From the Library of Dale R. Broadhurst
Phra the Phoenician
(Transcript of c. 1891 USA reprint)
FEATURED IN ERBzine 1125
The Wonderful Adventures
Phra the Phoenician.
EDWIN LESTER ARNOLD.
BY SIR EDWIN ARNOLD, K. C. I. E.
Is the garden of my Japanese home in Tokio I have just perused the last sheets of my son's philosophical and historical romance, "Phra the Phoenician."
Amid other scenes I might be led to analyze, to criticise, perhaps a little to argue about the singular hypothesis upon which he builds his story. Here, with a Buddhist temple at my gate, and with Japanese Buddhists around me, nothing seems more natural than that an author, sufficiently gifted with imagination and study, should follow his hero beyond the narrow limits of one little existence, down the chain of many lives, taken up link by link, after each long interval of rest and reward in the Paradise of Jo-Do. I have read several chapters to my Asiatic friends, and they say, "Oh, yes! It is ingwa! it is Karma! That is all quite true. We, also, have lived many times, and shall live many times more on this earth." One of them opens the shoji to let a purple-and-silver butterfly escape into the sunshine. She thinks some day it will thank her -- perhaps a million years hence.
Moreover, here is a passage which I lately noted, suggestive enough to serve as preface, even by itself, to the present book. Commenting on a line in my "Song Celestial," the writer thus remarks: "The human soul should therefore be regarded as already in the present life connected at the same time with two worlds, of which, so far as it is confined to personal unity to a body, the material only is clearly felt. It is, therefore, as good as proved, or, to be diffuse, it could easily be proved, or, better still, it will hereafter be proved (I know not where or when), that the human soul, even in this life, stands in indissoluble community with all immaterial natures of the spirit-world; that it mutually acts upon them and receives from them impressions, of which, however, as man it is unconscious, as long as all goes well. It is, therefore, truly one and the same subject, which belongs at the same time to the visible and to the invisible world, but not just the same person, since the representations of the one world, by reason of its different quality, are not associated with ideas of the
other, and therefore what I think as spirit is not remembered by me as man."
I, myself, have consequently taken the stupendous postulates of Phra's narrative with equanimity, if not acceptance, and derived from it a pleasure and entertainment too great to express, since the critic, in this case, is a well-pleased father.
The author of "Phra" has claimed for
Romance the ancient license accorded to Poetry and to Painting:
Quidlibet audendi semper fuit aequa potestas."
A Briton in British days, the slave-consort of his Druid wife, he passes, by daring but convenient inventiveness, into the person of a centurion in the household of a noble Roman lady, who illustrates in her surroundings the luxurious vices of the latter empire with some relics still of the older Republican virtues. Hence he glides again into oblivion, yet wakes from the mystical slumber in time to take part in King Harold's gallant but fatal stand against the Normans.
He enjoys the repose, as a Saxon thane, which the policy of The Conqueror granted to the vanquished; but after some startling adventures in the vast oak-woods of the South kingdom, is rudely ousted from his homestead by the "foreigners," and in a neighboring monastery sinks into secular forgetfulness once more of wife and children, lands and life.
On the return of consciousness he finds himself enshrined as a saint, thanks to the strange physical phenomena of his suspended animation, and learns from the abbot that he has lain there in the odor of sanctity, according to indisputable church records, during three hundred years.
He wanders on again, finding everything new and strange, and becomes an English knight under King Edward III. He
is followed to Crecy by a damsel who, from act to act of his long life-drama, similarly renews an existence linked with his own, and who constantly seeks his love. She wears the armor of a brother knight, and on the field of battle she sacrifices her life for his.
Yet once more, a long spell of sleep, which is not death, brings this much-wandering Phra to the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and it is there, after many and strange vicissitudes, he writes his experiences, and the curtain finally falls over the last passage of this remarkable record.
