Editor’s note: The following is extracted from The Unfortunate Colonel Despard and Other Studies, by Sir Charles Oman (published 1922). All spelling in the original.
In the vague and misty ideas which were entertained in the middle ages about Eastern geography, a little disagreement about the exact position of Paradise was not likely to cause very hot disputes. But it was otherwise concerning the shape of that locality: here the wise geographers and chroniclers had their own inner consciousness to draw on, and three sets of views were put forth, whose supporters argued angrily against each other’s suppositions. Now no one doubted that the terrestrial Paradise was not touched by the Flood (for, said they, if it had been, we should have been told of it), and that it was quite or almost inaccessible to man. The oldest way of explaining these two facts was by making Paradise a pillar-shaped mountain, with a table-land on its summit, but with steep and inaccessible sides. So great was its height, that we are assured that it all but touched the orbit of the moon. This being the case, we can easily understand that it was undisturbed by the Flood; for although the waters rose forty fathoms above the highest hills, the summit of the mountain of Paradise was forty fathoms above the highest limit of the Deluge. Adding these eighty fathoms to the highest mountain known to a twelfth-century chronicler, we can obtain an idea of the distance from the earth at which the moon was supposed to revolve, for Paradise very nearly touches the moon’s orbit. Allowing 20,000 feet altogether as a fair margin, we cannot but think that the twelfth century was a little weak in its astronomy; indeed we may be deeply thankful that its calculations are not exactly true — for who can tell what dreadful results might not follow if the moon came into collision with Mount Everest, or any other elevation rising a little above the height which was allowed to Paradise?
The same school of geographers who held this view on the moon-orbit, maintained that the world was not a globe, but a mass of land, of various heights in different places, which rests upon the face of a limitless ocean. They argued that Scripture speaks of “the waters under the earth,” and that this would be an incorrect description if the ocean merely formed part of the surface of a terrestrial globe. The earth must, therefore, be a body placed upon the level face of the circumfluent ocean. Moreover, so small did they imagine the world to be, that they objected to the globe-theory that the mountains of the world, and more especially the mountain of Paradise, would prevent the earth from being a perfect figure. So Neckam writes : —
“Ausi sunt veteres terrain censere rotundam,
Quamvis emineat montibus ilia suis.
Quamvis deliciis ornatus apex Paradisi
Lunarem tangit vertice peene globum.”
It was the same school who deduced from Ezekiel v. 5 the fact that a circle drawn from the centre of Jerusalem, with the radius to the extreme west of Spain, would exactly embrace the whole land of the world; for was it not written, “This is Jerusalem: I have set it in the midst of the nations round about”; and “God is King of old, working salvation in the middle of the earth”? So map-making was simplified or complicated (opinions may differ on the subject) by making all the earth centre round Judea, to the sad distortion of outlying peninsulas like Norway or India.
The second school of geographers were prepared to admit that the world was round, and maintained that Paradise was no lofty mountain, but a spacious country, “not less in size than Egypt or India”; for, said they, if Adam had not sinned it would have had to contain the whole human race, and must therefore be of no mean size. Again, the idea that Paradise was the highest point of earth was displeasing to them.
“We must not think,” says Higden, “as do some men of small intellect and little experience, that Paradise is far away from all habitable lands, and reaches up to the orbit of the moon — for neither reason nor nature allows this belief. Neither air nor water could support the weight of such a burden. Moreover, the element of fire, as all wise men agree, fills a space between our lower air and the orbit of the moon. The summit, then, of Paradise would be in the region of fire, where no vegetable can possibly exist, nor human life. How, then, can Adam or the tree of life have been there? And again, if the place were so high, its summit would continually be getting between us and the moon, and causing eclipses, especially in Eastern lands. No one, however, has ever seen or heard of such an eclipse. Besides this, four rivers rise in Paradise, which flow through well-known countries; therefore it must be contiguous to our habitable world, or the rivers could never reach us. The rational view of Paradise is, that it is a large fair region in the extreme East, only separated from the homes of men by that fiery wall, the sword of the cherubim, of which we read in Genesis.”
