Passages to Wonder
Updated: 3 days ago
When we read our favorite passages from our favorite books, we flee the "real world" for the wonders of Neverland. Here are a few passages that get me there.
If Loverboy is right, “everybody’s working for the weekend.” Which means everybody is also bracing for the week. From Monday through Thursday, life is a street fight of deadlines and duties. Instead of enjoying it, we often endure it.
But as we endure adulthood, we must never forget about our room behind the shop. Whether it’s your home gym, book nook, or favorite coffee shop, I encourage you to duck into your barbarian lair behind the shop to dream, create, and feel the igniting charge of wonder.
At day’s end, I often escape the “real world” and flee to my own room behind the shop: my home library. Sliding open the barn door, stepping into three bookcases of wonder, I light a candle and open up dog-eared pages from my favorite books. With my cats Tiny and Skip-Skip on the rug, I sink into my leather chair and drift away towards whatever enchantment awaits. With my head in the clouds, I become more like my pal, Peter Pan, soaring above a cynical world and reminding myself to “never grow up.”
Reading a favorite passage transports me to my own Neverland. In this magical place, I encounter Celts painted blue, majestic landscapes, and “a world lit only by fire.” Reading the lyrical prose of times long ago through my own imaginative interpretations, “history” becomes something I call “mythic history.” Mythic history is history you feel, history that inspires, history that stirs your soul with wonder. History that ignites the barbarian in you.
So for this week’s post, I’m sharing some of my favorite passages of mythic history from some of my favorite writers. In the comment section, I’d love to hear some of your favorite mythic history passages. Till then, I hope you find time this weekend to soar above the clouds and find Neverland. And just remember, “it’s the second star on the right and straight on till morning.”
A Passage to the Ends of the Earth
Historian Tom Holland once said, “a crucial aspect of how history is understood, and in a sense consumed, is as myth.” Holland’s books on ancient Persia, Rome, and medieval Europe reflect such things. Like all my favorite historians, Holland’s prose is spiced with wonder. Writing about eras when people scarcely journeyed beyond their farm or village, Holland is at his best when he describes places “off the map,” beyond the known world, towards the ends of the earth. For Romans in the 1st century BC, one such place was Britannia, an island shrouded in mist. And no one wanted to solve its riddle more than the mighty Julius Caesar. Here’s a taste from Holland's book, Rubicon.
“Set within its icy waters waited the fabulous island of Britain. It was as drenched in mystery as in rain and fog. Back in Rome people doubted whether it existed at all. Even traders and merchants, Caesar’s usual sources of information, could provide only the sketchiest of details. Their reluctance to travel widely through the island was hardly surprising. It was well known that barbarians became more savage the farther north one traveled, indulging in any number of unspeakable habits, such as cannibalism, and even – repellently – the drinking of milk. To teach them respect for the name of the Republic would be an achievement of Homeric proportions. For Caesar, who never let anyone forget that he could trace his ancestry back to the time of the Trojan war, the temptation was irresistible.
…It was indeed to prove a journey back in time. Waiting for the invaders on the Kentish cliffs was a scene straight out of legend: warriors careering up and down in chariots, just as Hector and Achilles had done on the plain of Troy. To add to the exotic nature of it all, the Britons wore peculiar facial hair and were painted blue.”
A Passage Across Russia
In my opinion, no historian paints a landscape better than the great Robert Massie. He writes history with broad brush strokes, evoking the wonders of old cities, realms, and empires – all while diving in and out of the minutia you’ll never forget. Here’s a dose of wonder from the opening of Massie’s first book, Nicholas and Alexandra, about the final years of Tsarist Russia.
“From the Baltic city of St. Petersburg, built on a river marsh in a far northern corner of the empire, the Tsar ruled Russia. So immense were the Tsar’s dominions that, as night began to fall along their western borders, day already was breaking on their Pacific coast. Between these distant frontiers lay a continent, one sixth of the land surface of the globe. Through the depth of Russia’s winters, millions of tall pine trees stood silent under heavy snows. In the summer, clusters of white-trunked birch trees rustled their silvery leaves in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. Rivers, wide and flat, flowed peacefully through the grassy plains of European Russia toward a limitless southern horizon. Eastward, in Siberia, even mightier rivers rolled north to the Arctic, sweeping through forests where no human had ever been, and across desolate marshes of frozen tundra.”
A Passage Back in Time
When it comes to taking you back to a certain time and place, nobody fills my heart with more wonder than Barbara Tuchman. When I first read this passage from A Distant Mirror, I read it again and again. Each time I did, I drifted further back from the 21st Century until I could feel myself walking through the gate of a medieval village at dusk. I hope you feel the same.
“The last of the Coucys entered a world in which movement was limited to the speed of man or horse, news and public announcements were communicated by the human voice, and light ended for most people with the setting of the sun. At dusk, horns were blown or bells rung to sound curfew or ‘cover fires,’ after which work was prohibited because a workman could not see to perform creditably. The rich could prolong time by torchlight and candles, but for others night was as dark as nature intended, and stillness surrounded a traveler after dark.”
A Passage Lit Only by Fire
Humphrey Bogart once said, “the whole world is three drinks behind.” Not so for William Manchester, a Marine who fought at the Battle of Okinawa and became an acclaimed writer of history. After the war, Manchester wrote best-selling biographies on McArthur (American Caesar) and Churchill (The Last Lion). A lesser-known work of Manchester is A World Lit Only by Fire, a page-turner with just three chapters – one on the Dark Ages, the next on The Reformation, and the final chapter on Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe. I will go to my grave convinced that Manchester wrote this masterpiece half-drunk. He writes like your grandfather talked after drinking a few too many -- with no fucks left to give.
The opening paragraph of A World Lit Only by Fire sets the tone as Manchester hoists a giant middle finger to revisionist medieval historians.
“The densest of the medieval centuries – the six hundred years between, roughly, A.D. 400 and A.D. 1000 are still widely known as the Dark Ages. Modern historians have abandoned that phrase, one of them writes, ‘Because of the unacceptable value judgment it implies.’ Yet there are no survivors to be offended.”
And for the next 300 pages, Manchester does all he can to offend the dead.
I’ll offer up one more Manchester passage. Why? Because this is my blog and I love half-drunk historians that's why. Similar to Tuchman, Manchester yanks you into the medieval world with this passage from A World Lit Only by Fire. Unlike Tuchman, however, he writes with the irreverence of a salty Marine and someone who just wings it (sort of like I’m doing right now). So buckle up barbarians for a wild ride and be sure to follow Bogart’s advice and pour yourself a drink or three.
“Medieval men were rarely aware of which century they were living in. There was no reason they should have been. There are great differences between everyday life in 1791 and 1991, but there were very few between 791 and 991. Life then revolved around the passing of the seasons and such cyclical events as religious holidays, harvest time, and local fetes. In all Christendom there was no such thing as a watch, a clock, or… anything resembling a calendar. Generations succeeded one another in a meaningless, timeless blur. In the whole of Europe, which was the world as they knew it, very little happened. Popes, emperors, and kings died and were succeeded by new popes, emperors, and kings; wars were fought, spoils divided… but the impact on the masses was negligible. This lockstep continued for a period of time roughly corresponding in length to the time between the Norman conquest of England, in 1066, and the end of the twentieth century.”
Dog-ear pages from your favorite books, write your thoughts in the margins, and drift off to Neverland where you'll hear horns at dusk, see Celts on chariots, and taste the intoxication of a world lit only by fire. Till next time, barbarians. Keep your head above the clouds.