Such, briefly, is the frame-work of a creation which, while it has certainly proved to me extremely seductive as a story, is full, I think, of philosophical suggestiveness. As long as men count mournfully the years of that human life which M. Renan has declared to be so ridiculously short, so long their fancies will hover about the possibility of an elixir vitae, of splendidly extended spans like those ascribed to the old patriarchs, and meditate with fascination on the mystical doctrines of Buddhism and the Vedantas. In such a spirit the Egyptians wrapped their dead in careful fashion, after filling the body with preservatives; and if ancient tomes have the "Seven Sleepers" of the Koran, the Danish king who dozes under the Castle of Elsinore, and our own undying King Arthur, do we not go to see "Rip Van Winkle" at the play, and is not hybernation one among the problems of modern science which whispers that we might, if we liked, indefinitely adjourn the waste of corporeal tissue, and spread our seventy or eighty years over ever so many centuries?
But to be charming an author is not obliged to be credible, or what would become of the "Arabian Nights," of "Gulliver," and of the best books in the library? Personally I admire and I like "Phra" enormously, and, being asked to pen these few lines by way of introduction, I counsel everybody to read it, forgetting who it is that respectfully offers this advice until the end of the book, when I shall be no longer afraid if they remember.
Tokio, JAPAN, April 14, 1890.
[ blank ]
My own narrative seems incredible to me, yet I am myself a witness of its truth. When I say that I have lived in this England more than one thousand years, and have seen her bud from the callowest barbarity to the height of a prosperity and honor with which the world is full, I shall at once be branded as a liar. Let it pass! The accusation is familiar to my ears. I tired of resenting it before your fathers' fathers were born, and the scorn of your offended sense of veracity is less to me than the lisping of a child.
I was, in the very distance of the beginning, a citizen of that ancient city whose dominion once stretched from the blue waters of the Aegean round to and beyond the broad stream of the Nile herself. Your antiquities were then my household gods, your myths were my beliefs; those facts and fancies on the very fringe of records about which you marvel were the commonplace things of my commencement. Yes! and those dusty relics of humanity that you take with unholy zeal from the silent chambers of sarcophagi and pyramids were my boon companions, the jolly revelers I knew long ago -- the good fellows who drank and sung with me through warm, long-forgotten nights -- they were the great princes to whom I bent an always duteous knee, and the fair damsel who tripped our sunny streets when Sidon existed and Tyre was not a matter of speculation, or laughed at their own dainty reflections, in the golden leisure of that forgotten age, where the back-legged ibis stood sentinel among the blue lotus-flowers of the temple ponds.
Since then, what have I not done! I have traveled to the corners of the world, and forgotten my own land in the love of another. I have sat here in Britain at the tables of Roman centurions, and the best of her Saxon kings died in my arms.
I have sworn hatred of foreign tyrants in the wassail bowls of serfs, and bestrode Norman chargers in tilt-yards and battle-fields. The kingdoms of the misty Western Islands which it was my wonderful fortune to see submerged by alternate tides of conquest I have seen emerge triumphant, with all their conquerors welded into one. I have seen more battles than I can easily recall, and war in every shape; I have enjoyed all sorts of peace, from the rudest to the most cultivated.
I have lived, in fact, more than one thousand years in this sea-girt island of yours; and so strange and grim and varied have been my experiences that I am tempted to set them down with a melancholy faith in my own uniqueness. Though it is more than probable few will believe me, yet for this I care nothing, nor do I especially seek your approval of my labors. I, who have tasted a thousand pleasures, and am hoary with disappointments, can afford to hold your censure as lightly as I should your commendation.
Here, then, are my adventures; and this is how they commenced.
The entire text is featured in ERBzine 1125
Phra the Phoenician
Note: The following compilation was
c. 68 B. C. E. Phra begins to sail the Medditerranean, as a Tyrian trader.
58 B. C. E. Phra frees the British slave-girl, Blodwen, whome he found on an island in the western Medditerranean. He decides to sail to Britain, where Blodwen is restored to her rank of a chieftainess among the British tribes of the southeast coast. Phra marries Blodwen and they have one child.
c. 56 B. C. E. Phra is present at the landings of Julius Caesar's invasion force. He is taken captive, escapes, is branded a traitor by his wife's kinsman and apparently put to death. His body is returned to his wife, who tattoos upon his skin a twenty year pictorial record of the events following his execution,
408 C. E. Phra awakes in a cavern on Blodwen's old tribal lands, to discover that Britain has become Romanized during his great sleep. Phra, able to speak Latin and Celtic, becomes acclimated to the new era, but undergoes a personality change and became a colonial libertine -- his wealth exhausted, he is forced to find employment and becomes a guard in the service of Lady Electra, a Roman noblewoman, said to be the niece of an Emperor.
