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Off The Beaten Track
on 12 November 2010
I have to admit that having seen the lower reviews and the higher reviews, I am fairly sure the former missed the point and the latter.........well, they evidently couldn't bring themselves to rate this book lower.
I have read a few of Giles Milton books and been very impressed with the effort he puts into each one. The others are carefully crafted accounts of points and people in history that have been ignored, and he injects some interest into each one. Big Chief Elizabeth, White Gold and Samurai William are unmissable.
This book concerns the travels of a Knight of the 1300s (Sir John Mandeville), but although the Knight wrote his own account of his 30+ years of travel at the time, it has widely been discounted as a tissue of lies since. So Milton sets out on a quest to prove or disprove the truth. Did the Knight actually go to the places he said.
And therein lies the problems - it's a travel book basically with accounts of his own travels woven in with the path of the knight. And some of the travel sections are well worthy of a five star rating, but that's not what the book is supposed to be about. Add to that that Milton appears grievously injured to admit Mandeville was a liar - it is possible he just crossed the channel in the 1300s, and sat in France reading books and accounts by others who HAD been there as some of his accounts are lifted from other tales.
You get the feeling Milton set out with a publisher's advance, travelled around and soon realised he hadn't got the book he expected, so he padded it out with his own travels, and the truth is that, yes, as one Five Star Reviewer stated, the section on his stay at the St Catherine's monastery in the Sinai IS worthy of Five Stars. In fact, you begin to wonder why at that point he just didn't toss Mandeville to one side and write about that. The accounts of them finding 4th to 9th century bibles is worthy of a book alone.
Instead you get many accounts of visits to places where Milton interviews locals (a surprising number who seem to either speak English or are English), where his sole objective seems to be tracking down someone who will finally say, "Sir John Mandeville? Oh yes. My great, great, great, great, great (etc) grandfather knew him well." Not gonna happen, is it?
He also tries to combine Sir John Mandeville's accounts with his own views, but seven hundred years of change and also the fact that Mandeville was more interested in the local wine...............
I think after almost 700 years his optimism was a little displaced. And so you get a book that is part travel journal (interesting) and part history (interesting) but the two never really gel. I can only give you the impression of someone walking the Battle of Bosworth field and talking to residents in the nearby village hoping for some insight into Richard III. The history has gone.
Worth buying? Yes, if you can get it well under a fiver. Otherwise unless you are a Milton fanatic this is NOT the definitive work on Sir John Mandeville. That will need someone who is maybe prepared to admit the guy NEVER went where he said.
Frankly this is one of the few books I have read where I have got to the end and strongly disagreed with the author - I don't think Sir John Mandeville went anywhere near where he said.