Anne was complementary of my vocabulary the other day, but no one would ever do the same of my knowledge of history. Here’re two bits from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s second volume, Between the Woods and the Water, subtitled On Foot to Constantinople from The Hook of Holland: The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, on his walking trek across Europe that began in 1934. In the first selection, he writes about visiting Vár, the citadel of Buda, above the Danube in present-day Hungary.
Tim [a huge black Alsatian] bounded about among the sarcophagi and broken walls and the ruined amphitheatre and dug for bones in the Temple of the Unconquered Sun; and in the museum we gazed at one of those disturbing bas-reliefs of Mithras in a Phrygian cap, plunging a dagger into the bull’s throat. (The god always wears an expression of unbearable anguish as thought the throat were his own; a hound leaps up to drink the blood and, down below, a furtive scorpion wages scrotal war.) (p.38)
On the fringe of allegory, dimly perceived through mist and the dust of chronicles, these strangers have an outsize quality about them: something of giants and something of ogres, Goyaesque being towering like Panic amid the swarms that follow one after the other across this wilderness and vanish. No historical details can breathe much life into the Gepids, kinsmen of the Goths who had left the Baltic and settled the region in Roman times; and the Lombards only began to seem real when they move into Italy. (p.52)
I only know one person who I suspect would get all the references in these two excerpts (that would be Pooh, though I may be doing a disservice to Rebecca); I certainly am out of my league!
Fermor writes these bits seemingly without effort, and I realize, reading them, how much knowledge of this and that relating to the modern world has filled to overflowing the places in my brain that, in another day, like early twentieth-century, might have been allocated instead to Classical history.
From elsewhere in Fermor, where is the Istrian peninsula?; what do “cascading pengös�? sound like (Anne?)?; what do crockets on a medieval church’s pinnacles look like?; what kind of garments are “Tintin plus-fours�??; and what’s a “bombinated�? nation-state like?
I must add one last quote, Fermor’s amplification of his assertion that Magyar (Hungarian) is most closely related to the Finnish language.
It was no help, at first, to learn that Magyar, whose resonance is fast, incisive and distinct, is an agglutinative language—the word merely conjures up the sound of mumbling through a mouth full of toffee. It means that the words are never inflected as they are in Europe, and that changes of sense are conveyed by a concatenation of syllables stuck on behind the first; all the vowel sounds imitate their leader, and the invariable ictus on the leading syllable sets up a kind of dactylic or anapaestic canter which, to a new ear, gives Magyar a wild and most unfamiliar ring. (p. 33)
Ictus? Dactylic? Anapaestic? Geeze!
I bet this is right up Leslie’s alley!