Thursday, April 9, 2015

"Eothen" by Alexander Kinglake

Eothen means "from the early dawn" or "from the East." This little travel book shares the adventures of Alexander Kinglake who ventured into the Middle East in 1835. Departing modern-day Belgrade and entering the Ottoman Empire, Kinglake passed through a literal quarantine barrier. The Plague had been oppressing the populations of the East, and once he clasped hands with the quarantine officer and headed into Turkey, there was no turning back.

Kinglake toured through Constantinople, on to Cyprus, through Israel, across the desert, and into Egypt. At this point in my reading, I'm with him in the desert, but I thought I'd pause and recommend this little tome to you because it is well worth the reading.

[A warm steady rain falls outside this morning. The window is open wide behind my head as I type, and the heavy drops slap the roofs of the beehives two feet away. The smell of rain on warm earth, the comfort of rain itself after days of arid, pollen-filled air, is a luxury.]

Kinglake is a 25-year-old traveling Englishman fresh from Eton, so we must expect him to be a bit full of himself and his Englishness. But he clearly enjoys travel, risk, his foreign guides, the alien beauty of each location, the quirky natives. He spends time with Bedouins, describes Arab desert cooking and the dangers of the roaming desert thieves, and visits a wildly eccentric European woman, Lady Hester Stanhope, then settled as a recluse among her wild tribes.
Kinglake, in 1863
I write this post to share with you a piece of Kinglake's beautiful prose so you can grasp why his book was so popular in the 1800s and is still worth reading today. Without further ado, his description of desert travel:

"...You pass through valleys dug out by the last week's storm, and the hills and the valleys are sand, sand, sand, still sand, and only sand, and sand, and sand again. The earth is so samely, that your eyes turn towards heaven -- towards heaven, I mean, in sense of sky. You look to the Sun, for he is your task-master, and by him you know the measure of the work that you have done, and the measure of the work that remains for you to do. He comes when you strike your tent in the early morning, and then, for the first hour of the day, as you move forward on your camel, he stands at your near side, and makes you know that the whole day's toil is before you; then for a while, and a long while, you see him no more, for you are veiled and shrouded, and dare not look upon the greatness of his glory, but you know where he strides over head, by the touch of his flaming sword. No words are spoken, but your Arabs moan, your camels sigh, your skin glows, your shoulders ache, and for sights you see the pattern and the web of the silk that veils your eyes, and the glare of the outer light. Time labours on -- your skin glows, your shoulders ache, your Arabs moan, your camels sigh, and you see the same pattern in the silk, and the same glare of light beyond; but conquering Time marches on, and by and by the descending sun has compassed the heaven, and now softly touches your right arm, and throw your lank shadow ver the sand right along on the way for Persia. Then again you look upon his face, for his power is all veiled in his beauty, and the redness of flames has become the redness of roses ...."

It is impossible to enter the lush pleasure of this passage without having first passed through the text beforehand, but you get an idea of his skills.

His use of second-person pronouns draws the reader into the experience.

Why, oh why have we lost this talent for metaphor? The sun, a task-master with a flaming sword! Can you see the brilliant, hazy world through the gauze of silk obscuring your vision atop a camel for hours on end?

Only the most skilled and confident writer can use repetition so liberally without fearing to lose his reader. I enjoyed reading this passage (and more around it) in the same way one enjoys a delicious meal.

If you can find a copy of Eothen, read it. Unfortunately I read the first 70-or-so pages of this book several years ago (after taking the book shamelessly from my mother's shelves), and then I put it aside. Why did I do that? Now I cannot recall the opening, and I must reread it to have a full picture of the man's adventure. This is Kinglake's first book, but he also wrote eight volumes about the Crimea ... for another day.


  1. This sounds like an absolutely lovely read!!!

  2. Wow! So fascinating! I want to read more about the Lady recluse among her wild tribes! Thanks for sharing, MK!

  3. Thank you so much for posting that long but so-easy-to-read paragraph - nothing tedious about it, because it captures the experience he was having. Yes, I will look for the book!


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