John Crowley’s Aegypt Quartet asks the question, “What if there was more than one history of the world?”; David Walton’s Quintessence, on the other hand, actually explores one of these alternate histories. It is set in a world that follows the rules of known science in the sixteenth century–which means the world is flat and alchemy is possible.
Lord Chelsey arrives from a voyage to the edge of the world on board the Western Star, but his arrival in London is unlike any undergone during the Age of Exploration. His entire crew is dead before they dock and the diamonds, gold, and silver that they brought from the distant continent of Horizon has turned to salt and sand.
Christopher Sinclair wants to find out why. A world explorer with enlightened views of science in a scholastic society that still reveres Aristotle as the final authority of knowledge, he has his eyes set on Horizon, a continent literally situated at the end of the world. In Protestant England he is feared as a sorcerer and a heretic, but he is really an alchemist who employs the empirical methodology of Sir Francis Bacon decades before the founding of the Royal Society.
Stephen Parris, a surgical doctor, is similarly beset by a European culture that misunderstands his work. Cutting corpses open to see how the human body works is considered a desecration of the sacred, but it is what obsesses Parris: the chance to see how illnesses work and find a way to cure them. Both Parris and Sinclair are united in their quest to conquer death using science, but they are at cross-purposes until the Spanish-led Catholics coup the Protestant kingdom and an inquisition descends on them both.
Soon Parris, Sinclair, and Catherine, Parris’ adventurous daughter who is eager for science as well and has made the acquaintance of a mysterious manticore, are off on an epic ocean voyage to discover the remains of Lord Chelsey’s colony. Sinclair leads the desperate crew onward with the promises of wealth and riches, but he really has eyes for only one thing: to discover the secrets of quintessence, the fifth element than binds earth, air, fire, and water.
Quintessence may be called the quintessential historical fantasy, situated as it is at the historical moment where what we consider fantasy is about to give way to rigorous science, as superstition slowly becomes erudition at the end of sixteenth century. Only in this alternate history, the fantasy stays through the dawn of science.
What is truly original about Walton’s historical fantasy, more than the idea of alchemy being real, is his combination of the ideas of quintessence and Darwinism in his explanation of the evolution of magical Horizon creatures. From the leviathan in the great ocean to the iron fish that can transform at will into heavy metal to the memory-sharing manticores, all the creatures on Horizon use quintessence to hunt or protect themselves from hunters in a science-magical ecosystem. Slowly the settlers learn from these creatures’ physiognomies in order to develop new kinds of technology.
Quintessence is a unique mix of historical fantasy that never forgets its historical situation, even if it might introduce Darwinism in all but name, along with other modern ideas–that’s the game of alternate history, after all. It is also unique in being equally a science fantasy. Finally, it’s a fun comment on some tropes of sixteenth century colonization and exploration, such as the voyages of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Sir Humphrey Davies, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Ferdinand Magellan, who were each either lost at sea, brought worthless metals home thinking they were gold and diamonds, founded failed colonies, converted the natives, or made Europeans aware of the true size of the globe.
Canada has been celebrating the discovery of Captain Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated ship, the Erebus, since early September. Along with the Terror, captained by Francis Crozier, this ship carried Franklin and his crew on their fatal quest for the Northwest Passage, which lasted three years (1845-1848). For most of that time, Franklin was stranded, a prisoner of the arctic ice. When finally his ships sank, the crew was forced to go overland on foot. They all eventually met their end, through cold and starvation.
This latest–and first successful–search for Franklin’s Lost Expedition was the last of six made since 2008, according to Tom Spears from Postmedia (“Shipwreck”). But many other expeditions to recover the ships were undertaken during the twentieth and nineteenth centuries–including that of Knud Rasmussen who visited the region from 1921-1924. He was also the first European to cross the Passage by dogsled.
So, you may ask, What does all this have to do with a mythopoeic Canadian poet who was active during the ’60s and ’70s and is now regrettably out-of-print?
Gwendolyn MacEwen’s volume of poetry Afterworlds contains a narrative long poem based on Rasmussen’s search for the Franklin Expedition, entitled “Terror and Erebus.” It takes the form of a fictional dialogue between Rasmussen and Franklin, the historical past conversing–or failing to converse–with the narrative present. Rasmussen follows the explorer through the same unforgiving landscape, his only advantage being the comforts of more advanced technology. Decades and Franklin’s watery grave separate them from each other, but the present nonetheless strives to connect to the past.
