English Literature for Boys and Girls
by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Chapter 25: The First English Guide-Book
AND now, lest you should say, "What, still more poetry!" I shall give you next a chapter about a great story-teller who wrote in prose. We use story-teller in two senses, and when we speak of Sir John Mandeville we use it in both. He was a great story- teller.
But before saying anything about his stories, I must first tell you that after having been believed in as a real person for five hundred years and more, Sir John has at last been found out. He never lived at all, and the travels about which he tells us so finely never took place.
"Sir John," too, used to be called the "Father of English Prose," but even that honor cannot be left to him, for his travels were not written first in English, but in French, and were afterwards translated into English.
But although we know Sir John Mandeville was not English, that he never saw the places he describes, that indeed he never lived at all, we will still call him by that name. For we must call him something, and as no one really knows who wrote the book which is known as The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, we may as well call the author by the name he chose as by another.
Sir John, then, tells us that he was born in St. Albans, that he was a knight, and that in 1322 he set out on his travels. He traveled about for more than twenty years, but at last, although in the course of them he had drunk of the well of everlasting youth, he became so crippled with gout that he could travel no longer. He settled down, therefore, at Liege in Belgium. There he wrote his book, and there he died and was buried. At any rate, many years afterwards his tomb was shown there. It was also shown at St. Albans, where the people were very proud of it.
Sir John's great book was a guide-book. In those days, as we know, it was a very common thing for people to go on pilgrimages. And among the long pilgrimages the one to the Holy Land was the most common. So Sir John wrote his book to help people on their way, just as Mr. Baedeker and Mr. Murray do now.
It is perhaps the earliest, and certainly one of the most delightful, guide-books ever written, although really it was chiefly made up of bits out of books by other people.
Sir John tells of many different ways of getting to Palestine, and relates wonderful stories about the places to be passed through. He wrote in French. "I know that I ought to write in Latin," he says, "but because more people understand French I have written in French, so that every one may understand it." Afterwards it was translated into Latin, later into English, and still later into almost every European language, so much did people like the stories.
When these stories appeared it was something quite new in Literature, for until this time stories were always written in poetry. It was only great and learned books, or books that were meant to teach something, that were written in prose.
Here is one of Sir John Mandeville's tales.
After telling about the tomb of St. John at Ephesus, Sir John goes on: "And then men pass through the isles of Cophos and Lango, of the which isles Ipocras was lord. And some say that in the isle of Lango is Ipocras's daughter in form of a Dragon. It is a hundred foot long, so men say. But I have not seen it. And they say the people of the isles call her the lady of the country, and she lieth in an old castle and sheweth herself thrice a year. And she doeth no man harm. And she is thus changed from a lady to a Dragon through a goddess whom men call Diana.
"And men say that she shall dwell so until the time that a knight come that is so hardy as to go to her and kiss her mouth. And then shall she turn again to her own kind and be a woman. And after that she shall not live long.
"And it is not long since a knight of the island of Rhodes that was hardy and valiant said that he would kiss her. But when the Dragon began to lift up her head, and he saw it was so hideous, he fled away. Then the Dragon in her anger bare the knight to a rock and cast him into the sea, and so he was lost.
"Also a young man that wist not of the Dragon went out of a ship and went through the isle till he came to a castle. Then came he into the cave and went on till he found a chamber. And there he saw a lady combing her hair, and looking in a mirror. And she had much treasure about her. He bowed to the lady, and the lady saw the shadow of him in the mirror. Then she turned towards him and asked him what he would. And he answered he would be her lover.
"Then she asked him if he were a knight, and he said 'Nay.' She said then he might not be her lover. But she bade him go again to his fellows and make him knight, and come again on the morrow. Then she would come out of the cave and he should kiss her on the mouth. And she bade him have no dread, for she would do him no harm. Although she seemed hideous to him she said it was done by enchantment, for, she said, she was really such as he saw her then. She said, too, that if he kissed her he should have all the treasure, and be her lord, and lord of all these isles.
