David Brown's Reviews > The Riddle and the Knight: In Search of Sir John Mandeville, the World's Greatest Traveler

The Riddle and the Knight by Giles Milton
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Jul 31, 2011

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Read in July, 2011

There’s nothing like a good historical mystery to get your teeth into and Giles Milton’s The Riddle and the Knight promised such a puzzle. Focussing on a famous historical figure from the 14th century, Milton’s narrative traces the same journey that John Mandeville made and looks to analyse whether anything in his famous Travels is authentic or just fabrication. I couldn’t wait to dip into the mystery so donned my Medieval attire and headed back to the first half of the 14th century.

Sir John Mandeville’s Travels appeared in the second half of the 14th century and was a series of observations that Mandeville made on an epic journey. Setting out from St Albans, England, in 1322 Mandeville claimed to have travelled through the likes of Persia, Egypt, Cyprus, Jerusalem, India and China, and recorded much of the places and peoples he met along the way. At the time Mandeville’s book was believed to be true and he was hailed as the father of English literature, ahead of the current father, Chaucer. Famous explorers such as Columbus and playwrights like Shakespeare were inspired by the Travels but by the Victorian period it was Chaucer who was looked back on with admiration. Mandeville had become a victim of historians and scholars who digested his book and began to reason that everything within its pages was fiction and should be dismissed. Milton’s book looks not only at the authenticity of Mandeville’s journey but also addresses a riddle in the text that has never been deciphered.

The outline to the book fascinated me and I was eager to dip in straight away. Although Mandeville visits libraries and looks through archives, the bulk of his research is in visiting the same places that Mandeville did and comparing the observations in The Travels to other chroniclers of the time and indeed knowledge of the locals. Milton’s journey sees him visit Constantinople, Cyprus, Syria, Jerusalem and China but frustratingly the locals have little to offer about Mandeville. As Milton’s journey progresses doubts begin to creep in about the plausibility of Mandeville’s work. There is no denying that he lifted passages in the Travels from other contemporaries but just when we start to think Milton is in the footsteps of a liar, there are moments in the Travels that no other writer has covered prior to Mandeville. In Cyprus Mandeville does not dwell on the Lusignan wealth, whereas other writers had a lot to say, but Mandeville does refer to eating habits which are accurate. It’s almost as if Mandeville is toying with us and Milton, making us believe his work is fiction only to throw in the smallest detail that makes it plausible as no other accounts at the time can match it.

Milton’s initial difficulty is separating the John Mandevilles of the 14th century for although the one in the Travels is supposed to have been from St Albans, Mandeville has been associated with John de Bourgogne, which Milton analyses and dismisses. Focusing on England there exists the remnants of an inscription at St Albans for Mandeville and as Milton investigates further he discovers that the Mandeville’s overlord, Humphrey de Bohun, rebelled against Edward II which put the Mandeville family in jeopardy. It was the perfect time and excuse for Mandeville to leave England and begin his thirty-five year journey and the dates seem to fit this turn of events. That identity dilemma aside, Milton is able to trace Mandeville’s journey in its entirety.

What becomes clear is that certainly the first half of Mandeville’s journey is plausible. There are enough small and unique details in his work to suggest he visited many of the locations. He filled in many of the large blanks via plagiarism but he wasn’t the only one to use such tactics. The second half of the Travels which deals with Mandeville’s journey into Asia is undoubtedly a work of fiction. This isn’t better demonstrated than Mandeville’s account of reaching India where he spent a lot of time in the palaces of the ruler, Prester John. Although Mandeville describes his time in India with great detail, Milton hits us with one crushing point – Prester John was a work of fiction, yet Mandeville insisted they had met. Accounts of the rest of Asia speak of fantastical creatures, accepted as gospel at this time but through the eyes of contemporaries today it is clear these were fabrications.

The weakness in Milton’s The Riddle and the Knight is the riddle itself. Although the synopsis refers the Travels being something of a puzzle this is only touched upon very briefly at the end. Interesting as it may be it feels like a long wait. Although Milton’s own adventures are interesting we seem to spend more time with his Travels rather than having extracts divulged from Mandeville. The best does come at the end which is although Mandeville’s work contains a lot of fiction, the man himself was very influential and spoke of the possibility of circumnavigating the globe. Columbus was inspired by Mandeville and although the Travels were not the only reason he set out for the East Indies in 1492, they did have a big impact on his life. For centuries Mandeville’s work was a true account of our world and fascinated enough people to make them want to go further and have their own adventures. Though Chaucer is now the father of English literature, Mandeville deserves a lot of credit as well. Yes, much of the Travels is made up but works of fiction were largely non-existent at this time with Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur being one of the first printed books and that came in the following century! Though Milton doesn’t share enough of Mandevile’s work he does manage to make us fascinated to learn more.

The Riddle and the Knight is a good attempt at exploring the life of John Mandeville and although many of Milton’s travels fail to shed light on the elusive Mandeville there are still some amazing revelations which give credibility to the Travels. There is little about the riddle of the book which is a shame but Milton rescues things quite well by arguing for Mandeville’s significance in history. A purveyor of tall tales certainly, but an influential and important liar, and there are not many of those.

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