So much for the views of home-staying sages on the terrestrial Eden. Let us now turn to the testimony of a traveller. Inventive as was the unscrupulous author of Sir John Mandeville’s Travels — who veiled his real identity under the name of that apocryphal knight — there seems no reason to doubt that he had some personal acquaintance with the East. Thus he attained some knowledge both of India and of Cathay, and therefore localized it in neither, but to the south-east, “hard by the land of Prester John.” He is gracious enough to confess that he never went there himself, both because of the distance and of his own unworthiness, but gives us some accounts drawn from conversations with those who had striven to approach it : —
“Paradys,” he had learnt, “is enclosed all about with a wall, of which men know not the matter. For it is covered all over with mosse as it seemeth, and is not of the natur of stone. And that wall stretcheth from the south to the north, and hath but one entry, that is closed with fire burning, so that men may not enter. And ye should understand that no man may by any means approach to that Paradys. For by land no man may go for the wild beasts that are in the deserts, and for the high mountains and huge rocks, and for the dark places that be there right many. And by the rivers may no man go, for that the water runneth rudely and sharpely, because that it cometh down outrageously from the high places above. And it runneth in so great waves that no ship may not row nor sail against it ; and the water roareth so, and maketh so huge noise and so great tempest, that no man may hear other in the ship, though he cry with all the might he have, in the highest voice that he may. Many great lords have essayed with great will many times for to pass by that river toward Paradys, with full great companies; but they might not speed in their voyage: and many died for ‘weariness of rowing against the strong waves; and many became blind, and many deaf, for the dashing and noise of the water; and some were perished and lost within the waves, — so that no mortalle man may approach to that place without special grace of God: therefore of Paradys can I say you no more.”
Among these great lords whom the pseudo-Mandeville mentions, was, according to Paludanus, no less a person than Alexander the Great himself. Indeed we are told that his Eastern conquests were especially undertaken for the purpose of attaining to the Earthly Paradise. When he had reached India, and was nearing his goal, some of his soldiers captured a venerable old man in a ravine, and were about to conduct him to their king, when he said, “Go and announce to Alexander that it is in vain that he seeks Paradise; all his efforts will be fruitless, for the way of Paradise is humility, a way of which he knows nothing.” And in truth Alexander could pursue his purpose no longer from that day, because of the mutiny of his soldiers, who would go no further from their native land.
We have found only one account of a man who was actually asserted to have entered the terrestrial Paradise. This is the tale of the Norwegian Eirek. This Saga of Eirek, however, hardly purports to be an actual itinerary, and was allowed even in the middle ages to be more of a religious novel than a sober narrative. Eirek, we are told, made a vow to find the Earthly Paradise, and having obtained information as to its locality from the Byzantine Emperor, diligently sought for it to the east of India. At last, after passing through a gloomy forest, he came upon a narrow strait separating him from a very beautiful land. From his instructions he recognized that these were Paradise and the river Pison, and determined to cross the water, though the only mode of access to the distant shore was a narrow stone bridge, which was completely blocked up by a dragon of portentous size. The Norseman drew his sword and deliberately walked into the monster’s mouth, which, to his surprise, did not close on him, but vanished. Thus he passed without obstacle to the further shore, where he found the usual characteristics of the Earthly Paradise — undying flowers, marvellous fruits, clear rivulets, but no living being.
At last he came upon a sort of tower suspended in mid-air, to which access could be had by climbing a slender ladder. On ascending to this tower Eirek found a dinner thoughtfully prepared for him in one of its chambers, of which he partook, and soon fell asleep. In his sleep he saw in a vision his guardian angel, who promised him a safe return to Norway, but added that, at the end of ten years, he would be carried away from the earth never to return again. Eirek retraced his steps over the bridge, and through the simulacrum of the dragon, which was apparently nothing more than a show to appal the faint hearted. After long travelling he came back to his native town of Drontheim, and told his story, to the great edification of all true Christian folk. Ten years after, as he went to prayer one morning, he was caught up and carried away by God’s Spirit, and was never again seen of men.
The saga of Eirek is evidently in great part allegorical: we seem to recognize the narrow strait of death which separates the Christian pilgrim from Paradise; and in the dragon, death itself, terrible to the coward, but which, when resolutely faced by the brave man, turns out to be an empty horror with no power to harm.
There are yet two more points connected with the terrestrial Eden which must be mentioned before we pass on to the consideration of the Western deathless land, in which there was also belief in mediaeval times. Firstly, as to the rivers of Paradise mentioned in Genesis, the geographers universally identified the Pison with the Ganges, and the Gihon with the Nile ; but how to bring the sources of these two rivers into juxtaposition with those of the Tigris and Euphrates was indeed a hard task. Those who maintained that Paradise was an island, generally explained the matter by alleging, that although the Ganges might seem to rise in North India, the Tigris in Armenia, and so on, yet really the first appearances of these rivers were not their sources. The real sources were in Paradise, from whence the water was conveyed in a mysterious kind of submarine and subterranean canal to the places where the rivers apparently take their rise.