"Then he departed from her and went to his fellows in the ship, and made him knight, and came again on the morrow for to kiss the damsel. But when he saw her come out of the cave in the form of a Dragon, he had so great dread that he fled to the ship. She followed him, and when she saw that he turned not again she began to cry as a thing that had much sorrow, and turned back again.
"Soon after the knight died, and since, hitherto, might no knight see her but he died anon. But when a knight cometh that is so hardy to kiss her, he shall not die, but he shall turn that damsel into her right shape and shall be lord of the country aforesaid."
When Sir John reaches Palestine he has very much to say of the wonders to be seen there. At Bethlehem he tells a story of how roses first came into the world. Here it is:
"Bethlehem is but a little city, long and narrow, and well walled and enclosed with a great ditch, and it was wont to be called Ephrata, as Holy Writ sayeth, 'Lo, we heard it at Ephrata.' And toward the end of the city toward the East, is a right fair church and a gracious. And it hath many towers, pinnacles and turrets full strongly made. And within that church are forty- four great pillars of marble, and between the church the Field Flowered as ye shall hear.
"The cause is, for as much as a fair maiden was blamed with wrong, for the which cause she was deemed to die, and to be burnt in that place, to the which she was led.
"And as the wood began to burn about her, she made her prayer to our Lord as she was not guilty of that thing, that He would help her that her innocence might be known to all men.
"And when she had this said she entered the fire. And anon the fire went out, and those branches that were burning became red roses, and those branches that were not kindled became white roses. And those were the first roses and rose-trees that any man saw. And so was the maiden saved through the grace of God, and therefore is that field called the Field of God Flowered, for it was full of roses."
Although Sir John begins his book as a guide to Palestine, he tells of many other lands also, and of the wonder there. Of Ethiopia, he tells us: "On the other side of Chaldea toward the South is Ethiopia, a great land. In this land in the South are the people right black. In that side is a well that in the day the water is so cold that no man may drink thereof, and in the night it is so hot that no man may suffer to put his hand in it. In this land the rivers and all the waters are troublous, and some deal salt, for the great heat. And men of that land are easily made drunken and have little appetite for meat. They have commonly great illness of body and live not long. In Ethiopia are such men as have one foot, and they walk so fast that it is a great marvel. And that is a large foot that the shadow thereof covereth the body from sun and rain when they lie upon their backs."
Sir John tells us, too, of a wonderful group of islands, "and in one of these isles are men that have one eye, and that in the midst of their forehead. And they eat not flesh or fish all raw.
"And in another isle dwell men that have no heads, and their eyes are in their shoulders and their mouth is in their breast. . . .
"And in another isle are men that have flat faces without nose and without eyes, but they have two small round holes instead of eyes and they have a flat mouth without lips. . . .
"And in another isle are men that have the lips about their mouth so great that when they sleep in the sun they cover all their face with the lip."
But I must not tell all the "lying wonders of our English knight."* for you must read the book for yourselves. And when you do you will find that it is written with such an easy air of truth that you will half believe in Sir John's marvels. Every now and again, too, he puts in a bit of real information which helps to make his marvels seem true, so that sometimes we cannot be sure what is truth and what is fable.
*Colonel Sir Henry Yule, The Book of Sir Marco Polo.
Sir John wandered far and long, but at last his journeyings ended. "I have passed through many lands and isles and countries," he says, "and now am come to rest against my will." And so to find comfort in his "wretched rest" he wrote his book. "But," he says, "there are many other divers countries, and many other marvels beyond that I have not seen. Also in countries where I have been there are many marvels that I speak not of, for it were too long a tale." And also, he thought, it was as well to leave something untold "so that other men that go thither may find enough for to say that I have not told," which was very kind of him.
Sir John tells us then how he took his book to the holy father the Pope, and how he caused it to be read, and "the Pope hath ratified and affirmed my book in all points. And I pray to all those that read this book, that they will pray for me, and I shall pray for them."
BOOKS TO READ
The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, edited