Paddy Leigh Fermor’s historical imagination

I have previously quoted Arnold Toynbee, whose immersive reading of History allowed him to ‘see’ – through what Iain McGilchrist would call the world’s “semi-transparently” – historical incidents taking place as it were before his eyes.

In a similar vein, I love this excerpt from one of Paddy Leigh Fermor’s letters, which I heard quoted by John Julius Norwich at a talk not too long ago. He is imagining the route of an elephant called Abulahaz sent by Haroun-al-Rachid as a present to Charlemagne in 802 AD:

I wonder which route he took? Bagdad-Palmyra-Aleppo-Antioch, then by sea probably to Bari and along the Appian Way to Rome; then north, over the Alps at the Brenner, across Germany and up the Rhine? Or Venice, perhaps, then Vienna and along the Danube? I like to think that perhaps the Caliph sent him via the Hellespont or the Bosphorus and through the Byzantine Empire – they were on fairly good terms till the end of 802. But then they would have had to cross the new Bulgarian state, reigned over by a horrible khan called Krum, who, at banquets with his boyars, used to drink out of the skull of his defeated enemy the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus, bisected and lined with silver. They were a rotten lot. I bet if they had spotted Abulahaz they’d have eaten him. But if they had got through Bulgaria all right (travelling after dark perhaps) things would have been better in what later became Hungary, because Charlemagne had defeated the beastly Avars there, and scattered them eight years before. There would have been a few Slav settlers gaping at the doors of their huts as the little troop went by: Abulahaz, his mahout and grooms, and probably an escort of Bedouin lancers.The Hungarian plain was ideal elephant country then – all swamp and forest, unlike now. (One is so prone to forget that a squirrel in the reign of King John could travel from the Severn to the Humber without once touching ground.) I do hope the elephant went that way, because it’s just the way I went, and am writing about. I could have come nose-to-trunk with his phantom on the banks of the Tisza (a Hungarian tributary of the Danube) as he squirted cool jets all over himself among the reeds……

Full transcript here:



The Pedagogy of Perception

Last Friday, I attended a fascinating forum on Liberal Education put on by Benedictus at Blackfriars in Oxford. Its title was The Liberal Arts -Education and Society.

Every guest was invited to offer a 5 minute reflection on one aspect of Liberal Education. Anthony Radice, for instance, offer these thoughts on Memory and Liberal Education.

I wanted to make a few exploratory remarks about Knowledge and Perception, and ended up speaking mainly about horses…

I started by looking at how Bitzer defines a horse in Hard Times (“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth…etc”) and said that those of us who defend a “knowledge-rich education” are too often lampooned as calling for this sort of desiccated approach.

I contrasted Bitzer with Sissy Jupe, who is unable to ‘define’ a horse because she has grown up amongst them. Knowledge, for her, in this domain at least, is entwined with Life – and is vivified as a result. This, I argued, is essential for a cultivating a rich, healthy perception of the world. C S Lewis makes the same point in Abolition of Man, arguing for an education that has “some blood and sap in it—the trees of knowledge and of life growing together.

I then used C S Lewis to say that not only should knowledge be conveyed vividly, but affirmatively too:

Of Ruksh and Sleipnir and the weeping horses of Achilles and the war-horse in the Book of Job—nay even of Brer Rabbit and of Peter Rabbit—of man’s prehistoric piety to ‘our brother the ox’—of all that this semi-anthropomorphic treatment of beasts has meant in human history and of the literature where it finds noble or piquant expression—

I wondered what effect a presentation of knowledge in such a way – Vivid (memorable) and with a Positive / Affirmative Disposition – has on students’ Perception. I marshalled Blake (“I look through [the eye], and not with it…”); Coleridge (“We receive but what we give…”); Owen Barfield (“…if quantum physics is true, we see reality not as it is, but as we are…”) to make the point that we have a choice about the way we attend to the world, and that the world responds in kind.

I finished by saying that it was an under-explored job of teachers to aid this effort so that their students’ world is more animated, more enchanted, more pulsating (and by extension less alienated) than it would be otherwise. I said that teachers could perhaps put more thought into whether their lessons were going to have the same effect on their students as the experience I have recounted by Toynbee, who “still retained, some forty years after one experience of the kind, an abiding sense of personal participation in the war of 90-80 B.C. between Rome and her Italian allies…” 

Could there be more thought, analysis and experimentation to develop a Pedagogy of Perception?