410 The Emperor Honorius recalls the last of the Roman legions from Britain. Phra aids Lady Electra and her house to flee from her local vassals and the encroaching barbarians. Phra and the slave Numidea are plunged into a swift stream -- Phra pulls the girl to safety but Numidea is dead and Phra is nearly dead. His body slips into a healing coma. Evidently the local people believe that the hiberbating Phra is the product of some divine providence and preserve his body.
470-540 The invading Saxons and Northmen slowly overcome the defenses of King Arthur and other British leaders, establishing themselves as the ruling powers in the British Isles.
870-900 The invading Vikings are prevented from conquering Britain, through the heroic efforts of King Alfred and other English leaders.
1066 Phra the Phoenician awakes in a hermit's hut on the eve of the battle of Hastings. He recalls nothing since falling asleep in 410. Unable to bear the trauma of Numidea's death on top of his loss of Blodwen, Phra's personality undergoes further strain. The hermit sends Phra on a mission and he arrives at the battlefield just as King Harold is defeated by William of Normandy. Phra rescues Editha, a young Saxon noblewoman of Harold's retinue, and they flee to temporary freedom at her estate of Voewood.
1066-87 William the Conqueror reigns as the first Norman King of England, slowly extending his control over the entire country. During this time Phra marries Editha and lives in relative peace for twelve years as a Saxon lord. They had two children. In 1084 the Normans arrive at the estatewuth an overwhelming force, casuing Phra and his family to flee to nearby St. Olaf's Monastery. Although his wounds are not mentioned, the trauma of Phra's escape sends him into another prolonged hibernation.
1346 Phra regains consciousness in the monestary, where his undying body has been preserved as what the monks believe to be a holy saint. Near the monastery Phra finds a small ruined chapel with a marble statue representing his long-decesased wife and children. Devastated by this discovery, he wanders the countryside aimlessly, but, after some time, he is able to fit himself into to the society of medieval England as a knight of unstated origins. He goes to France to fight as a vassal of King Edward, accompanied by a friend of Mistress Isobel. As the campaign progresses, Phra realizes that he is in love with Isobel. With Flamaucoer's aid, he attempts to win the noble girl. But, at the battle of Crecy, Flamaucoer takes a charge meant for Phra and is killed, revealing that "he" is Isobel in knightly disguise. Returning to England, Phra is thrown overboard in a storm and is washed ashore on ancient lands of Blodwen. Here he climbs into a burial crypt to sleep and is sealed in the tomb by a falling slab of marble. He again falls into a long hibernation.
1586 Phra is awakened and freed of his confinement by two graverobbers. He travels northward to London, meeting along the way an old scholar named Adam Faulkner. Finally realizing that he is in the 16th century, Phra rejoins Faulkner and becomes a guest at his home. Phra falls in love with the old man's daughter, Elizabeth and aids her father in his great work, building a steam-driven mechanical marvel that turns out to be a monstrosity. Phra and Elizabeth marry but then drink poisoned wine. Elizabeth perishes at once but Phra clings to life long enough to avenge her death and complete his memoirs. Then, in the recesses of Faulkner's dilapidated mansion, Phra double-locks himself into a room, where the poison finally ends his long life. As he dies he writes on the final page of his memoirs, saying that he is experiencing "the last fitful flashes of pain and life" and slipping into the spirit world -- to be reunited with Blodwin.
c. 1889 Edwin L. Arnold supposedly discovers and edits Phra's memoirs for publication in a London newspaper. He does not reveal how he came into possession of the ancient warrior's autobiography, nor where the bones of Phra the Phoenician have been laid in their final repose.
