Could the Artificial Paradise of the Assassins be a Fairy Otherworld?

After a hiatus, weekly posts have returned on Saturdays. Today, I propose a modest theory about the Old Man of the Mountain, Hassan ibn Sabbah, the leader of the Nizari Ismai’lis, which are more infamously known (however unfairly) as the Assassins.

I have discussed the Old Man of the Mountain in the past in the context of the famous Assassin’s Creed franchise. In this post, I try to understand how exactly Middle English readers would have understood the reference to the Old Man of the Mountain in The Book of John Mandeville. I propose in fact that they would have interpreted this account as a moral allegory not dissimilar to certain fairy tales in which the seductions of fairy land tempt the victim away from aspiring to heaven by presenting the victim with a garden of earthly delights.

Before I begin, here is the entire reference to Catholonabeus, which is Mandeville’s name for Hassan ibn Sabbah. This is a free translation from the text edited by Kohanski and Benson. (Catholonabeus is a Latinized corruption of a Syrian word meaning ‘killer.’)

Paradise Ismaili
The Old Man of the Mountain

In this land was a rich men that men called Catholonabeus, and he had a fair, strong castle. And he had made a good, strong wall all around the hill. Within was a fair garden in which were many fair trees bearing all manner of fruit that he could find. And he planted all manner of herbs of good smell. And there were many fair wells, and nearby were built many fair halls and chambers endowed with gold and azure. And he made birds and beasts that turned around via an engine within a clock and they sang as if they were alive. And he had in his gardens maidens of 15 years of age, the fairest that he could find, and male children of the same age, and they were clothed in gold and he said that they were angels. And he had made a conduit under the earth so that when he wanted he could sometimes run milk, sometimes wine, sometimes honey. And this place is called Paradise. And when any young bachelor of that country, knight or squire, came to find solace, [Catholonabeus] led him into his Paradise and showed him many wonderful things and his maidens and his wells and  he also sounded his musical instruments in a high tower that could not be seen and said that they were angels of God and that here was Paradise that God granted to those who believed when He said thus: “I shall give you a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Marco Polo’s account of Hassan ibn Sabbah develops this point to say that all those who the Old Man of the Mountain seduced with his pleasure garden he also persuaded to carry out political murders. Their reward was re-entry into Paradise and for that, they were willing to do anything.

My initial impression of this account is that it is an Orientalist wonder tale, a European projection of fears about the Islamic ‘Other.’ Certainly the myth of a false paradise implies a degree of alterity to the man who built it. He cannot be said to be an entirely orthodox man and certainly not a Christian one. However, nowhere in Mandeville is Catholonabeus called a Saracen or a Muslim. And nowhere is his Paradise ever explicitly condemned as a false heaven. If anything, it almost seems as though the author celebrates the human ingenuity that could produce such a marvel in this world. The mechanical birds and magnificent the clock (which reminds me of a certain water-clock the caliph Harun al-Rashid of One Thousand and One Nights fame gifted to none other than King Charlemagne) suggest a technological advancement far ahead of what was common in Europe at the time.

My second impression of this account is that it corresponds fairly closely the idea of a wainscot society in fantasy criticism. A “wainscot” refers to a society of fantastic beings that exists within the mundane world, although this society can only be accessed ‘through the cracks.’ For example, there might be fairies living in a house’s actual wood paneling, which is what a ‘wainscot’ is. Or, to return to Catholonabeus, a secret society of hedonistic pleasure seekers (and their servants) might exist concealed in the mountains and within a castle, as the artificial paradise appears to be. The fact that the servants are called ‘angels’ furthermore links them with the supernatural, although they may merely be false angels.

Angels are only a small step away from fairies. Now consider if this wainscot society situated in a wondrous garden of paradise formed a sort of Celtic Otherworld.

