Ever since the first hominids developed language, humanity has felt the need to fill in those blank spaces on the map. Whether that terra incognita was just across the next ridge or somewhere in the south seas, the profusion of legendary lands created to explain what might be there is stunning.
In fact, we still do it today: science fiction writers fill the darkness of space while, more metaphorically, spiritualists and fantasy writers try to satisfy people’s need to know what, if anything, happens when we die.
One of our favorite subjects here at CE is Umberto Eco (don’t believe us? Look here or here or here) so we’re glad to say that he’s tackled the subject of legendary lands in his own inimitable fashion–namely in a medievalist and exhaustive way.
In The Book of Legendary Lands, he defines “legendary” as an inexistent place that, nevertheless, contemporary people actually believed in. So you get an analysis that goes from the Garden of Eden to Hyperborea, from Atlantis to the Aryan kingdoms the Nazis wanted to believe in.
Now this is a hefty book, and Eco can often be quite… how to say this diplomatically?.. obscure in his wording when he wants to be, so I was expecting a long, plodding–albeit ultimately rewarding–read.
On that front, I was pleasantly surprised. Eco, by his own admission, has a passion for the medieval that drove him in his career, and it comes through in his prose when working in that era. The Name of the Rose became a bestseller not only because it was brilliant but because it was written in accessible (all things being relative, of course) language that allowed everyday readers to connect with the era and the characters. It’s a beautiful book.
This one is also beautiful, with the added benefit that it’s lavishly illustrated. As the text advances, you get contemporary illustrations, everything from medieval manuscript illuminations to paintings by Dante Gabriel Rosetti. It’s quite the mix, but it works.
Of course, this is a book aimed at popular consumption, but it’s a scholarly work at the same time, researched by an expert whose loss the field won’t easily recover from. Eco famously collected books of what he called “fakes”, or things that were demonstrably untrue–this volume draws a lot from this.
Finally, perhaps most delightfully, Eco gives his own opinion on the wisdom of certain beliefs. He’s understandably easier on the ancients–after all, science was still embryonic when they were creating Atlantis–but he comes down pretty heavily on Victorian mystics and Aryan cultists, as well as other modern actors. Deservedly so.
In conclusion, find a copy of this book. You will enjoy it, you will learn from it, and you will like the pretty pictures. You can thank me in the comments.
Gustavo Bondoni is the author of several novels set in places that don’t exist (or that don’t exist yet). His novel of an Earth changed beyond recognition by humanity’s conscious choice to evolve, Outside, can be purchased here.