Edwin Lester Arnold's
Phra the Phoenician
To advance this nonsensical, (but fascinating) deduction, the essayist provides the following brief introduction into Arnold's resurrectable character:
Phra is a Phoenician merchant who sails to Britain on a trading mission during Julius Caesar's invasion of the island. Phra joins with the native Britons because he loves a red-haired slave girl, Blodwen, whom he bought from a pirate captain off the coast of Africa and later married... Caesar defeats an alliance of British tribes, taking control of the island. Phra is taken prisoner, and escapes after being interrogated by Caesar. The druid priest, Dhuwallon, takes his uninjured return from capture for treason and denounces him as a spy. He meets his death on a druidic altar, but wakes four hundred years later in an underground cavern where he has evidently been laid to rest.
This is a fair summary of Arnold's first few pages. The author's father also ascribes "a large and observant, if very mystic, philosophy" to the "young Phoenician merchant, "such as would serve for no bad standpoint whence to witness the rise and fall of religions and peoples.... He dies and lives anew many times, but preserves his personal identity under the garb of half a dozen transmigrations." This, then, is the core premise of the story: that an ancient being might time-travel, forward through history, in "transmigrations" or extraordinary periodic reawakenings "from the mystical slumber," in order to participate in various exciting historical events and record their details in his personal record.
Coogan describes the remainder of Arnold's book thusly:
The rest of the novel tells of his repeated "deaths" and reawakenings at each point of Britain's fall to new invaders -- Saxons, Normans, the French, etc. The novel ends in roughly 1586 with Phra writing the story of his life, "dying friendless and alone." He has been living in the manor house of Adam Faulkner, a recluse philosopher. When Phra and Faulkner's daughter Elizabeth declare their love for one another to her father, Emanuel the steward brings a silver bowl of wine to toast the loving couple. The jealous Emanuel has poisoned the wine. Elizabeth, Faulkner, and Phra all drink. The father and daughter die quickly... Phra locks himself and his book in his "secret den," a small cell in a wall of the manor house's turret. There he dies, seeing a vision of his beloved Blodwen.
Coogan goes on to illustrate the various
resemblances between Phra and ERB's John Carter, but his reasoning may
not be terribly convincing to many readers. Yes, the two characters do
share some metaphysical and personal similarities, but they are also very
different in many ways. In the advancement of fictional verisimilitude,
a modern writer might better postulate that the two protagonists (Carter
is a constant hero, Phra is only occasionally heroic) were individuals
cut from the same pseudo-historical cloth. Both may have sprung from practically
the same long-forgotten beginnings -- perhaps both even fought upon the
same archaic battlefields -- but they are not one in the same. A
less pretending examination of their respective stories might have them
both growing from the same old literary roots, (with Burroughs having adapted
a few story elements from Arnold), but saying that the two authors primarily
relied upon common antique sources for their two similar characters. Mark
Twain and H. Rider Haggard immediately come to mind as likely cross-temporal
fountainheads, but several other writers, less known to today's readers,
might just as well be mentioned.
Phra the Store-keeper
While Edwin L. Arnold and Edgar Rice Burroughs both wrote escapist fiction at the end of the Victorian era, it has been Burroughs, not Arnold, who has captured the imaginations of four generations of fantasy readers. Burroughs made no pretensions to ever writing "literature," but his stories continue to be widely read. While Arnold admittedly produced a much smaller number of stories, for a much smaller readership, his failure to reach the semi-celebrity status of ERB probably can be traced more to his lackluster writing style than to his limited textual output. Burroughs' Outlaw of Torn is about as readable as Arnold's Phra the Phoenician, but the American writer expanded his more fascinating characters (Tarzan and John Carter) into heroes who continued their adventures in manifold stories that spanned several appreciative generations of readers and in multiple media markets. Simply put, most ERB characters are more interesting and exciting than is Phra -- or, at least they are portrayed as having more interesting and exciting exploits than does Phra. Had Burroughs been the creator and sustainer of the resurrecting Phoenician, he might well have raised the protagonist's uneven adventures to more enticing narratives.