Those who made Paradise continental had not quite such a hard task in their explanation. They made out that the Ganges, Euphrates, and Tigris actually flowed down from Paradise, over whose boundary they fell in a cataract, which finally divided into three streams. Moreover, they added that the roar of this cataract was so tremendous, that those who approached too near were usually rendered deaf for the rest of their life, and that the children of a tribe of savages who dwelt not far off, were even born deaf, from their ancestors having lived for generations near the cataract. The last thing which we must mention concerning the Earthly Paradise is, that there was a difference of opinion as to whether the famous Phoenix lived in Paradise, or merely close to it. The former view was not so generally held as the latter. It was, however, supported by some who brought forward the passage of Claudian, who speaks of the dwelling of the Phoenix as the “green grove surrounded by circumfluent ocean, beyond the Indians, close to the sunrising.” This might easily be identified with Paradise. The majority, however, placed the home of the Phoenix close to but not within the terrestrial Eden. So we read that Alexander the Great, though he could never reach the earthly Paradise, did come upon the Phoenix in the most easterly point of his expedition, within the same grove where were the talking trees of the sun. So, too, Neckam places the bird in Panchaea in India; and in other authors it is found in its old Herodotean position in Arabia, where it appears in the “Hereford Mappa Mundi.”
So much for the Eastern Paradise, the ancient seat of our first parents. We must now endeavour to give some ideas of a more hazy and mysterious land, the Western region of unending spring and perpetual youth, which Morris represents his seafarers as seeking in his poem “The Earthly Paradise.” Although the voice of ecclesiastical tradition pronounced that in the East, and there alone, was the happy land to be sought, there was nevertheless a mass of legends which insisted on placing it in the West. A very large number of these stories are derived from Welsh or Irish sources, and it seems almost certain that they are not mere mediaeval inventions, but survivals of the old Keltic mythology. Like most other nations, the Kelts had imagined for themselves a soul-land across the Western ocean: and when they were converted to Christianity, and forbidden to look either for a heaven on earth, or for a Paradise in the West, they did not entirely give up their old belief, but merely modified it to a form which did not clash with the new religion. The Western land might not be the earthly Paradise, but none the less it might exist. Such was the true origin of the Land of Avilion or Avalon, the Isle of Apples, to which King Arthur was borne away, and also of the long-sought Isle of St. Brandan. Moreover, the King Arthur of more sober history (I mean the authentic dux bellorum, not the legendary monarch of all Britain), is now asserted by many writers to have been a Keltic demi-god long before he became a Damnonian prince. Sad to say, the all-devouring Sun-myth-theory laid claim to him, as it has to most other heroes, and we were invited to recognize in him the sun sailing into the Western shades in his golden boat, or wrestling at his end with the dark clouds of evening. Arthur, then, to the votaries of this school was a god brought down by euhemerizing means to the form of a man, not a man raised by exaggerated traditions to an over-important place in history. Moreover, if we take this view, certain points in the Arthur of the romances seem well explained by it. Thus we can understand his mysterious and apparently superhuman birth, the strange legend which tells how he was not really King Uther’s son, but was brought to Tintagel by the magic ship, and left on the shore a new-born babe in Merlin’s hands. Thus we can see how he is claimed as brother by the Queen Morgan le Fay, who is certainly no mere human being. Thus it is only right that this mysterious sister should bear him away, after that last dim battle in the West, to some fair land beyond the sea, in the barge wherein Sir Bedivere placed him. He is no man merely departing “to heal him of his deadly wound,” but a superhuman being returning to the place from which he came And as Arthur is held to be no mere Damnonian hero, so Avilion is no mere Glastonbury, as the materializing chronicler would make it. It is the old Keltic soul-land beyond the Western ocean. We may notice, in confirmation of this, that the mediaeval chroniclers of Glastonbury, when they identify it with Avilion, generally add that the Welsh call the place Inysvitrin, the Isle of Glass. Now in the Irish legends a hill or island of glass is invariably mentioned as one of the marvellous features of Fathinnis, the land of departed souls. It is noticeable that the Morgan le Fay, the lady of Avilion, has not from a goddess become an evil spirit, as did Horsel the goddess of the German Venusberg; she is neither angel nor fiend, but a fairy, superhuman without being satanic.
