman for the rewards of a curious mind. For the curious, says he, history is “a net of almost infinite dimensions, and where any two cords of it come together, there come together a line of time and a line of space, until every moment in time and every point in space are connected. And each connection, it is said, shines and glitters, like a jewel.” More surely than anything yet found in a dragon’s hoard, these nonfictions are jewels.

– originally published 12/31/2006

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