Saturday, August 27, 2016

Grim Thoughts for a Cloudless Day by Patrick Fermor

[Patrick Fermor hiked the length of the Danube when he was 17 in1934. The first of his memoirs of this journey was published in 1977]

A falcon, beating its  wings above an unwary heron half way up the northern bend, would command the same view of the river as mine.*  I had climbed to the ruins of Aggstein unnecessarily  steeply, as I had strayed from the marked pathway- and halted among the battlements of the keep to get my breath back. This gap-toothed hold of the Kunringers teems with horrible tales; but I scrambled up there for a different reason. The polymath's talk,  two nights before, had made me long to look down this particular reach.

There is nothing more absorbing than maps of tribal wanderings. How vaguely and slowly nations float about! Lonely as clouds, overlapping and changing places, they waltz and reverse round each other at a pace so slow as to be almost stationary or work their expanding way across the map as imperceptibly as damp or mildew. What a relief it is when some outside event, with an actual date attached to it, jerks the whole sluggishly creeping osmotic complex into action!

As I mentioned earlier  that we- or rather, the polymath - had talked about the Marcomanni and the Quadi** who had lived north of the river here about. The habitat of the Marcommani lay a little further west; the Quadi dwelt exactly where we were sitting. "Yes." he had said, "things were more or less static for a while. .  ." He illustrated this with a pencil-stub on the back of the Neuse Freie Presse.  A long sweep represented the Danube; a row of buns indicated  the races that had settled along the banks; then he filled in the outlines of eastern Europe. " .  .  . and suddenly, at last", he said, "something happens!" An enormous arrow enters the picture on the right, and bore down on the riverside buns. "The Huns arrive! Everything starts changing place at full speed!" His pencil leaped feverishly into action. The buns put forth their own arrows of migration and began coiling sinuously about the paper till Mitteleuropea and the Balkans were alive with demon's tails. "Chaos! The Visigoths take shelter south of the lower Danube, and defeat the Emperor Valens at Adrianople, here!", he twisted the lead on the paper - "in 476. Then - in only a couple of decades" - a great  loop of pencil swept round the tip of the Adriatic and  descended a swiftly-outlined Italy - the pace of his delivery reminded me of a sports commentator  - "we get Alaric! Rome is captured!  The Empire splits in two -" West totters on for half a century or so. But the Visigoths are headed westward," an arrow curved to the left and looped into France, which rapidly took shape, followed by the Iberian peninsula. "Go West, young Goth!, " he murmured as his pencil threw off the  Visigoth kingdoms across France and Spain at dizzy speed, "There we are!" he said; then, as an afterthought, he absentmindedly penciled in an oval across northern Portugal and Galicia, and I asked him what it was.  "The Suevi, same as the Swabians, more or less: part of the whole movement. But now," he went on, "here go the Vandals!"  A few vague lines from what looked like Slovakia ad Hungary joined together and then swept west in a broad bar that mounted the Danube and advanced into Germany.. "Over the Rhine in 406; then clean across Gaul - " here the speed of his pencil tore a ragged furrow across the paper "- through the Pyrenees three years later - here they come! then down into Andalusia - hence the name - and hop! -" the pencil skipped the imaginary straits of Gibraltar and began rippling eastwards again "- along the north African coast to" - he improvised the coast as he went, then stopped with a large black blob - "Carthage! And all in thirty-three years from start to finish!"

His pencil got busy again,  I asked him the meaning of all the dotted lines he had started sending out from Carthage into the Mediterranean. "Those are Genseric's fleets, making a nuisance of themselves. Here he goes, sacking Rome in 455! There was lots of sea activity  just about then." Swooping to the top of the sheet, he drew a coast, a river's mouth and a peninsula: "That's the Elbe, there's Jutland." Then, right away in the left hand corner, an acute angle appeared, and above it, a curve like an ample rump; Kent and East Anglia, I was told. In a moment, from the Elbe's mouth, showers of dots were curving down on them. "- and there go your ancestors, the first Angles and Saxons, pouring into Britain only a couple of years before Genseric sacked Rome." Close to the Saxon shore, he inserted two tadpole figures among the invading dots: What were they? Hengist and Horsa," he said, and refilled our glasses.

This was the way to be taught history! It was just about now that a second bottle of Langenlois appeared. His survey had only taken about five minutes; but we had left the Marcommani and the Quadi far behind.  .  . The polymath laughed. "I forgot about them in the excitement! There's no problem about the Marcommani," he said. "They crossed the river and became Bayuvars - and the Bayuvars are the Bavarians - I've got a Markoman grandmother. But the Quadi! There are plenty of mentions of them in Roman history. Then, all of a sudden - none! They vanished just  .  .  ."about the time Vandals drive westward.  .  ." They probably went along with them too, he explained, as part of the slipstream . .  . "A whole nation shimmering upstream like elvers -not that there are any eels in the Danube," he interrupted himself parenthetically, on a different note. "Not native ones, unfortunately: only visitors - suddenly, the forests are empty. But, as nature hates a vacuum, not for long. A new swarm takes their place. Enter the Rugii, all the way from southern Sweden!" There was no room on the Neue Freie Presse, so he shifted a glass and drew the tip of Scandinavia on the scrubbed table top. "This is the Baltic Sea, and here they come." A diagram like the descent of a jellyfish illustrated their itinerary. By the middle the fifth century they were  all settled along the left bank of the Middle Danube  - if 'settled' is the word - they were all such fidgets. I'd never heard of the Rugii. "But  expect you've heard of Odoaker? He was a Rugian." The name, pronounced in the German way, did suggest something. There were hints of historical twilight in the syllables, something momentous and gloomy .  .  . but what? Inklings began to flicker.

Hence my ascent to this ruin. For it was Odoacer, the first barbarian king after the eclipse of the last Roman Emperor. ("Romulus Augustulus!" the polymath said.  What a name! Poor chap, he was very good looking, it seems, and only sixteen." )

Behind the little town of Aggsbach Markt on the other bank, the woods which had once teemed with Rugians rippled away in a fleece of tree-tops. Odoacer came from a point on the north bank only ten miles downstream. He dressed in skins, but he may have been a chieftain's son, even a king's son. He enlisted as a legionary, and at the age of forty-two he was at the head of a winning immigrant clique in control of the Empire's ruins, and finally King. After the preceding imperial phantoms, his fourteen years' reign seemed - humiliating to the Romans - an improvement.  It was not a sudden night at all, but an afterglow, rather, of  a faintly lighter hue and lit with glimmers of good government and even of justice. When Theodoric replaced him (by slicing him in half with a broadsword from the collar-bone to the loins at a banquet in Ravenna) it was still not absolutely the end of Roman civilization. Not quite; for the great Ostrogoth was the patron of Cassiodorus and of Boethius, "the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman." But he slew them both and then died of remorse; and the Dark Ages has come, with nothing but candles and plainsong left to lighten the shadows. "Back to the start," as the polymath had put it "and lose ten centuries."

Grim thoughts for a cloudless morning.

*the Danube just above Vienna
 **Those long-haired Wottan-worshippers, who peered for centuries between the tree-boles, while legionaries drilled  and formed tortoise on the other bank.

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