After the Arthurian legend had become popular, Avilion was made the resting place of other heroes. Ogier the Dane came thither, at the end of his life, to rest after all his toils in the castle of Morgan le Fay. So did the famous Paladins, and even, as some say, the great Kaiser Charles himself. In short, it became a sort of Elysian Fields for all the heroes whom the mediaeval mind could admire, but at the same time could not conceive as fulfilling the ideal of the Christian saint. The Christian heaven above was the fit place for the ecstatic adoration of holy men and martyrs, but it was not suited for the heroes of the romances; for them there was imagined a more earthly resting-place, a fairy-land where they might for ever enjoy youth and quiet repose.
After Avilion, the most famous legendary Western land was undoubtedly the Isle of St. Brandan. Brandan is said to have been an Irish monk, and abbot of Birr, at some time in the seventh century. He was induced to undertake his marvellous voyage by a monk, who told him that he had sailed from Ireland till he had at last come to Paradise, which was an island full of joy and mirth, where the earth was as bright as the sun, and everything was glorious, and the half- year he had spent there had slipped by as a few moments. On his return to his abbey his garments were still fragrant with the odours of Paradise. Excited by this story, Brandan embarked in a vessel with some of his monks. We are told in the oldest form of the legend that he sailed due east from Ireland; but as this must have necessarily brought him to England, or some part of North-western Europe, we soon find his voyage transferred to the West. The marvels which he met were extraordinary. Among the first was the astounding spectacle of Judas Iscariot afloat upon an iceberg, who explained to the saint that for one day in the year he was permitted to cool himself from the fires of hell, in consideration of a single good deed which he had performed on earth. Matthew Arnold has versified this episode of the Brandan legend. After passing through a sea filled with icebergs and vexed with storms, Brandan reached a more clement region, where he first came on an island inhabited by sheep alone, which, in consequence of the luxuriance of the herbage, grew as large as oxen. Soon after, the saint came to another island, where he found to his surprise an abbey of twenty-four monks, who informed him that in that isle was ever fair weather, and none of them had ever been sick since they came thither. Yet further on was a third island, where was, in the words of the legend, “a fair well, and a great tree full of boughs, and on every bough sat a fair bird, and they sat so thick on the tree that no leaf of it might be seen, the number of the birds being very great, and they sang so merrily that it was a heavenly noise to hear. Anon one of the birds flew from the tree to Brandan, and with flickering of his wings made a full merry noise, like a fiddle, that the saint never heard so joyful a melodie. Then did the holy man command the bird to tell him why they sat so thick upon the tree.” The answer of the bird was surprising: he explained that he and his companions were once angels — namely, those of the heavenly host who in the time of Lucifer’s rebellion refused to assist either God or His enemies. In punishment for this they were doing penance in the form of birds, but, after many years, were to be readmitted to their lost estate. Leaving the island of birds, the voyagers came to another land, “the fairest country,” we are told, “that any man might see — which was so clear and so bright that it was an heavenly sight to behold; and all the trees were charged with ripe fruit and herbes full of flowers, — in which land they walked forty days and could not see the end thereof; there was alway day and never night, and the country was attemperate, neither too hot nor too cold.” At last, however, Brandan and his companions came to a broad river, on the banks of which stood a young man, apparently an angel, who told him that this stream divided the world in twain, and that no living man might cross it. On the further bank they could see the true Paradise, but might not approach it; wherefore they retraced their steps, and set sail for Ireland. They reached their country in safety, but were surprised to hear that they had been absent, not a few months, but seven long years.
Such is the legend of St. Brandan, and the existence of these marvellous isles to which he had attained was firmly believed for centuries. Sometimes men declared that they were not far from the west of Ireland, and could be seen in clear weather ; but whenever an expedition was fitted out to reach them, they somehow seemed to disappear. More frequently the islands were described as lying beyond the Canaries. There lay, as the Portuguese declared, the island which had been sometimes lighted upon by accident, but which when sought could never be found. Its existence was regarded as so certain that we are told of one adventurer who received a formal grant of it “when it should be found.” And when the Portuguese Crown ceded to Spain its rights over the Canaries, the island of St. Brandan was specially included, being described as “the island which has not yet been found.” In 1526, 1570, and again in 1605, expeditions set sail from the Canaries to discover this land; but all met with uniform failure. Still the belief died hard, and did not become extinct for many years after the third of these unsuccessful voyages. Anyone who has the curiosity to look over the old atlases of the seventeenth century, will find as late as 1630, the Isle of Brandan delineated as an island of no great size, lying west of Ireland and north west of the Canaries; it is even said that in one map published as late as the beginning of the eighteenth century, this fabulous land is still indicated.
