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  • Review: The Folio Book of Historical Mysteries December 2, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern, Prehistoric , trackback

    The Folio Society, for those who don’t know, is a British publishing company that produces high-quality editions of high-quality titles and their books are reasonably priced for what they are – slipcases, hand-stitching….

    These books cannot – there is always a catch – be bought individually (at least not first-hand…) and the reader has to become a ‘member’ by buying a certain number of books annually: four if memory serves Beachcombing correctly. Luckily for the ‘member’ the FS has on its lists a goodly number of classics and sometimes they also commission new books. It is one of these new works, The Folio Book of Historical Mysteries, that has got Beachcombing in an almighty tizzy.

    The idea was an inspired one – a certain FS high-up, Kit Shepherd, is credited with it in the acknowledgements and he or she deserves to be carried through the streets on shoulder-back.

    Kit’s stroke of genius was to have an editor (Ian Pindar) choose twenty historical enigmas and gather twenty plus experts – sometimes essays are written by two experts – then let said experts jump on said enigmas and do their level best to sort them out.

    Beachcombing cannot understand why this has never been tried before: perhaps it has (drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com)? In any case, all the examples he can think of are either single volume works looking at one mystery (that go on a bit) or a series of mysteries examined by one author (who by definition cannot be an expert in all things) or one mystery looked at by a series of authors (that can get confusing).

    The list that the editor has put together – actually from pre-published essays – is a daunting one, but the key to its success is that the ‘experts’ are, for the most part, really that. Indeed, when Beachcombing first opened the book he expected to hear the sound of hive-fulls of bees buzzing in bonnets. Instead, the read is a laid-back one.

    (i) ‘Who Built Stonehenge?’ (Anthony Burl); (ii) ‘Where is Atlantis?’ (Paul Jordan), (iii) ‘Was Tutankhamun Murdered?’ (Paul Doherty), (iv) ‘Why did Rome Fall?’ (Bryan Ward-Perkins); (v) ‘Robin Hood: Reality or Myth?’ (Stephen Knight); (vi) ‘Who was the Pied Piper of Hamelin?’ (Radu Florescu); ‘Is the Turin Shroud a Fake?’ (Ian Wilson and Barrie Schwortz); ‘Were the Princes in the Tower Murdered?’ (Bertram Fields); ‘Who wrote Shakespeare’s Plays?’ (Brenda James and William D. Rubenstein); ‘What Happened on Easter Island?’ (Terry L. Hunt); ‘What is the Voynich Manuscript’ (Gerry Kennedy and Rob Churchill); ‘Who was the Man in the Iron Mask?’ (Roger Macdonald); ‘Who was Kaspar Hauser?’ (Jan Bondeson); ‘Was Napoleon Murdered?’ (Ben Weider and David Hapgood); ‘What Happened on the Mary Celeste? (Paul Begg); ‘Who was Jack the Ripper?’ (Philip Sugden); ‘Did Anastasia Survive?’ (John Klier and Helen Mingay); ‘Who was the Piltdown Hoaxer?’ (Chris Stringer); ‘Where is the Amber Room?’ (Catherine Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy); ‘Who Shot JFK?’ (Michael L. Kurtz).

    Beachcombing’s favourites were probably ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’ and ‘Tutankhamun’ though there was tough competition.

    He was, on the other hand, confused by a couple of choices. Bryan Ward-Perkins, for example, is a wanw – Beach once had the honour to have an orange juice and an argument with the good prof. But  ‘Why did Rome Fall?’ would be impossible to answer definitively even if we had every fourth- and fifth-century document at our disposal. In other words it is not a historical mystery with us moderns lacking one crucial bit of information: it is a historical prayer mat on which historians should meditate. 

    Beachcombing would also disagree with some of the conclusions – how would it be possible otherwise! – while always enjoying the read. Surely the answer to ‘Who wrote Shakespeare’s Plays?’, is well, Shakespeare. Beachcombing has never had much time for the curious snobbery that has it that ‘Stratford Will’ could not have quilled great things. (The missing years are the key!)

    Finally, Beachcombing finds it strange that Richard Barber (virtually a house author for Folio Society) did not write an essay on the ‘real’ King Arthur.

    Then there are so many other questions from Mallory and Irvine on Everest, to the fate of the Greenland colony in the Middle Ages that beg for a sequel or – let’s hope… – sequels.

    Now as to buying the Book of Mysteries you can purchase it in the conventional way or in the unconventional way (£9.98 under ‘used’ at time of writing, just before Beachcombing bought up a copy for Beachcombing Mater).

    Beachcombing must finish by saying that he has always been fond of the FS, but that this grew to grateful love when they didn’t kick up a fuss about replacing some defective Paddington Bears a few months ago.


    4 Dec 2010: Beachcombing asked why no one has ever before tried to put a series of mystery essays in one volume. All the examples he can think of are either single volume works looking at one mystery (that go on a bit) or a series of mysteries examined by one author (who by definition cannot be an expert in all things) or one mystery looked at by a series of authors (that can get confusing). Jonathan Jarrett – he of blogging fame – writes in with one title that had passed Beachcombing by: ‘this could become habit-forming, but apropos of your post about the Folio Society’s recent offering… There is also known to me a little hardback volume by Glynn Daniel and others called Myth or Legend? The Book of the Broadcasts (London: BBC 1955) which provided essays to go with a radio series that investigated Atlantis, Lyonesse, St George and the Dragon, the Isles of the Bless’d (this one by T. C. Lethbridge, for added value), Tara, Troy, the Druids and Stonehenge (Stuart Piggott, who knew a thing or two), Theseus and the Minotaur, the Holy Grail, Tristan and Ysolde, the Flood, and Nemi and the Golden Bough (not, sadly, by James Frazer, though I presume he was no longer available by that time). Some crossover there but not a great deal; it would be interesting to see if the Atlantis question has moved on at all in fifty-five years… It was quite a fun little book.’ Bless you Jonathan, Beachcombing’s copy has already been ordered!