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Though once one of the most famous men and influential authors in all of Christendom, Sir John Mandeville's reputation has been in decline for roughly five hundred years.  His book of Travels, published in the mid 1300s, detailed his 34 year journey (1322-56) through the Near East, Middle East and Far East, successively.  For Europeans who knew little or nothing of these regions, his tales of fantastic animals and of the legendary Prestor John seemed plausible enough and the book was assumed to be true in its entirety.  In fact, Shakespeare and Milton were influenced by his work and Columbus is purported to have used it as the basis for his decision to try sailing to China by heading West.

But then the great European explorers began to actually arrive in the places that Mandeville claimed to have visited and, particularly when they reached the Far East, many of his more colorful observations proved to be quite fanciful.  Subsequent investigations by literary critics revealed that great swaths of the book had been lifted from the writings of others, a practice that was not so uncommon in that earlier day, but which necessarily raised further doubts about his veracity.  The backlash against Mandeville ultimately grew to the point where the very notion that he ever traveled came to be doubted and even his existence was questioned by some.

According to Giles Milton, the more charitably inclined critics argued that the whole thing was intended as a literary riddle, but one to which we had lost the key.  Mr. Milton himself, who first came upon the book when it literally fell off the shelf of a Paris bookstore, was so captivated by Mandeville's prose that he set out to retrace his travels and try to vindicate his name.  This book recounts the journey, provides much background on Mandeville's, and offers Mr. Milton's solution to the riddle.

Retracing Mandeville's footsteps, whether actual or fictional, takes Mr. Milton throughout the Middle East, from Constantinople to Cyprus on through Syria, Jerusalem and the Sinai.  An Englishman abroad in a variety of Muslim states--featuring varying levels of paranoia and suspicion--Mr. Milton's adventures and misadventures make for a very amusing and frequently fascinating read.  It is genuinely amazing how many of the sites that Mandeville "visited" still exist and it is very funny that in nearly every one of them, no matter how remote the setting or how anti-Western the nation, Mr. Milton seems to find a monk from somewhere in England.  More germane to the book, he also finds fairly compelling evidence that Sir John must have, or at least may have, truly seen them in person.  Gradually, Mr. Milton builds a case for both the genuine existence of Sir John and for the authenticity of his travels through the Near and Middle East, though even he is dismissive of the possibility of Sir John traveling to the Far East.

Thoughout, Mr. Milton is a companionable guide, his enthusiasm for Sir John infectious, and his solution to the Knight's Riddle well defended.  One assumes that this book is being republished because Mr. Milton's subsequent books have done so well, both with critics and with general readers.  But, by happenstance, it also covers territory--the Islamic world--that we are all interested in right now.  This fortuitous timeliness is merely one more reason to check out a terrific book.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -BOOK SITE : The Riddle and the Knight In Search of Sir John Mandeville, the World's Greatest Traveler By Giles Milton (FSB Associates)
    -ESSAY : Exodus from Genesis : At 17, Chris Stewart lost out on the ultimate teen dream - stardom with   Genesis. At 48, he's living the ultimate mid-life dream - of bucolic bliss  in Spain. And now he has written the book that could make him the new  Peter Mayle. Could stardom beckon again? (Giles Milton)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Nathaniel's Nutmeg
    -INTERVIEW : TRANSCRIPT OF "PATRICIA'S PEOPLE" (11 January 2001, Producer/Presenter: Patricia Glyn, Guest: Giles Milton - Author of 'Big Chief Elizabeth')
    -BOOK SITE : Big Chief Elizabeth (FSB Associates)
    -BOOK SITE : Nathaniel's Nutmeg (FSB Associates)
    -Roanoke Revisited (National Park Service)
    -REVIEW : of BIG CHIEF ELIZABETH The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America By Giles Milton (Janet Maslin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Big Chief Elizabeth (Stephen Pritchard , Books Unlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of Big Chief Elizabeth (Sukhdev Sandhu, Books Unlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of NATHANIEL'S NUTMEG Or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History. By Giles Milton (Kevin Baker, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (Steve McQuiddy, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (Nicholas Lezard, Books Unlimited uk)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (Rachel A. Hyde, The Charlotte Austin Review Ltd)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (David Jays , ZA@Play)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (Patrick Lloyd Hatcher, Pacific Rim Voices)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (Michael Burgin, Pif Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg ( John Berthelsen, Far Eastern Economic Review)
    -REVIEW : of Nathaniel's Nutmeg (Andrew Donaldson, Sunday Times sa)

JOHN MANDEVILLE  :
    -Jean de Mandeville (Catholic Encyclopaedia)
    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Mandeville, Sir John
    -The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Ý2001 : Mandeville, Sir John
    -ETEXT : The Travels of Sir John Mandeville by John Mandeville (Project Gutenberg Release #782)
    -ETEXT : Travels of Sir John Mandeville
    -ETEXT : Medieval Sourcebook: Mandeville on Prester John
    -The San Antonio College LitWeb 'Sir John Mandeville' Page

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