There is yet remaining one more belief which ought to be mentioned in this place — that of the Fountain of Youth. The original locality, it is true, was in the East as is shown in the fabulous letter of Prester John to the Byzantine Emperor Manuel; indeed the Pseudo-Mandeville says that he found it himself in Ceylon, only it was not true that one draught of it gave perpetual youth — this was only acquired by a regular course of several years’ drinking. He had only time to try it for two days, found it pleasant to the taste, and thought he felt all the better for it, but experienced no occult effect. However, in the fourteenth century the fountain migrated to the most western of the Canaries. It was not even destroyed by the discovery of America, but was only relegated to one of the Bahamas in the West Indies. Finally, it receded to the mainland of North America, and was sought by Soto in Florida. There, as was to be expected, it was not to be found, and it became obsolete long before the day of the final disappearance of St. Brandan’s Isle. Two more beliefs which attributed wonders to the West may be passed over as not bearing any relation to the Earthly Paradise, though proceeding probably from similar sources in the old Keltic mythology. These were St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a sort of subterranean soul-land, modified by Christianity into an entrance to the region of purification by suffering; and the island in a lake of Ulster in which no one could die. There, as we read, when the inhabitants reached extreme old age and became nothing but a burden to themselves, they had to be carried to the mainland before their spirit could depart. This is no doubt another perverted form of the old belief in the deathless land of the West.
In conclusion, there is one more view which we venture, with all deference, to suggest. Surely the mediaeval folk were much the happier for all these ideas. Our own map of the world is dreadfully deficient in romance: it is really very hard to feel an eager interest in the exploration of Central Africa, or the discovery of the South Pole. If some traveller does delete the last white patch in the map of the Congo Free State, or push up some ice-crack to an open Antarctic Sea, we do not expect to gain any great good from it, or to hear any particularly startling news about these regions. It will be the difficulty of the task, not its results, that will direct attention to them. The discovery of a few more tribes of thoroughly uninteresting negroes, or a few more ice-blocked bays, has nothing in it to stir the heart of the world. We look for no marvels to be unveiled, no great problems that are to be solved. The naturalist may indeed be gladdened by the knowledge of a new species of Arctic gull, or a few varieties of tropical plants ; the collector of folk-lore may rejoice over some new and original negro funeral ceremonies; the merchant may find a new market for his cottons, — but these things will not prove very interesting to the mass of mankind.
Now in the middle ages everything was exactly the reverse of this. The greater part of the world’s surface was still unknown. There was hardly anything on which the adventurous traveller might not come. He might reach populous lands and cities, rich far beyond the ideas of the European world; he might, on the other hand, come to the land of the griffin and the flying serpent, or, as Shakespeare puts it in Othello, to
“antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven,”
“The Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.”
There was a glorious uncertainty in these voyages of discovery: one man would find the passage to India round the Cape of Good Hope, or kingdoms like Mexico or Peru; another would follow after equally uncertain rumours, and meet nothing but disaster, or even never be heard of again. Discovery could not possibly manage to be uninteresting in those days; and as if there were not enough real marvels to be found, the legends were continually holding out fabulous ones for the adventurous to seek. Now of all the legends, it can hardly be disputed that the legends of the Earthly Paradise were the most attractive. Men might not desire at once to leave their present life for the search after the beautiful land of endless rest without death; but still it was a comfortable feeling to know that such a land did exist. If a man’s life went hopelessly wrong, if he was in despair and felt that the world was out of joint, there was still this refuge left for him; it only needed a little more perseverance and courage than that of the last voyager who had almost reached the happy land, and then there would be for ever a quiet and blissful repose in some Avilion of the Western sea. We do not say that the men of the fourteenth or fifteenth century were happier than we of the twentieth; but certainly it was something not to be bound down by the prosaic bonds of that knowledge which forbids us to dream that we may
“Some day be at rest,
And follow the shining sinking sun down into the shining West.”
The world grows terribly small, and as it shrinks the glory of romance and adventure dies away.