Despite his occasional heroic escapades, Phra the sailing shop-keeper remains a less than sterling personality, who seems to cling more to ladies' apron-strings than his own sandal-straps, in boosting himself up out of obscurity and poverty. Written as it was, when England was yet ruled by a stalwart Queen -- the fancied daughter of the bronze-helmeted Britannia and royal heiress to the bodacious Boudicca -- it is no wonder that Arnold pays so many compliments to noble and royal ladies. He was writing for an audience that was then shelling out a good many shillings for "She Who Must be Obeyed" and other stories celebrating feminine sovereignship. But, still, Phra often comes across as the self-absorbed social-climber who will tear a child from her enslaved mother or go a-roaming after good times, rather than bend a loyal knee to an Arthur or an Alfred in a truly courageous campaign against the threatening foe. His male companions are transitory and forgettable -- the most interesting ones being a cast-off fool and a half-crazy old inventor. Phra is an unconvincing leader of men who commands the brave fealty of neither a Tars Tarkas nor a Little John.
All this said, there is a fascinating
"sleeper awakens" element to his story, that, were it told by an H. G.
Wells or a Philip Francis Nowlan, might have stood Phra among the memorable
adventurers of turn-of-the-century fantasy. Arnold is not so bad in coming
up with interesting ideas as he is in using them to motivate his characters
into interesting activities. One quickly gets the feeling, in reading Arnold's
writings, that he wasn't trying very hard to be a reputable writer. It
is bad enough that his father gives away the secret of Flamencoeur's sex
before Edwin says a word in his own book -- Edwin himself telegraphs the
farcical secret so often and so blatantly, that hoodwinked Phra comes across
to the reader as an imbecile who barely knows which end of a sword to hold
onto. Clearly, Arnold is attempting some tongue-in-cheek narrative that
satirizes Victorian fiction satirizing medieval tales, satirizing heroic
romance. Burroughs does this sort of thing better. The readers might now
and then laugh at John Carter's oafishness around beautiful women, but
they do not come away from his tales laughing at Burroughs himself.
Phra the Reprinted
Camille E. Cazedessus, II offers the following useful reflections in his 1993 article, "Whence John Carter?":
Lupoff says: "Phra the Phoenician is John Carter!..." Edwin Lester Arnold was born in Britain, and lived both in Canada and India. He wrote 3 "major" books: The Wonderful Adventures of Phra the Phoenician (1890) Lepidus the Centurian, a Roman of To-day (1901) [and] Lieut. Gullivar Jones, His Vacation (1905). Ev. Bleiler's 1948 Checklist of Fantastic Literature notes a 329 page 1890 edition of Phra from Harper in New York, while his more recent Guide to Supernatural Fiction (Ohio, 1983) notes a 3 volume 1891 Chatto and Windus, London edition with an Introduction by Arnold's father. I recently located one of the undated 347 page cheap American reprints... [that] includes his father's Introduction. The existence of this cheap American edition means it was rather popular and more accessable to the average guy in [ERB's home-town of] Chicago than one might at first think. (It seems that Lupoff didn't know that Phra had been reprinted in the pulp magazine Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Sept., 1945.) In his Guide to Supernatural Fiction Bleiler says it is pretentious, sentimental and Phra's "...adventures are chronicled in a style reminiscent of Haggard's worst." (ERBdom No. 90, combined with The Fantasy Collector No. 248, Dec., 1993)
True enough, Arnold's Phra is "pretentious" and it probably reads saccharinely "sentimental" to any "Supernatural Fiction" reader who does not care to wade too deeply into late Victorian historical satire. Does Arnold write in "a style reminiscent of Haggard's worst?" A possible answer to that question, is that Haggard's worst pretty much parallels most of Arnold's prose, but Phra now and then does manage to rise to about the level of Haggard's run-of-the-mill (and Burroughs' pot-boiler) grade of story-telling. Admitting this, there must be something in Phra that has inspired a half-dozen reprints (some authorized, some not) in the years between its initial London newspaper appearance and today's jaded times. Some recent editions, with their ISBNs in parentheses, are: Buccaneer Books (0899681743), Career Press (0878771107) and Borgo Press (0893705101). Has this late blooming in Phra publication developed entirely out of Richard Lupoff's efforts to link him to John Carter -- or, does Phra offer his readers something more than just an equivocal ERB "source"?
