“Legendary” Eco

The fakes that launched a thousand ships

I picked up Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands (Storia delle terre e dei luoghi leggendari) as part of my mourning process—I searched my local book stores for anything of his that wasn’t already in my bookcase and wishlisted the rest on Amazon. This book contains a few disappointments but is amazing in other ways.

One downside is that there’s not much of Eco’s actual writing in it. Of course, as I’m a fan, I missed that. 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 broken down much more than they were in the brief captions they were afforded.

The positives definitely outweigh these issues. In many ways this book is a key to Eco’s works—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 if the Day Before (L’isola del giorno prima), the false Grail conspiracies on which Foucault’s Pendulum (Il pendolo di Foucault) 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 he 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 Eco fans 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.

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