What’s the Opposite of Ad Hominem? The Book Guy Reviews Explorer Tim Severin
Tim Severin: The Greatest Explorer of the Modern Era
Rather than confine myself to books, this week I’ve expanded the scope of review to include people. Because, as near as I can tell, I must have been living under a rock for the past few decades, because I’d never heard of Tim Severin until this past week when I stumbled upon some of his books.
For those of you, who like me, didn’t know, for the past 40 years or so, Tim Severin has been crossing oceans in leather boats, rowing Ancient Greek galleys across the Mediterranean, riding horses across the Gobi desert with Mongols, and retracing Medieval Arab spice trading routes across the Indian ocean.
The British explorer was born in India (1940), schooled in England, and studied at Oxford. His graduate degree? Medieval Asian exploration. For which he researched his thesis, in part, by retracing the route of Marco Polo—on a motorcycle. That’s about as an auspicious start as is imaginable for an explorer.
Explorer, adventurer, whatever you want to call him, Tim Severin always has had a purpose beyond just completing some extreme feat that Red Bull’s marketing team dreamt up. Each of Severin’s journeys that spawned a book, was taken up with the intent of proving, or at least suggesting that a historical tale, myth, or just plain crazy story was actually very possible. It’s been a life time well spent in that pursuit.
Tim Severin’s most famous voyage/book, The Brendan Voyage: Sailing to America in a leather boat to prove the legend of the Irish Sailor Saints, while not a spectacular feat of literary titling, was a triumph in historical recreation. Legend held that in the 6th century AD the Irish monk sailed to the New World to spread the Holy Gospel—a voyage made in a small ship made from ox-hides. For very obvious reasons, scholars have long doubted the claims made in Medieval texts regarding Brendan’s trip.
In the late 1970s, Severin used those same Latin texts to recreate St. Brendan’s journey down to the very boat he would have used. It took two years to build, but the little vessel proved hardy enough to survive the 4,000 mile trip from Ireland to Newfoundland, although icebergs and brutal sea conditions almost prevented Severin and crew from surviving (you can find much of the documentary footage on youtube under “Brendan Voyage”). Severin’s subsequent book flew off shelves, and his voyage inspired a suite of classical music by the same name that received widespread critical acclaim. Not bad, but Tim Severin was just getting started.
Sinbad the Sailor, that classic story of the 1001 Nights, has captivated people’s imaginations since the story’s centuries old genesis. It captivated Severin too. Even before The Brendan Voyage, Severin was dreaming of making Sinbad’s journey’s a reality. After the success of the Brendan Voyage, he had the capital to make that dream a reality.
In 1980, Severin launched the good ship, Sohar. The ship in and of itself was a feat of engineering and planning. Not a single nail went into the ship’s main construction. Instead, coconut husk was used to sew the hull and framing together. And an amateur crew learned to sail a traditional Arab trading ship over a period of seven months and over 6,000 miles. Severin and crew criss-crossed the Indian Ocean in the same tradition as the Arab sailors of the early Middle Ages who gave rise to the story of Sinbad himself.
Jason and the Argonauts, The Odyssey—for these mythical voyages of Ancient Greek lore, Tim Severin did his best to replicate a Bronze Age galley. A twenty oar galley, which Severin and crew then rowed across the Mediterranean, ticking off the points of interest from the myths, like a backpackers going through their Lonely Planet guide. Only unlike the backpackers in that example, Severin’s crew rowed their way and gave scholars invaluable insights into the manner in which the Ancients traveled—how fast, how agile, or in this case not how not so agile.
After the “Jason” and “Odyssey” voyages, Severin went on crusade himself, and in the manner of Godfrey of Bouillon rode horseback, thousands of miles from Belgium to Jerusalem in an effort to traces the route of the first Crusaders for his book Crusader: By Horse to Jerusalem. Again, Severin has more important things to do then come up with clever book titles. Indeed, soon after Severin would put himself back in the saddle for a book on Genghis Khan. Severin took up with a group of modern-day Mongolian nomads and rode across the Gobi desert, practiced horseback archery, and claims to have encountered nomads suffering from Black Plague.
It’s hard to discuss Severin’s career without at some point just listing off the incredible journeys the man has undertaken, any one of which would be enough for a person to stake a career on entirely. Only in the past decade and change has Severin transitioned from making history to simply writing about it. After the Khan journey, but before Severin dedicated himself to primarily writing historical fiction, Severin also concluded several other expeditions: crossing 5500 miles of ocean by raft in his China Voyage, recreating the fieldwork of the evolutionist Alfred Wallace (who preceded Darwin) sailing throughout the Spice Islands of Indonesia, and In Search of Moby Dick, Severin accompanied native whale-harpooners in Eastern Indonesia on a sperm whale hunt. “Prolific” hardly does justice here.
It’s not just his adventures, but Tim Severin himself who is an anachronism (and not just for his ascot) which in this context, is meant as the highest compliment. From all accounts, the man is quiet, humble, and inspires unbelievable loyalty in his crews and companions. In his writing, the focus is on the planning, the logistics, the process—not his feelings, as seems to be the case with far too many 21st century adventure writers who can scarcely keep their eyes on the horizon for three successive moments before returning their gaze to their respective navels.
Before I grew up, or more appropriately, before I grew older, I used to read about the British explorers of old on manila pages creased by time and dog-eared with rapture. What sang out from the pages of the hagiographies of my youth, was a sense of romance mixed with unbridled enthusiasm. Enthusiasm for the unknown, for mankind, and the possibilities of both—qualities which are hard to distinguish in today’s adventurer class amid a cynical era of dubious firsts, media driven exploits, and tawdry grabs at fleeting fame—in the best traditions of Burton and Halliburton (an American I know), Tim Severin has devised endless challenges and shared them with the public in way that edifies and inspires.