Umberto Eco’s “Legendary” work
In my twenties I turned my back on much of what I had been reading to that point. Comic books, Fantasy and SciFi novels, and indeed nearly any sort of fiction started feeling disappointing to me. Instead I pored over topics like history, comparative mythology, philosophy, psychology, linguistics, and media theory. I rifled through books that friends and family had left over from esoteric university courses, and searched lonely corners of libraries.
I would still occasionally read fiction, but only if it had been highly recommended; things like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore), Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia), Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad). Foucault’s Pendulum (Il pendolo di Foucault) by Umberto Eco was one of these.
Although some of the other novels I’d read might connect with one or another of my other interests, none did to quite the degree of Eco’s. Moreover, whereas the nonfiction I had been reading typically ran the gamut from somewhat stuffy to challengingly dry, he had managed to weave this same matter into a compelling work of fiction. Still more remarkable, even though it wasn’t at all dumbed down, this thriller was by turns funny, mysterious, sad, suspenseful, and many other things besides. Finally there were numerous pop-culture references placed on an equal footing with all its lofty topics rather than being treated with disdain.
Of unabashedly arcane and dense books such as Foucault’s Pendulum, for which the internet provides annotations and concordances, Eco commented:¹
I was always defined as too erudite and philosophical, too difficult. […] So probably I am writing for masochists. It’s only publishers and some journalists who believe that people want simple things. People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged.
He was less sanguine beforehand with some of his essays pondering who his audience was and even whether such readers existed. Regardless, I agree with his more recent sentiments in my own case. His unusual last name, handed down from his foundling grandfather, was apparently so dubbed by an inventive civil servant as an acronym for ex caelis oblatus (L. “offered by the heavens”), which is certainly how the author seemed to me. I read everything by Eco I could get my hands on; novels, nonfiction works, essays, interviews, as well as many of the works he made references to, leading me down still other rabbit holes.
When Umberto Eco died in February of this year, I was pretty broken up about it. As part of my mourning process , I searched my local bookstores for anything of his that wasn’t already in my bookcase, and wishlisted the rest on Amazon—that’s not where I prefer to buy books, but it’s a good reminder of those I’m looking for. In any case, this is how I came upon The Book of Legendary Lands (Storia delle terre e dei luoghi leggendari). This book contains a few disappointments but is amazing in other ways.
It’s important to note that while the book’s title seems to suggest it’s some sort of fantasy roleplaying supplement, it’s anything but. It actually makes up a trilogy with History of Beauty (Storia della bellezza) and On Ugliness (Italian: Storia della bruttezza). These may seem unrelated, but in the original Italian titles you can see they are all “histories”, though beauty and ugliness are certainly a more closely related pair. The Book of Legendary Lands actually is about places that never existed but were nonetheless obsessively searched for by explorers over decades, centuries, and even millennia in the case of Atlantis.
Some of these “legends” relate to limited and misinterpreted information, but quite a few relate to tall-tales, forgeries, and outright lies. Eco explained why such topics intrigue him:²
As a scholar I am interested in the philosophy of language, semiotics, call it what you want, and one of the main features of the human language is the possibility of lying. A dog doesn’t lie. When it barks, it means there is somebody outside. […] From lies to forgeries the step is not so long, and I have written technical essays on the logic of forgeries and on the influence of forgeries on history. The most famous and terrible of those forgeries is the Protocols [of the Elders of Zion].
One downside is that there’s not much of Eco’s actual writing in it. Of course, as a fan, I missed it. The book is really an extended bibliography: each chapter covers a grouping of legendary places, which he discusses the history and context of, and the writings that contributed importantly to each legend. Quotes from some of those sources round out the chapter. All of this (at least in my edition) is accompanied by amazing historical illustrations, which unfortunately is another place the book falls down: These really needed to be explained much more than they were in the brief captions they were afforded.
The positives definitely outweigh these issues. In many ways this book acts as a key to Eco’s works—it’s a journey through his source materials, the writings he himself was fascinated by. One encounters The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the sewers of Paris which are central to the plot of The Prague Cemetery (Il cimitero di Praga), The theories of the Antipodes and sympathetic magic of which appear in The Island of the Day Before (L’isola del giorno prima), the false Grail conspiracies on which Foucault’s Pendulum hangs, and many more. On this last point, there is also a thorough debunking of the historicity Dan Brown claims of his idiotic oeuvre on the topic, together with those that the overrated sham artist drew upon (not to say plagiarized wholesale).
Just as a sourcebook, this is an impressive piece. Some of the works Eco references I was aware of, but there are many more that I’ll need to explore after reading this. Basically it’s a list of cool things to go learn about. I’d give fellow enthusiasts of signore professore dottore a solid recommendation, but a more cautious one to those with an interest in the legendary worlds discussed but who have not read Eco unless you’re up for something quite dense and scholarly.
If anyone were to look into my sources, many are traceable to Eco. A notional concordance of Diablo II, for example, would show significant overlap with that of Foucault’s Pendulum.
- Stephen Moss, “Umberto Eco: ‘People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged’”, The Guardian, 2011.