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By L. Sprague De Camp - Lands Beyond: A Fascinating Expedition Into Unknown Lands (1905-06-30) [Hardcover] Hardcover – June 30, 1905
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Where now the shadowy coral grows
In pride and pomp and empory
The courts of old Atlantis rose.
I don't suppose that many readers today are familiar with Henry Bedford-Jones. But back in the 1930s, H. Bedford-Jones was known as the King of the Pulp Writers. His output was incredible. He churned out an awesome number of novelettes and novels-- jungle tales, sea stories, historical romances, detective stories, westerns, and science fiction. Sometimes it would take him a week to finish a tale, sometimes it might be done in a day or two.
In the late 1930s, he began a series of science fiction stories for _Bluebook_ called "Trumpets From Oblivion". The tales involved a scientist who had invented a "time scope" that allowed modern viewers to see the real events behind legends of such things as the Amazons or the werewolf.* The fourth story was called "The Singing Sands of Prester John" (_Bluebook_, 1939), and it tells the story of a knight who goes in search of a kingdom in the East ruled by a legendary, powerful Christian king.
This brings us to chapter five of L. Sprague de Camp and Willy Ley's _Lands Beyond_ (1952), which is a factual account of Prester (or Presbyter) John's kingdom. Much of the Prester John legend involves forged letters and traveler's tall tales. But was there a real Prester John? Perhaps. De Camp and Ley suggest a candidate that you probably didn't consider.
Sinbad the Sailor also appears. And while Sinbad is fictitious and much of his adventures were lies, some of the islands on which the adventures occured may be real. And even some of the fantastic creatures may have been based upon real animals. For example, the Old Man of the Sea may have been based on the orangutan.
My first choice for the title of The Great Naturalist is Charles Darwin. But my second choice is Pliny the Elder, whose volumns of _Natural History_ are a curious blend of sound science and observation and wild fantasy. De Camp and Ley note some of the fantastic elements: races of one-eyed people, one-legged people who lie on their backs and use their feet for umbrellas, horses that get pregnant by standing in the sea wind, and magnetic mountains that pull the nails out of passing ships. Pliny's books were influenced by traveler's tales from the East. Then they in turn made their way East and became source material for the Sinbad tales and other oriental adventures.
De Camp and Ley give a detailed treatment of that most romantic of all Lost Lands, Atlantis. Was there a realio, trulio continent or island that sank beneath the sea? Well, no. Plato made it all up. But his fictitious city seems to have been _modeled_ on a real-life city-- the city of Tartassus, which was also the model of the Homeric city of Scheria. True believers in Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu will doubtless be unhappy with this analysis. But it remains one of the best introductions to the vast literature on Atlantis.
Other areas covered in _Lands Beyond_ include the voyages of Odysseus, the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, the Sargasso Sea (of legend and reality), El Dorado and Golden Men, Amazon Women, the search for _terra incognita_, and the shape of the Earth. Various characters include the bloodthirsty Ptolemy the Sausage; Columbus (who made a few mistakes); that traveler and magnificent liar, Sir John de Mandeville; Marco Polo (who was _mostly_ reliable); and the energetic but ill-fated Lt. Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett.
This is an informative book with nary a dull word in it. Buy it right now.
*Note: I have not been able to find any evidence that this series was ever collected in a single volumn, though scattered stories have been anthologized or reprinted in magazine form.
_Addendum_: Since writing the body of this review, it has come to my attention that _Lands Beyond_ won the International Fantasy Award for best nonfictional book of 1953. It was certainly a well-deserved honor.