The Riddle and the Knight

Giles Milton

Read April 2005

Sir John Mandeville is one of the more curious characters to emerge from the sometimes foggy mist of medieval literature. Did this knight really travel to distant lands? Did he travel at all? Did he even exist? Why did he, or someone in his name, fabricate the legend of Prester John, and what does this tell us of medieval fears and hopes?

Sadly, Milton simply isn't up to any of this. He engages in a superficial investigation of the historical Mandeville, followed by a superficial repetition of Mandeville's route, followed by superficial (and sometimes fantastical) attempts to link the historical character to things he sees. Along the way, we learn more than we might care about Milton's own faith, UN peacekeepers, etc.

What I think we really learn from this book is that Milton desperately wants to (a) be taken seriously, and (b) cock a snoot at academics, presumably because they don't take him seriously. If he continues to write books like this, they never will, and they'd be right not to. He does neither travel writing nor history any service with such a shallow attempt to make something, anything, out of his publisher's advance.

The illustrations, taken from a 15th-century edition of Mandeville's travels, are excellent (if somewhat cliched).