Paddy Leigh Fermor’s historical imagination

I have previously quoted Arnold Toynbee, whose immersive reading of History allowed him to ‘see’ – through what Iain McGilchrist would call the world’s “semi-transparently” – historical incidents taking place as it were before his eyes.

In a similar vein, I love this excerpt from one of Paddy Leigh Fermor’s letters, which I heard quoted by John Julius Norwich at a talk not too long ago. He is imagining the route of an elephant called Abulahaz sent by Haroun-al-Rachid as a present to Charlemagne in 802 AD:

I wonder which route he took? Bagdad-Palmyra-Aleppo-Antioch, then by sea probably to Bari and along the Appian Way to Rome; then north, over the Alps at the Brenner, across Germany and up the Rhine? Or Venice, perhaps, then Vienna and along the Danube? I like to think that perhaps the Caliph sent him via the Hellespont or the Bosphorus and through the Byzantine Empire – they were on fairly good terms till the end of 802. But then they would have had to cross the new Bulgarian state, reigned over by a horrible khan called Krum, who, at banquets with his boyars, used to drink out of the skull of his defeated enemy the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus, bisected and lined with silver. They were a rotten lot. I bet if they had spotted Abulahaz they’d have eaten him. But if they had got through Bulgaria all right (travelling after dark perhaps) things would have been better in what later became Hungary, because Charlemagne had defeated the beastly Avars there, and scattered them eight years before. There would have been a few Slav settlers gaping at the doors of their huts as the little troop went by: Abulahaz, his mahout and grooms, and probably an escort of Bedouin lancers.The Hungarian plain was ideal elephant country then – all swamp and forest, unlike now. (One is so prone to forget that a squirrel in the reign of King John could travel from the Severn to the Humber without once touching ground.) I do hope the elephant went that way, because it’s just the way I went, and am writing about. I could have come nose-to-trunk with his phantom on the banks of the Tisza (a Hungarian tributary of the Danube) as he squirted cool jets all over himself among the reeds……

Full transcript here: https://patrickleighfermor.org/2016/01/20/paddys-world-transcript-of-john-julius-norwichs-talk-for-the-plf-society/