Magical journeys through strange and bewildering lands beyond the sight of the modern world of reason and reality have always held a strong fascination for me; one that science has never been able to fully replace. So when I noticed this hefty tome by the great Italian author Umberto Eco, as it shone off the shelf in my local bookstore amidst a ringing choir of angels – or so I felt at the time – I eagerly parted with my thriftily saved notes and coins and looked forward to the adventure of a life-time.
Three hours later, my wild-eyed sense of adventure quickly faded. Reading Eco’s eclectic summary of mythical places, I actually felt like I tend to do when walking into an antiquarian’s shop. Drawn in by sparkly window dressing, it sadly turns out to be a dusty, disorganised storage space full of alluring junk. While there are shiny knickknacks lining every shelf that might even get you a good buck at an auction, it’s all so cluttered that one can barely move, let alone find anything. Meanwhile, the eccentric old shop keeper – while certainly cheerful – isn’t exactly of any real help. Finally, gasping for fresh air, you leave the dimly lit premises, wondering just how much time you’ve spent in there.
This wasn’t what I expected from such a celebrated novelist. Umberto Eco’s honest fascination with stories of legendary lands is unmistakable throughout. Yet, for all his enthusiasm, he keeps coming across as an old-timey collector of miraculous and wondrous specimens, cataloguing them for posterity, without any form of critical appraisal, unburdened by any scientific method. This would have been alright if he was indeed one of the 18th century chroniclers he loves to quote here; for a 21st century writer, it is downright cringe-inducing.
The first thing that undermines The Book of Legendary Lands is a conspicuous lack of direction. From the get-go, Eco just leaps into his fantastical journey, without giving us any sense of where we’re going, or more importantly; why. The chapters are too short to be substantial, the style is verbose and grand without arriving at any insights that can’t be found elsewhere. In fact, to my mind, he was rehashing facts that have been described far more vividly in books from well over fifty years ago. Regardless of whether he is talking about ancient geography or about the evolution of the myths surrounding Atlantis, way too much emphasis is put on who said what, resulting in a pointless directory of ancient authors and the points on which they disagreed. By doing so, Eco passes by the tremendous opportunity to actually delve into the significance of all these myths on a cultural level.
Instead, Eco delivers all that he knows about the legends of his choosing in a very uncritical way, holding mystical allegories, romance novels and Biblical passages in exactly the same regard as he does contemporary histories, works of geography and travelogues. And so, The Book of Legendary Lands offers no sense of context, and lends no way for unwary readers to distinguish fact from fiction – even where Eco undoubtedly is aware of the difference himself. This results in a book that doesn’t really rise above Discovery Channel levels of information density or quality, being perhaps most fit for avid teenage bookworms; and even then I would be afraid of them just getting misinformed, or at the very least disappointed.
While we’re at it, I was particularly dumbfounded by Eco’s system of annotation – further deepening his caricature of an antiquated botanist. Whereas the chapters are very brief and breezy, each one is followed by an appendix consisting of nothing else than full transcripts of passages from authors that he refers to in his text. These appendices – which while often more intriguing than Eco’s own writings do not add anything original to his work – take up about as much space as the chapters they bookend. While I must confess that I am not familiar with this curious format for end notes, I cannot escape the suspicion that it is what it looks like: filler.
On a much-needed positive note, the hardcover edition of The Book of Legendary Lands has been gorgeously illuminated by hundreds of pictures of historical paintings and drawings, bringing his legendary lands to life, firing the Legendary of even the most hypercritical reader with all the grandeur and romance the subject deserves.
I know this title has been praised elsewhere as a valuable addition to Eco’s oeuvre, and deemed a worthy follow-up to his other collection of essays on the History Of Beauty – which to me suffers from a lot of the same issues. So it might just be that I do not get his style of writing, favouring a less scrapbook-like and more of an analytical approach, and that this could be just the book you’d love – like many others do. But to me, The Book of Legendary Lands remains an unsatisfying introduction to a tantalizing topic that deserves far more attention, depth and intelligence than is provided here.