In Sir Orfeo, a Middle English verse romance, a knight ventures into a fairy Otherworld that resembles the New Jerusalem, for all the bright and precious stones that adorn the buildings. The New Jerusalem is “the proude court of Paradis” (376). It is an otherworldly, wondrous utopia like the artificial paradise, only Sir Orfeo’s is the real deal. Nonetheless, it might be said that a tradition of viewing Paradise as an Otherworld does exist in the medieval English literature. Why not an artificial paradise?

Celtic fairy lore mentions the perils of being caught dancing in fairy circles and the danger of losing oneself to the seductions of fairy land, the ‘perilous realm.’ Consider Catholonabeus as a kind of Oberon, only with the skill of La Belle Dame Sans Merci at seducing young men with the pleasures of his garden. The dangers a young man might face with the Old Man of the Mountain come remarkably close to the ones a knight might expect from a fairy.

Then recall the tradition of fairies as the puckish, arbitrary dispensers of harm or aid. Never anger a fairy, or there will be hell to pay. Keep giving them milk in a dish by the windowsill and they will be kind to you. But you just never know. A fairy might decide to play the trickster no matter what you try to do.

Although Mandeville strangely omits all mention of the Assassins from his account, if Catholonabeus controlled his Assassins rather like a fairy king, he would have been considered a dangerous man. Like a Mafia don, a fairy with the power to murder you should better be placated.

Although I let my fancy fly a little in my last paragraph, I believe there are nevertheless suggestive cues in the account of the Old Man of the Mountain to suggest that one kind of text that might have influenced how Middle English readers interpreted John Mandeville’s account is what I will loosely call the ‘fairy story’ or ‘fairy romance.’ Kings and squires venturing near a fairy mound had better pour wax in their ears not to hear the seductive siren music of the fairyland. In the same way, the same heroes might be well instructed to turn a deaf ear to anything Catholonabeus promises and to not be fooled by his hidden musical instruments that they are in the real Paradise.

But just in case anyone needs a convincer, think about this.

Fairy rings are known to grow bigger the deeper you enter them. Although they look small, as if they do not contain much space, once you enter one, they are bigger on the inside (rather like the inside of the Doctor’s TARDIS).

Hassan ibn Sabbah was lord of Alamut castle in Northern Iran. Unfortunately, this castle is much too small, narrow, and rocky to have housed a full scale garden of paradise. However, a certain vineyard does thrive on Alamut to this day. It was rumoured to have been planted by Hassan himself.

Although it is not much to look at, the vineyard is a slice of green life thriving in the otherwise spartan ruin of the Ismai’li castle.

Has anyone ever paused to see how big that vineyard is on the inside?

A modern-day shot of the castle of Alamut.

Ember Nights in Guy Gavriel Kay and John Crowley

tiganaLove and Sleep









In Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana and John Crowley’s Love and Sleep,part of his Aegypt sequence, characters born with cauls are summoned in the middle of the night to walk among the dead. Kay calls these individuals Night Walkers. Their story stretches back to real-world superstitions about children born with a membrane around their heads. This rare phenomenon, according to Wikipedia, occurs in 1/80,000 births, and it was supposed to mark children for good luck and greatness.

Crowley explains in his book that in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, children born with cauls participated in nightly battles against witches and evil spirits for the renewal of the land’s fertility. This battle is depicted in Tigana when one of the main characters, Baerd, who was born in a caul, meets other Night Walkers like himself, who then fight evil spirits with swords made of cornstalks in order to restore the land blighted by the tyrant Brandin. Crowley’s Night Walker, on the other hand, is a semi-literate coal miner from the Cumberlands of Kentucky, Floyd Shaftoe. While the heroic Baerd’s fight against the undead and the rough, working-class life of Floyd seem aeons apart, their stories are similar narratives woven by two brilliant historical fantasy novelists.

Ember tides are a Catholic tradition that a young Pierce Moffet in Crowley’s novel observes. They are a series of days that introduce each season, where fasting and prayers to the souls in purgatory are encouraged. In Tigana, ember tides become the Ember Nights. To observe Ember Nights, all lights in the house except a single candle are extinguished, in order to remember the story of the Triad, the triune deity worshiped throughout the Peninsula of the Palm.

