“The Book of Legendary Lands” by Umberto Eco

LegendaryLands

Let me start out by saying that I loved this book. Then again, I’m kind of an Umberto Eco fanboy. I think he is one of the most brilliant writers and scholars around today, which is why I didn’t think twice about spending the $50 for a hardcover copy of this book, and it was worth every penny. Not only is the writing superb and the quotes inspiring, but it is richly illustrated with stunning artwork. This is a worthy addition to any bookshelf.

In the book, Eco explores legendary lands which he defines as “lands and places that, now or in the past, have created chimeras, utopias, and illusions because a lot of people thought they existed or had existed somewhere.” (p. 7) Examples of legendary lands include biblical lands, places depicted in Homer’s The Odyssey, El Dorado, Atlantis, the interior of the Earth, and so forth. Eco writes about these places and the legends that grew concerning them. He then includes an array of quotes from primary sources that are lengthy enough to give you a good sense of what the writers thought concerning these realms. He also looks at the historical impact of these legends, as well as the historical facts that helped proliferate the legends, since “legends are always born on the basis of a historical truth.” (p. 44)

I found the chapter on The Odyssey to be very interesting. Eco explores theories regarding the locations of the places in the poem, and there are quite a few. There are also some beautiful maps showing the supposed locations. In the end, though, Eco concludes that there is no way to determine whether the information in the poem is accurate or whether the places truly existed or not, but emphasizes the importance that the legend has had on humanity should not be discounted.

This book is not intended to establish Ulysses’ true periplus. The poet (or poets) later made things up on the basis of legendary information. The Odyssey is a beautiful legend, and all attempts to reconstruct it on a modern map have created just as many legends. One of those we have mentioned is perhaps true or plausible, but what fascinates us is the fact that over the centuries we have been entranced by a journey that never happened. Wherever Calypso lived, a great many men have dreamed of spending a few years in her sweetest of captivities.

(p. 75)

Of course, no discussion of legendary lands would be complete without a look at the legend of Atlantis.

Of all legendary lands, Atlantis is the one that, over the centuries, has most exercised the imagination of philosophers, scientists, and seekers of mysteries (cf. Albini 2012). And naturally what has reinforced the legend more and more is the persuasion that a vanished continent really existed and that it is difficult to rediscover traces of it because it sank into the sea. The notion that there were once lands above water that subsequently vanished is by no means a crazy one. In 1915 Alfred Wegener formulated the theory of continental drift, and today it is believed that 225 million years ago, the Earth consisted of a single continent, Pangaea, which then (about 200 million years ago) began to split up slowly, giving rise to the continents we know today. And so in the course of the process, many Atlantises may have arisen and then disappeared.

(p. 182)

One of the things that really fascinated me regarding Atlantis was the effect it had on Nazi occultists who sought to discover evidence that the white Aryans were actually descendants from the Atlantean race.

Atlantis also seduced many occultists who gravitated to the Nazi party. For this, see the chapter on Thule and Hyperborea, but it is worth remembering that Hans Hörbinger’s theory of eternal ice maintained that the submersion of Atlantis and Lemuria was caused when the Earth captured the moon. In Atlantis die Urheimat der Arier (Atlantis, the Original Homeland of the Aryans, 1922), Karl Georg Zchaetzsch had written, followed by one of the maximum theorists of Nazi racism, Alfred Rosenberg, about a dominant “Nordic-Atlantean” or “Aryan-Nordic” race. It is said that in 1938 Heinrich Himmler had organized a search in Tibet with a view to finding the remains of the white Atlanteans.

(p. 199)

As a kid, I remember watching “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and thinking how cool it was, the idea that below the Earth’s surface could exist another world populated with dinosaurs and fantastic creatures. Eco points out that humans have long been fascinated with realms hidden below the ground and that this fascination has led to an abundance of legends.

The idea of penetrating the heart of the planet, beneath the crust, has always appealed to human beings, and some have seen in this passion for caves, recesses and underground passages a reaching out toward a maternal womb into which to return. No doubt we all remember how, when we were young, before falling asleep, we loved to huddle under the blankets and fantasize about some subterranean journey, isolated from the rest of the world; a cave could be a place where lurked monsters of the abyss, but also a refuge against human enemies or other monsters of the surface. With regard to caverns, people have dreamed of hidden treasures and imagined underground creatures such as gnomes; the Jesus of many traditions was not born in a stable but in a cave.

(pp. 348 – 350)

People who know me have probably heard me criticize Dan Brown, stating his books are little more than watered-down versions of Umberto Eco for the masses. For this reason, I found it ever so amusing when Eco himself criticized Brown in this book, focusing on how Brown propagated legends through books like The Da Vinci Code by claiming “Ninety-nine percent of it is true.” Eco is quick to point out that “If this really were a historical reconstruction, then there is no explanation for the umpteen blunders that Brown gaily sprinkles throughout his narrative.” (p. 420) I literally laughed out loud when I read this.

I have only scratched the surface of this book. There is a lot of great information and artwork here, but you should not be intimidated. It is written in a manner that makes these arcane legends accessible and enjoyable. If you have ever read a book and fantasized about a place being real, then this is definitely a book you will enjoy.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to ““The Book of Legendary Lands” by Umberto Eco

  1. Thank you, Jeff. The book sounds fascinating and I also count myself among his fans. Great and helpful review.

  2. Donnárd the Great

    Actually Jeff, you have said “unwashed masses” when referring to Dan Brown’s work.

  3. Hi dear Jeff.

    Wonderful post.
    I loved your review and actually find that Umberto Eco’s book “The name of the rose” was mesmerizing when I read it .
    How interesting is the fact that nazis used to think that the white Aryans were actually descendants from the Atlantean race.That is something that I definitely would like to know more about.
    Captivating spotlight here, my blogger friend.
    Thank you very much for sharing,
    Aquileana 😀

    • Hi. I thought you’d like this post, and if you enjoy Eco, you should definitely read this book. And yes, the Nazis were very much intrigued by the occult. In fact, I read a book by Dion Fortune where she detailed the Allied occult response, where members of England’s occult circles waged psychic campaigns against the Nazis. Pretty weird stuff.

      Jeff

  4. Pingback: A Tragic Day for Literature: Umberto Eco and Harper Lee | Stuff Jeff Reads

  5. Pingback: Mythological Cycles in “Library of Souls” by Ransom Riggs | Stuff Jeff Reads

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