Consider these excerpts, from the on-line review of Arnold's other book, Gullivar of Mars, at The SF Site:
Edwin L. Arnold Son of Sir Edwin Arnold (1832-1904), the famous orientalist, journalist (chief editor of the London Daily Telegraph) and author of the long narrative epic The Light of Asia (1879), Edwin Lester Linden Arnold (1875-March 1, 1935) was born in Swanscombe, Kent, England and spent most of his childhood in India. He returned to England to study agriculture and ornithology. After much world travelling he settled down to a job as a journalist in 1883. He published his first books A Summer Holiday in Scandinavia (1877) and Bird Life in India (1887) before writing his first novel The Wonderful Adventures of Phra the Phoenician, which relates the adventures of a warrior who is reincarnated through history. Phra first appeared illustrated and in 24 parts in the prestigious Illustrated London News.
The first book edition (New York: Harper's, 1890) was a likely a pirated edition and bore none of the original illustrations, whereas the first, 3 volume British edition (London: Chatto & Windus, 1891) used about half the original illustrations. This edition was reprinted in the Newcastle Forgotten Fantasy Library (Vol. XI, 1977).... Arnold followed his Phra success with similar stories, the novelette "Rutherford the Twice-Born" (The Idler, 1892; collected in The Story of Ulla 1895), and the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Lepidus the Centurion: A Roman of Today (1901, reprint Arno Press, 1978), which flopped.... When... his Gullivar received a lukewarm welcome, Arnold stopped writing fiction altogether.
Assuming that his illustrious father
helped Edwin break into print, as a fantasy writer, in the Illustrated
London News, that publication alone may have been enough of a journalistic
endorsement to guarantee his book printings by the English and American
publishing houses in 1890. This does not necessarily mean that the novel
was "rather popular," as Mr. Cazedessus concludes -- only that it was "more
accessible" for readers in England and America, "than one might at first
think." The fact that young Arnold was mostly raised away from his native
land might also help explain how his fascination with British history is
so muddlingly mixed with a seeming ignorance of old English social systems.
If Edwin did not learn much about how middle-ages English society worked
during his school-boy years, that might account for his passing so blithely
over medieval social conventions in his Phra story. After all, Orient-schooled
colonial fiction writers might rush in where proper imperial angels fear
All considered, it is probably the core idea connecting Phra's various exploits that has given them some life beyond their probable 1891 literary demise. Phra, the inexplicably immortal lover, moves through the centuries, linked in a Spiritualist's "soul-mate" bond to his beloved Blodwen. Such themes were enticing to students of the paranormal at the turn of the century and they may have seemed a bit more probable as the first blushes of Eastern religion began to appear in the western popular press, among the Theosophists, etc. This fantastic theme was more or less new in Arnold's day (the "Once and Future King" legends notwithstanding), but it has become so shop-worn in modern decades as to inspire little more than a half-interesested yawn. The more recent "Merlin's Ring" stories present the same premise in prettier dress, and Burroughs' own "Eternal Lover" tale continues to strike a chord inside the sentimental heart. The premise is not entirely out-dated, but it is entirely too common to arouse much of an audience beyond those who watch replays of "The Mummy" or "She" in advertisement-decimated small screen appearances.
Thus far has popular interest in fantastic
fiction developed -- to the point that Arnold's Phra seems more quaint
than intriguing. That was not so much the case back in 1890, when even
much-respected celebrities sat down to seances and scientists weighed deathbeds
on scales, in hopes of determining the mass of the escaping human spirit.
In 1890 a spectral Blodwen, using another of Phra's sweethearts as her
medium, spoke to the serial polygamist in fascinating flashes, reawakening
a popular interest that runs back past the midnight appearances of Hamlet's
father, all the way to King Saul's otherworldly conversations, via the
Witch of Endor. It is not Arnold's fault that the same story has been mass-marketed
ten thousand times since his day. He was good-hearted enough to try and
tell the fable, and just enough luster may yet remain upon his brazen prose,
to catch the eye of a "sentimental" modern reader or two.
Gulliver of Mars by Edwin L. Arnold
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