MacEwen also deals with history in King of Egypt, King of Dreams, The T.E. Lawrence Poems, and, to a lesser extent, Julian the Magician. “Terror and Erebus” is a fusion of history and fantasy–that is to say, her own mystical reflections projected onto the past. She balances her historical, documentary subject matter with her impeccable poetic sensibility. The Arctic landscape becomes a wasteland where the self loses itself, faced with the harshness of the cosmos. These are some, at times, terrifying verses. The staggered lines recall the jagged fjords of ice that Captain Franklin would have had to traverse on his miserable voyage, his existential journey. Now, with the discovery of the Terror, it is a timely moment to reflect on Franklin’s terror at finding himself in this frigid, blank landscape.
MacEwen’s long poem opens with the following mood-setting lines:
King William Island . . . latitude unmentionable.
But I’m not the first here.
They preceded me, they marked the way
………………. .with bones
White as this ice is, whiter maybe,
The white of death,
………………..of purity” (41).
Rasmussen attempts to interpret the signs that mark the trail of the expedition. He has the impression that Franklin “created the Passage / By willing it to be” (42). Furthermore, Franklin’s quest is interpreted as his search for “a passage from imagination to reality” (42). In this respect, “Terror and Erebus” explores the dividing line between reality and fantasy in way that can be compared to Julian’s illusion-spinning in Julian the Magician.
Franklin responds to Rasmussen, or at least it seems that way. His voice never really does reach Rasmussen, although the reader can see how Franklin ‘responds’ to Rasmussen’s speech, in a way. “I brought them here, a hundred and twenty-nine men, / Led them into this bottleneck, / This white asylum,” remarks Franklin. “My ships, the Terror, the Erebus / Are learning the meaning of their / names” (43). Erebus is a personification of darkness, a god born from Chaos in Greek mythology. The irony of the ship’s name is appropriate; the ship is surrounded desperately by endless white, but the history Rasmussen is trying to unravel is full of darkness.
MacEwen’s interests in dualities, psychology, and archetypes appear throughout the poem, adding depth to the existential situation in which Franklin and Rasmussen both find themselves alone. Although Franklin did not necessarily think these thoughts, they are all a part of the poet’s reflection on his subjection to the landscape. Franklin asks the captain of the Terror:
“Crozier, what laws govern
This final tug of war
between life and death,
the human polarities?
……………….. The ice
Is its own argument” (46).
After a harsh winter, Franklin abandons his ships struck in an ice flow that is “drifting south / Itself, like a ship” (47). He does so “in a kind of horrible birth, / a forced expulsion / From those two wombs” (47). Later, punning off Crozier’s name, which refers to a bishop’s staff containing a cross, the overland march becomes a walk towards crucifixion on Good Friday, “April 21, 1848” in the log (48).
The geography of the Arctic is alien, and the metaphysical truths Franklin believes in hold no more reality when he has sailed beyond Ultima Thule:
“Whoever said that Hell was darkness?
What fool said that light was good
………………..and darkness evil?
In extremes all things reverse themselves” (49).
One of the most memorable images, in my reading, is of the ivory visors Rasmussen remarks upon, the kind with narrow slits that Inuit wear to keep away the snow glare. Existentially overwhelmed in the sheer vastness of the Arctic, the expedition can only protect their naked eyes with “those ridiculous / instruments / That keep the cosmos out” (50).
With no food to eat, the Franklin expedition may have resorted to cannibalism. MacEwen depicts this horrific likelihood with a series of startling images:
“the snow turns red, there are sounds
………………..of men puking, and sounds
Of knives scraping bone.
They are eating
………………..one of their dead” (50).
Now that the expedition has fallen so far beyond what is considered human and reasonable, Rasmussen remarks, “Now Crozier, now you’ve come / To the end of science” (52). Wishing for their salvation is futile. Crozier asks, “What magnet do I know of / That will pull us south?” (53)
Franklin’s crew were all doomed. Scarce traces of the expedition survived, though there was one cairn containing a message supposedly left behind by the survivors. Part of what enabled the 2014 expedition to finally discover the Erebus at the bottom of the sea, however, was the testimony of Inuit oral history. Rasmussen uncovers this testimony in the poem from the Inuit Qaqortingneq, who says, “I remember the day / When our fathers found a ship” (54). The Inuit, like Rasmussen, are faced with a mystery: what to make of the strange, foreign ship they find captured in the ice floe. Unfamiliar with European technologies, “they went aboard the great ship / As though into another world / Understanding nothing” (54).
The poem concludes with a return to Rasmussen’s conviction that Franklin, though he failed to find it, was nonetheless utterly convinced of the Northwest Passage’s existence. In the end, there is a difference between this absolute certainty and the fact that we “cannot know […] where the passage lies /Between conjecture and reality” (57). Frankin had deduced that the Northwest Passage did exist, yet he died trying to find it. Certainty is not the same as discovering the reality behind that certainty. That was the tragedy of the Franklin Expedition, and it is also what makes uncovering the past so difficult–indeed, it is essentially impossible.