However, in the south of the Palm, there exist certain heretics who claim the Triad sprang from older gods. Some of those who kept these older beliefs are the Night Walkers who Baerd runs into, men and women who participate in a literal battle against infertility and death itself. Perhaps here Kay alludes to a more ancient, pagan past to the Catholic celebration of ember tides.


Kay explains: “In the highlands of Certando a child born with a caul was not said to be guarded from death at sea, or naively named for fortune. It was marked for war. For this war, fought each year on the first of the Ember Nights that began the spring and so began the year. Fought in the fields and for the fields, for the not yet risen seedlings that were hope and life and the offered promise of earth renewed” (388).

Crowley’s description of Floyd Shaftoe’s relationship to the ember tides is similar. “On certain nights–it might be the night of Little Christmas, or the last night of October, or when the moon was full at midsummer, less often as he grew older and the world grew worse–Floyd Shaftoe would hear his name called, not urgently but surely, at his window as he lay asleep: and he would answer. For he was one of a band, men and women born (he supposed) with the same signs as himself; and there were as many of the others, with whom his kind contended for the health and wealth of the earth: and he could no more refuse a summons to walk out against them than he could refuse a dream or die” (103).

While both Kay and Crowley make reference to ancient traditions to explain the Ember Nights, their approaches to depicting them are different. Baerd is engaged in a heroic struggle against the tyrant sorcerer Brandin, who has cursed his homeland of Tigana. He cannot utter his country’s name to strangers due to the tyrant’s curse, and since Tigana has been laid waste and renamed Lower Corte, that curse will annihilate the nation from memory. Answering the summons to stalk around outside during the Ember nights is one way Baerd finds release.

Whereas Baerd grieves for the dead of his nation who were slain fighting Brandin, Floyd Shaftoe’s grief is simpler. “When he was twelve years old Floyd had seen his mother laid away, dead of her last child and first girl, dead too. There had been no preacher for her, no one to read or sing; his father made the box himself, and his brothers dug the grave” (103). At night, he receives a summons from his mother to walk with a great crowd of other lost souls. The dead have a look of hunger in their eyes–the hunger to live again. After returning from this purgatorial vision, Floyd sees his own body sleeping in his bed, and then returns to it, questioning whether he would be able to return if he had stayed with his mother too long.

Floyd goes on to become a Born Again Christian, realizing that the “Holy Spert” summons him on ember tide. He works in the coal mines from boyhood to middle age, through the prosperous times where he is able to buy a fridge and TV, and through the worst times, when millionaires conspire against the company he works for. As he works under the earth, stripping the mountain of its rocks and metals, he starts to farm instead.

He sees the world as divided between those who follow the “Holy Spert” and the “Devil’s fiddle,” between those who grow things from the earth and those, like miners, who take away from it. He survives off Assistance, or “Well Far,” and blames “the great devil Hoover, who had brought ruin on the country, only to be turned out in disgrace himself” (112). President Herbert Hoover takes the place of Brandin of Ygrath as ruler of the land, although Floyd does not blame Hoover for the blighting of the landscape. He comes rather to think the “old enmity” between those sapping the earth and those who try to grow things on it, “was likely just a part of nature, like the enmity fixed between owls and crows, or between the red squirrel and the grey. […] [U]nless their two kinds did battle over what would grow and what would not, then nothing at all would grow” (112).

Reclaimed mountain that had been hollowed due to coal mining. Poisons still brown the stream.
Reclaimed mountain that had been hollowed due to coal mining. Poisons still brown the stream.

John Crowley uses  magic realism to create Floyd’s world, whereas Kay frames the Ember Nights in terms of the heroic tradition of portal-quest fantasy novels. A careful subjective voice claims only that what Floyd sees as his world world is true, but in Kay’s novel, the supernatural is treated as unquestioningly part of reality itself. Though both authors come from different perspectives, both share an interest in this obscure, but fascinating tradition. Both also deal with the genre and the ideas behind historical fantasy. Crowley and Kay both see Ember Nights as an nexus effective for the blending of the fantastic with the real.

