- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 13, 2003

Peter Ackroyd is no stranger to the ostensibly unwieldy. His last book was “London: The Biography,” which demonstrated the author’s inclination to tackle ever-broadening cultural and historical subjects. Now we have “Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination,” in which Mr. Ackroyd surveys, among other things, 1,000 years of English literature.

If “London” was a wild roving stag of a book, “Albion” is a behemoth. Having said that, readers will find in the current offering (as they did in the former) much to enjoy and applaud. It is no accident that Mr. Ackroyd, a prolific writer (of novels, biography and criticism) has walked away with many of Britain’s major literary prizes. His erudition, novelistic prose and passion for place is evident throughout and keeps this volume — arguably too long by half, too digressive and virtually indifferent to anyone or anything appearing after 1950 — interesting and engaging.

“Albion is an ancient word for England, Albio in Celtic and Alba in Gaelic; it is mentioned in the Latin of Pliny and in the Greek of Ptolemy. It may mean ‘the white land,’ related to the whiteness of the cliffs greeting travelers and suggesting pristine purity or blankness. But the cliffs are also guardians and Albion was the name of the Primaeval giant who made his home upon the island of Britain.”

Primaeval is the word to note because in this volume Mr. Ackroyd trains his eyes on ancient tribes and focuses on the trajectory of the Anglo-Saxon legacy in literature, art, architecture, science and religion. Though all disciplines are interwoven, it is literature that bears the bulk of Mr. Ackroyd’s loving and lavish considerations.

“It would be profoundly mistaken,” Mr. Ackroyd writes, “to underestimate the sophistication of Anglo-Saxon literature; there is no progress in English writing but rather, a perpetual return to the original sources of inspiration. The ninety-five riddles in the manuscript known as The Exeter Book, for example, composed in the early eighth century, afford direct and unmediated access to a complex and suggestive culture in which elaboration, difficulty and highly wrought obscurity are qualities assiduously to be pursued.”

In this passage, taken from the early part of the book, Mr. Ackroyd suggests what will be the directional flow of his narrative. Time and again, the author will demonstrate that much that was complex in Anglo-Saxon thought has endured and been repeated in literature (and art and science) down the ages. This is a conservative view of culture but not an exclusionary one, as Mr. Ackroyd is at pains to suggest. He quotes Ford Maddox Ford: “It is not — the whole of Anglo-Saxondom — a matter of race, but one, quite simply, of place — of place, of spirit, the spirit being born of the environment.”

Well, maybe. But how does this formulation jibe with the following observation Mr. Ackroyd makes later in the book? “There is perhaps no greater English character than Dr Johnson. The shambling, obsessive, melancholy figure has become representative no less of London than of literature.” So which is it? Does London form the man or does the man form London, and how does one account for the shambling, obsessive melancholics who abound in other places, other cultures?

At a certain point in reading this big book one is tempted to abandon Mr. Ackroyd’s thesis concerning the never diminishing Anglo-Saxon grip on history in favor of something more individualized and less forced. Yes, the feel of the craggy land, the perpetual rain, the gardens probably did shape everyone from the Venerable Bede to Evelyn Waugh. But that is not why one reads, or more to the point, sticks with reading Mr. Ackroyd’s rangy, brilliant, digressive, poetic, baffling, maddening, sumptuous narrative.

One reads this book because it is an irresistible catalogue of individual achievement. Sections devoted to Chaucer, Shakespeare and Blake are particularly good. Women writers, some obscure, fare especially well here. And it is enchanting to hear the ancient sounds of “Beowulf” — “‘Hwaet’ — What! or Listen!” and its invocation of the “gear dagas,” the days of old, “a threnody which will become a constant passion among the English” and then learn as if anew of how the epic form persisted through Spenser, Milton, Sidney, Malory and Blake. “The ancient chant of ‘Beowulf’ is heard across the generations,” Mr. Ackroyd writes. He adds, “There is also a steadiness and intensity of tone which later poets have inherited. Here is a passage translated from the ‘Battle of Finnsburh’:

“Around him lay many brave men dying. The raven whirled about, dark and sombre like a willow leaf. There was a sparkling of blades, as if all Finnsburh were on fire. Never have I heard of a more worthy battle in war.”

Mr. Ackroyd then compares it to this passage from Siegfried Sassoon, on another battle, in “Counter Attack”:

The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs

High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps

And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud.

Mr. Ackroyd isolates the “understated vehemence, the same directness and passion,” and takes his themes forward to include the most muscular features of an English national character. As he moves through his narrative, the whole of English life is considered. Always there is landscape, faith, brooding and finding one’s path. From “Beowulf” to Virginia Woolf, Hogarth to Hockney, Inigo Jones to Edward Luytens, Purcell to Vaughan Williams, Mr. Ackroyd chants and thumps, analyzes and informs. One hears the music, one cherishes the words when on occasion redundancy and pedantry intrude.

Still, “Albion” is not a history with cultural ages divided as we commonly see them. All is interchangeable. All share ancient imperatives and by the end, one feels the “Englishness” that lives in this book. One comes away with stereotypes: The English write good biographies, they are good portraitists and they have a fondness for miniatures. And for Mr. Ackroyd in the end it comes down to this:

“English writers and artists, English composers and folk singers, have been haunted by this sense of place in which the echoic simplicities of past use and past tradition sanctify a certain spot of ground. These forces are no doubt to be found in other regions and countries of the earth; but in England the reverence for the past and the affinity with the natural landscape join together in a mutual embrace. So we owe much to the ground on which we dwell. It is the landscape and the dreamscape. It encourages a sense of longing and belonging. It is Albion.”


By Peter Ackroyd

Doubleday, $40, 524 pages, illus.

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