Book review: Adventures in unhistory

Avram Davidson may be familiar to fantasy enthusiasts for his many stories and novels.  I discovered his fantastic stories in a collection called What strange stars and skies, which has some great sci-fi and fantasy.

I’ve since learned about his various historical and fantasy novels, but more recently came across a copy of this nonfiction book.  Adventures in unhistory is sort of a mirror image of Things that never were.  Whereas Rossi’s book tends to start with facts and build fantasies out of them, Davidson begins with legends and tries to root out their factual basis.  Obviously Davidson’s approach require much more serious scholarship and erudition, but happily Davidson is usually very funny despite his scholarship. 

“One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.”–Charles Fort

Davidson repeats this mantra often, and despite some insanely circuitous routes, he manages to find plausible origins for many legends.  Here are the contents, to give an idea of the sort of topics he covers:

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 — Postscript on Prester John — The theft of the mulberry tree — The secret of Hyperborea — Heads I win, tails you lose — The spoor of the unicorn — What gave all those mammoths cold feet? — Bird thou wert, but art no more — The moon — The prevalence of mermaids.

He investigates everything from mythical beasts to the Great Beast Aleister Crowley; from prehistoric animals to head hunting.   Every chapter is  a self-contained adventure and  you will learn a great deal in spite of the fun.  I’ve seen some negative reviews, complaining the book is “chatty” which is certainly true but when a gifted and learned writer gets chatty, it is well worth listening.

Published in: on May 11, 2010 at 1:45 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Marvelous review, but too short, Mike. Now I want to read Adventures in Unhistory and will have to track it down.

    • Thank you, sir!
      Some more detail, then.
      Why did the Greeks claim Hyperborea — the land beyond the north wind — was warm?
      What do mermaids have to do with Kaspar Hauser?
      How did witches draw down the moon?
      Why did the Greeks claim dragons and elephants are natural enemies?
      What are descendants of Prester John doing in New York?
      The answers to these questions may be in this book.
      Maybe. Guess you’ll have to find a copy. 🙂

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