In our day, light has been shone onto the Erebus, the god of darkness’s ship. Our knowledge of Franklin’s tragedy will become fuller in due time. Just as Rasmussen attempts to recover the Terror and Erebus , our age can look back upon MacEwen’s “Terror and Erebus,” and her potent reflections on the sacrifices involved in exploration.
MacEwen, Gwendolyn. “Erebus and Terror.” Afterworlds. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987. 41-57.
Spears, Tom. “Shipwreck identified as Franklin’s flagship.” Montreal Gazette. 2 Oct. 2014. A2
John Dee was Queen Elizabeth I’s court astrologer, mathematician, and geographer–and he might have become the first lord of the North American territory we now call Canada.
Dee is known as a “Renaissance man” for the breadth of his knowledge and for his tendency towards the occult. On a trip to the Continent, he supposedly attempted to summon angels with fellow sorcerer Edward Kelley. Back home, he was a respected courtier whom Elizabeth would often consult–he set the day for her coronation, for example, based on favourable astrological conditions. His knowledge of geography enabled Sir Francis Drake to circumnavigate the globe. In addition to coining the term “British Empire,” Dee is known for employing a spy network, being the first to sign his name under the code “007.”
One gift Dee gave to his Queen was a book called The Limits of the British Empire, or in Latin Brytanici Imperii Limites, which he wrote between 1577 and 1578. A wonderful edition of his work, with an introduction, was printed in 2004 by editors Ken MacMillan and Jennifer Abeles based on a manuscript copied by an amanuensis in 1593, which I have consulted.
Among the things Dee claims in the book is that Queen Elizabeth had rights–the justification for which go back to ancient times–to most of the territory we now call North America. Dee claims that King Arthur and his knights conquered lands near the Arctic Sea, even a territory we now identify with Baffin Island. He also negotiated that he should be allowed ownership of all lands above the 50th parallel. Except for a thin interval of land just above the Canadian border with the modern U.S., that would encompass all of Our True North Strong and Free!
Of course, at the time, England’s colonial strength in its first decade of New World settlement was not a powerful force. Sir Walter Raleigh’s settlement on Roanoke Island proved, in the end, to be a disaster, although it produced a few fascinating discoveries and occasioned John White to paint a series of watercolours of Native folk. Roanoke Island was abandoned mysteriously and no one to this day knows why.
Aside from such ephemeral settlements, England’s imperial strength was mostly limited to the occasional raid on Spanish ships. Privateers such as Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Drake were both explorers and ship-plunderers. Martin Frosbisher and Humphrey Gilbert were given licenses to start overseas colonies close to the Northwest Passage. However, there was a distinct lack of overseas activities through much of the 1590s, when the surviving manuscript of Brytanici Imperii Limites was written.
John Dee’s book advocated for the recovery of ancient British lands, including the North Atlantic, the British Isles, Scandinavia, the Iberian Peninsula, and half of North America. His sources ranged from Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Geraldus Mercator, Jacobus Choyen of s’Hertogenbosh, Hector Boece, and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Brut–a chronicle of Arthurian legends.
It was becoming urgent that England compete with Spain for the New World, which Dee occasionally named “Atlantis” or “Meta Incognita.” The Spanish empire was at its height and came to be associated with the cruelty that it was inflicting on its Native people and the barbaric human-sacrificing rituals of the Aztecs. (Of course, when England did settle the New World, they spread another wave of cruelty across the Native populations, in addition to the spreading of lethal diseases. ) While Spain sought to conquer through papal bulls, planting markers, and reading texts of conquest to often illiterate indigenous peoples (that never goes down well), the Brits divided their land with fences and houses.
Frosbisher’s plan to settle parts of North America was a state secret, but also an object of interest to the Spanish ambassadors in London. Any settlement in the New World, which was seen as territory partitioned between Spain and Portugal, could lead to an act of war.
Alexander VI (aka Roderigo Borgia) wrote the famous papal bull Inter Cetera in 1493 (a hundred years before Dee’s manuscript was written) and the still more famous Treaty of Tordesillas. Both these documents split the territories in New World between the two Iberian countries along an arbitrary line in the Atlantic Ocean. None of this allowed England a toehold.
How could Dee overcome this opposition? Through sneaky legal loopholes and little imagination.
Basically, he alluded to a section of Justinian’s Digest that might well be the foundation of that oldest and dearest piece of legislation: finders keepers, losers weepers. Next time you find a penny on the ground, you can tell your irate friend that “what presently belongs to no one becomes by natural reason the property of the first taker.”
Of course, the land was owned–by hundreds of thousands of Native American peoples. In all fairness, John Dee might not have been aware of this truth, since the New World was still vastly undiscovered. But he might have taken the hint from Raleigh’s Virginia settlement that other people might already live there.