Let me propose that the fantasy novel’s structure of restoration (Clute’s four-part structure: wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing) lends itself to stories of wars fought for the fertility of the land. The war of the Night Walkers belongs to the monomyth found in many fantasy novels and legends. A child marked for greatness is prophesied to venture on a dark road and fight vast armies to restore the land to its health.

Our real world, blasted out of innocence by two World Wars, the Nuclear Age, the Cold War, 9/11, and economic collapse, is sick. Perhaps the monomyth of restoration appeals so much to Crowley and Kay because it promises the rejuvenation of our own world. One idea behind Tigana, for example, is that Tigana represents all cultures that have been obliterated from memory or maimed by powerful tyrants: it could tell the story of Cold War East Europe, Native North America, or Ireland. The story of Baerd and the Night Walkers promises that attempts at cultural obliteration can be overcome, worlds renewed.

On the other hand, Crowley recognizes that at different historical times, such as Renaissance England or one’s childhood, the world as perceived was different than it is now. We tend to believe in myths and legends more in earlier ages than we do in later ones. Crowley’s magic realist treatment of the Ember Nights is aimed not so much to restore culture and identity, as Tigana does, but the fertility of the imagination itself, the magical dimension that underlies our daily lives. Like other modern readaptations of ancient myths, Crowley’s Love and Sleep attempts to reanimate our demythologized, strictly scientific and utilitarian cosmology. Whereas Tigana can help us see our world through a distorted mirror, Crowley proposes something more radical: that, in the coal mine mountains of Kentucky, men might live today who have, in fact, been summoned by the dead to walk with them on Ember Nights.

John Crowley
John Crowley
Me and Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay and I











Image Credits/Works Cited:

Crowley, John. Love and Sleep. New York: Bantam, 1994.

Kay, Guy Gavriel. Tigana. Toronto: Penguin, 1992.


Love and Sleep Cover:


Was the Renaissance “Swerve” a historical fantasy?

In the novel I am presently reading, Aegypt: The Solitudes by John Crowley, the main character, a historian academic named Pierce Moffet, comes across the realization that “there is more than one history of the world.” Furthermore, the “world is not the same as it once was.” This radical change in human history supposedly occurred some time in the sixteenth century as it transitioned into the seventeenth. Specifically, it revolves around the historical person of Doctor John Dee, Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer, whose scientific accomplishments were rivaled only by his interest in the occult. For Dee, science and magic were one. In his intellectual corpus, the modern, rational, scientific worldview coexisted with the traditional worldview Europe would slowly, gradually leave behind. In John Dee, mathematics was both a tool to explore modern science and a basis for summoning angels.

Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Renaissance is sometimes viewed as the adolescence or young adulthood of European culture, as it left the intellectually barren Middle Ages behind. This shift of the pendulum between worldviews is known was coined by Stephen Greenblatt as “The Swerve.” A shorthand for describing the multifaceted history that the Renaissance actually was, the assumption that such a Swerve occurred is taught in classrooms worldwide.

However, could the Swerve be a mere historical fantasy?

In my post “Wonders in Wood,”  I demonstrate how humans often strive to to see shapes that they can relate to in natural objects. Those forms, however, are only really shaped by a series of causes and effects that are distinct and separate from human desire. Often the shapes we see in wood grain are reflections of ourselves. We often see “faces,” for example.

History, like wood, is formed according to a flow of cause and effect. Imagine the narrative of time growing organically from a set of roots buried in the past. The Renaissance is like a particular knot in that tree where two of the major boughs branch. Historians, only human, see their own faces in that knot, matching the growing intellectual self-consciousness of European philosophy and science with their own coming of age, their own rites of passage.

But can it really be said the Europe “came of age” during the Renaissance? Or is this only a historian’s fantasy?

