Books: Then and Now
Category: Then (1958) and Now (2017)
Review: An Elephant for Aristotle by L. Sprague de Camp
“Nature’s great masterpiece, an elephant; the only harmless great thing.” John Donne
My Wife gave me a copy of An Elephant for Aristotle by L. Sprague de Camp, thinking, perhaps, that I would probably not be able to resist opening the cover of a book that had those two particular nouns in the title. She was right. For one thing, there was the curiosity factor. What was the connection between the elephant and Aristotle? And how did it happen? Elephants are not indigenous to Greece.
“Even today, you can’t FedEx an elephant.”
The answer was there on the very first page of the introduction, which was written by one of the Grandmasters of alternative history novels, Harry Turtledove. To wit:
“Even today, you can’t FedEx an elephant. Back in the fourth century BC, you really couldn’t FedEx an elephant. It’s about 2,000 miles from the banks of the Indus to the Acropolis of Athens. Somebody had to take charge of that elephant and bring it across those 2,000 miles through Alexander’s often imperfectly conquered empire to the philosopher.”
And that is the nut of the novel. Turtledove sums it up best:
“That somebody would have had to keep the elephant alive. He would have had to keep it fed. He would have had to keep himself and whoever he had with him alive and fed and unrobbed. The roads would have been bad, when there were roads at all—a lot of the time, there wouldn’t have been. The people through whose country he was bringing this monster would not always be friendly, which is putting things mildly.”
The story is narrated in first person; told as seen and experienced by the fictional Leon of Atrax, a Greek soldier and cavalry commander, who is tasked by his commander, Alexander the Great, to deliver an elephant to the eminent philosopher in Athens.
The elephant was sent as a gift to Alexander’s old tutor and mentor. But it was more than just a present; it was dispatched as a joke, the equivalent perhaps of today’s gag gift, albeit one on an enormous scale (kings back then were not prone to understatement). This wry plot device, (try to imagine being the recipient of an elephant, sent as a gag gift) constructed as a literary bon mot, sets a tone that carries throughout the novel; this is a book liberally laced with a sense of humour.
Although the elephant is central to the story, the story is not really about the elephant.
The great beast was a male Asian war elephant, taken in battle by Alexander. Its name began as Mahankal and was changed to Aias (part of the narrative), before setting out on the 2,000 mile trek to Athens. Although Mahankal cum Aias is central to the story, the story is not really about the elephant. If that sounds contradictory or confusing, stay with me here.
An Elephant for Aristotle is all about the journey. It’s about the trials and tribulations that beset a twenty-seven-year-old junior military officer in the fourth century BC who is tasked with a whimsical, improbable mission that most people, indeed most military officers today (given the same conditions) would probably consider nigh impossible to accomplish.
Sprague de Camp was born in 1907 and died in 2000. He was a polymath of the highest order; trained as an aeronautical engineer (Caltech) but spent most of his working life as a writer and editor. He wrote both fiction and non-fiction, a total of more than 100 books. He was known for his light-hearted word-crafting, but never lost sight of what makes a great read. He addressed this in a 1947 essay.
It is one of those rare novels that has held up well after more than half a century.
“The mere fact that a narrative depends for its appeal upon humour doesn’t excuse the author from writing a good story. The yarn still needs structure, characterisation, movement, narrative hook, build-up, climax, and all the rest.”
The copyright date for An Elephant for Aristotle is 1958. It is one of those rare novels that has held up well after more than half a century. A paragraph of Harry Turtledove’s introduction best sums up my thoughts on this interesting and unusual work of fiction.
“I will note that, as always, de Camp’s people are realistic and his research is impeccable. He has gone through Aristotle, the historian Herodotus and the geographer Strabo with gun and camera, as well as using modern scholarly works, travel accounts, and reports from archeologists. Till someone comes up with a time machine, we can’t know for sure what this stretch of the Near East was like more than 2,300 years ago. Reading An Elephant for Aristotle will get you about as close as anything, though.” REG
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