Although Lord Burghley doubted Dee’s accuracy, he laid the legal groundwork for England to claim everything from Terra Florida (which is Florida) to the territory of the Duke of Moscovia in Russia.
Now the imagination came in. Tracing the ancestry of Britain from Troy through the legendary founder Brutus and down to King Arthur, Dee referred to how Arthur conquered thirty kingdoms in the North Atlantic and Scandinavia. Since Arthur conquered these lands for Britain first, Elizabeth had a right to them now, so long as she settled the land. Arthur, a Welsh king, was supposedly an ancestor of the Welsh Tudors, whose arrival on the English throne in 1485 signaled the revival of the “British” empire, after a long domination of England under the Saxons.
Dee’s mysterious Welsh source book–supposed to be the same nonexistent book on which Monmouth bases his History of the Kings of Britain–claims that King Arthur conquered the Arctic regions in the 530s. Arthur’s conquests of the Arctic, in which he encountered pygmies (Sibereans? Proto-Inuit tribesmen?), are recorded in Arthuri Gestis, or The Deeds of Arthur. During Arthur’s voyages, he encountered many troubles, including fast-flowing seas that blocked his passage to Northern Norway. Four thousands knights lost their lives in these treacherous passages among the straits of Norway. In the mountains around the North Pole, there were cities in Arthur’s time. The lands he conquered include Iceland, Ireland, Greenland, Shetland, Orkney, the Faroe Islands (Friseland), Grocland (NW corner of Greenland), Icaria (an island off of either Ireland or Labrador), Estotiland, and Drogio.
Estotiland is Baffin Island. Dee’s source about the Estotiland came from the journey of two Venetians to the Arctic region in the thirteenth century, Niccolo and Antonio Zeno. In 1558, Niccolo Zeno, a relative of the pair, published an account of this extraordinary story.
Zeno describes Estotiland as an island smaller than Iceland with a mountain in the middle and four rivers. It was ruled by a king in a beautiful, populous city, who kept interpreters. Legends told of a famous library of ancient texts in a strange language only two people in the city could speak, though the library was eventually destroyed. This Scandinavian civilization had gold mines, cultivated and brewed beer, and spoke like Europeans, trading with Greenland for skins. Possibly the texts were in Latin, a language uneducated commoners could not speak.
When most Canadians think of Baffin Island, they probably think of an expansive wasteland filled with ice and snow. But who knew it once had a king?
The Zeno brothers also discovered the “province of Drogio,” which likely corresponds to Labrador. How about we sign a petition to make Newfoundland and Labrador to change their name to Newfoundland and Drogio? They even supposedly landed in Saguenay, Quebec (or “Saguenaya”) two hundred years before Jacques Cartier did in 1535!
In addition to this fascinating Canadian content, I find how Dee’s book absolutely busts the myth that Christopher Colombus discovered the New World to be particularly gratifying.
His other sources for Brytanici Imperii Limites come from semi-legendary figures, such as Saint Brendan, who sailed from the British Isles in 560. He landed in Bermuda, which he called Insula Demonum, or “Island of Demons.” Should we be surprised that he claimed to see supernatural frights on an island known to exist in what is now known as the “Bermuda Triangle”? (Fun fact: Cambrien Machutus, a sailor on Brendan’s ship, became St. Malo, which became the name of the city in which Jacques Cartier was born in 1491!)
In 1170, Lord Madoc, a Welsh prince, an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth, was outraged that his father would leave him no inheritance. So he set sail across the world. He settled, of all places, in Mobile Bay, Alabama! “Devil’s Backbone,” a mound in Indiana, is attributed to the Welsh Prince. This was the first British colony in the New World and Dee used it as precedent to establish England’s rights to conquer the new continent.
There is such a wealth of stories in these legends … but how to separate reality from myth? I’m afraid I do not have the answers. A king on Baffin Island, a Welsh nobleman settling Alabama, John Dee as Lord Canada, and King Arthur as Emperor of the Arctic … these are only a few of the truly radical stories out there. Supposedly Egyptians sailed up the Mississippi, which I cannot confirm or deny, though Neil Gaiman certainly confirms this in American Gods.
I would certainly like to credit these tales. They are the type of stories archeological evidence can do little to confirm.
In conclusion, Brytanici Imperii Limites is a fine example of “historical fantasy” used to justify imperialism and the “rights” of the English to settle North America. It reveals that the justification the British first used for their settlements in North America was based on a 900-year-old lie in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.
“Dee built an empirical edifice of pseudohistorical sources to provide practical political advice to the English State,” say MacMillian and Abeles (26). But after a certain point, pseudohistory becomes real history. I imagine that Dee’s book can provide available inspiration to writers of historical fantasy or alternate history for generations to come.