I do not have an ultimate answer to this question, or the space in a single blog post to even scratch the surface of this enormous problem. I will say this, however: I believe the Swerve is a fascinating concept that can generate a lot of excitement about learning history, even though I believe it to be scientifically inaccurate and a problematic term. I have four reasons for believing this, and there are other reasons out there I may not have heard of:

1. The Swerve devalues the medieval learning that gave birth to the Renaissance. That any significant intellectuals existed during the Dark Ages seems to be a fact some teachers repress, knowingly or unknowingly. I do not believe the Renaissance could have happened without the likes of medieval intellectuals like Averroes, Thomas Aquinas, Peter Abelard, and the like. Later Renaissance thinkers borrow from their ideas. The Middle Ages were not an void, but the fertile soil from which the Renaissance spawned–it was not only ancient Greeks and Romans who formed the inspiration for the Renaissance.

2. The Swerve only accounts for the writings of ‘Great Thinkers’ and bears nothing on socio-economic, everyday realities. Descartes, Francis Bacon, Giordano Bruno, and Galileo may all have been geniuses of their time, but men and women still died horrendously of plague in 1600 as they did in 1300, at least for the most part. Great intellectual progress failed to impress the vast majority of the population, many of whom could not read. Theories about the sun’s closeness to the earth and challenging the church’s doctrinal authority matters a whole lot less when famine strikes.

3. The Swerve is a Grand Narrative which excludes other discourses when it is used to describe the era. Since the story we all tell of the Renaissance is of its glory, the darker side of history is ignored. The Renaissance is a dark period, from a certain perspective. For starters, it is filled to the brim with religious persecutions, massacres, and even genocide. Why Cortez’s ethnic cleansing of the Aztecs should be considered more civilized than the Viking raids simply because it happened 500 years later is beyond me. Must civilized times be defined according to when  advanced weaponry, like gunpowder, becomes available, enabling countries to spread violence across the globe? Or should such times be considered more barbaric? Also, what would have the Native Americans in King James’ court have thought of the Renaissance period when they were dying of a common disease caught from a European?

Giordano Bruno
Giordano Bruno

4. The Swerve can be used to misconstrue discoveries and treatises of the Renaissance as leading to an inevitable Scientific Revolution, which almost no scholars consciously saw happening. It is likely that Copernicus primarily saw himself as part of a tradition of scholars stretching back to the heliocentric Aristarchus, and only secondarily as the bold pioneer of a new model of the solar system. He had to reach into the past as well as reach to the future, but framing Copernicus in terms of the Swerve threatens to shortchange the importance of the intellectual history to which Copernicus returned. Furthermore, scientists often take Giordano Bruno, who espoused Copernicus’ ideas, as a martyr for modern science since he was burned for heresy in Rome. However, Bruno was the farthest thing from a scientist. Rather, he was in many ways an impractical philosopher who developed a magic system based on the concept of artificial memory, considering himself a follower of the sun-centered “Egyptian” religion. In other words, he sacrificed himself for heliocentrism not as a scientist, but as an occultist.

Since the Swerve is inaccurate historically in these and other ways, I propose that it is a historical fantasy. Stephen Greenblatt might have needed the concept to sell a book and express what he was going to write about in simple terms, but the term itself should not be taken without irony. I am not arguing that Greenblatt is unaware of the problems connected to the idea of the Swerve. I only mean to remind people who are used to the Grand Narrative to rethink what they know about the Renaissance.

Poststructuralism claims that all histories are written in history and can never be freed from the context in which they are written. I would add that so long as a historian sees the human experience of his/her adolescence in the Renaissance, history will be written according to a human bias. We cannot escape this bias easily, since it is so natural to write a history that we can relate to. But turning history into story is part of what historical fantasy is all about.

Foucault's Pendulum, Paris: a pendulum serves back and forth as the ages move between ideas.
Foucault’s Pendulum, Paris: a pendulum serves back and forth as the ages move between ideas.


Photo Credits:

Foucault’s Pendulum:

Stephen Greenblatt:

Giordano Bruno: