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‘In Search of Prester John’ is an excerpt from Tim Severin’s 1973 book The African Adventure about the legendary figure believed in Europe from the 12th to 17th centuries to rule a lost Christian kingdom somewhere in the Orient or Africa, among Muslims and pagans. He follows the journey of the 1515 Portuguese mission to Ethiopia, led by Dom Rodrigo da Lima and including the missionary Francisco Álvares, which hoped to find Prester John and his kingdom:

Horizon caption: ‘The swordsman opposite, a detail from a sixteenth-century ivory, is an African’s portrait of a Portuguese.’

Exactly where his fabulous realm was to be found, no one was sure. Variously, Prester John had been placed in Mongolia, China, and India, until at last he was settled in that part of Africa that lay east of the Nile. From there, out of Ethiopia, came tantalizing snippets of information to clothe the image: reports of a Christian king who was a sworn enemy of Islam and whose court swarmed with priests. It was a disappointment that his realm seemed so small, for even on crude maps of the day Ethiopia looked mortal-sized. But Europe’s theorists were quick to find an explanation: they claimed that the Prester had been driven there by the same all-conquering Mongols who had so nearly swamped Europe.

 

 

The Portuguese who first went to look for Prester John were scarcely suitable emissaries for so Christian a king. Many of them were degredados, convicted criminals who sailed to Africa to search for the Prester’s kingdom. If they had found it, they would have won full pardon. But the question never arose, for they never came back…At least two Arabic-speaking Portuguese travellers eventually got into Ethiopia, but unfortunately for both of them, the Ethiopian ruler was so delighted that he refused to let them return home and the wretched men spent the rest of their lives at his court in gilded captivity.

 

A Portuguese embassy landed on the coast of Ethiopia in 1520:

The fourteen members of the Portuguese embassy were an ill-assorted group to be representing their country. In command was Dom Rodrigo da Lima. Young and tactless, he was already quarrelling with his second-in-command, Jorge D’Abreu, who fancied himself better fitted to lead the embassy. Trying to hold the balance between the two bantams was Father Francisco Alvarez, once a chaplain to King Emmanuel and now the priest with the task of investigating the religion of Prester John. His diary was to be the first account of Ethiopia published in Europe.

Horizon caption: ‘The trio of patriarchs opposite, magnificent in their striped turbans, are part of a fresco in the church of Guh, which was probably decorated in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.’

…the similarity between the two cultures, Portuguese and Ethiopian, was one of the more surprising aspects of the quest for Prester John. Both countries were devoutly Christian to the point of fanaticism; both were ruled by absolute monarchs striving to bring a proud and fickle nobility to heel; and each looked to the other as a possible ally against Islam. It was remarkable, therefore, that Da Lima’s embassy failed so utterly to understand Ethiopia and her people.

Horizon caption: ‘Two Ethiopian choirboys mark Palm Sunday by wearing crosses of grass. To Ethiopians the cross is not only a symbol of faith but of their national resistance to the once mighty tides of Islam.’

In ‘Of Mars, Martians and Mariner 9’, Carl Sagan writes about the findings of the recent mission which sent the first spacecraft to orbit another planet, the history of our observations of Mars, and the often fanciful speculations we have had about life there:

I first became aware that Mars was a place of some interest by reading stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who is also known for his invention of Tarzan. Burroughs created a gentleman adventurer from Virginia named John Carter, who was able to transport himself to the planet Mars by standing in an open field and spreading his arms out and wishing. At an early age I tried very hard to test the Carter method. But no matter how hard I tried, I failed, although I always thought there might be a chance…

 

Horizon Caption: ‘The weathered face of Mars: in the Mariner 9 photograph at left, covering an area about 300 miles wide and the same distance high, narrow trenches – which may have been produced by wind erosion – look like blisters in the low-angle sunlight streaming in from upper right. The pockmarks are impact craters.’

The observational basis for the idea of Mars as a dying world was provided first by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, but was publicized consummately by an American Brahmin from Boston named Percival Lowell, a diplomat to Korea turned astronomer…Fundamentally, Lowell’s argument was that no natural process could produce such a network of long straight lines; hence, they were artificial; hence, there were artisans on Mars.

 

The basic idea was that there were canals constructed by a race of vast intelligence on the planet to channel the waters from the melting polar caps to the thirsty inhabitants of the equatorial cities. This brings up two questions: Are there such features on Mars? And, if they are present on Mars, need it be for the reasons that Lowell imagined?

 

…The canals of Mars are probably due to the eye’s penchant for order. It is much simpler to draw disconnected fine details as a few lines, joining them up, than to put down all the irregular mottlings observed in an instant of good seeing. There is no question that the straightness of the lines is due to intelligence. The only question concerns which side of the telescope the intelligence is on…

 

…on the eve of the injection of Mariner 9 into Mars orbit in November, 1971, our knowledge of Mars was still characterized by poor data, wishful thinking, overcautious conservatism, and too sweeping generalizations from a few good facts. After the end of the Mariner 9 mission, all this changed, and the study of Mars altered from a data-poor, theory-rich situation to a data-rich, theory-poor one. We are now inundated with hard facts…The planet-wide feudal-technological civilization envisioned by Edgar Rice Burroughs does not exist.

 

But neither is Mars like the moon. There are cratered terrains, it is true; but there are also large regions on Mars breathtakingly different from our natural satellite.

In ‘Chaplin’s The Gold Rush’, part of Horizon’s ‘Landmarks of Film History’ series, Stanley Kauffmann writes about the 1925 film:

Up to 1920 he made about seventy films, most of them short and most directed by himself. Only one of them, Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), was feature-length, and it was directed by Mack SennettThe Gold Rush was only the second long film of his own about the Tramp; yet he knew he was dealing with a character who was familiar to everyone, Eskimos and Malayans included. It’s rather as if an author had created a world-renowned character through short stories, had written one successful novel about him, and now wanted to explore that character more deeply in a long second work.

 

Horizon caption: ‘Out to brave and conquer the elements in his city suit, the Lone Prospector clutches a map and surveys the chilly Alaskan snowscape in his 1925 film, The Gold Rush.’

Chaplin wrote in his autobiography about spending the weekend at Douglas Fairbanks’ house and looking at stereoscopic views of Alaska and the Klondike. He wanted to make an ‘epic’, and pictures of prospectors climbing the Chilkoot Pass gave him ideas:

The role of the unconscious in the creative process is still unfathomed; we can only hypothesize from results. In Chaplin’s reaction to these photos, the striking element is unpredictability. With the exception of His Prehistoric Past (1914), a two-reeler, he had never made a film that took the Tramp out of contemporary city or country life. Tramps are, after all, a by-product of modern industry. Evidently, Chaplin’s unconscious saw at once the advantages of putting the Tramp into a context that, so to speak, had no direct relation to Trampdom, yet had the possibilities for the ‘epic’ he was seeking. And, presumably, he saw the power of putting the Tramp, whose black mustache is the center of the figure’s color gradations, against predominantly white backgrounds. All in all, it was a chance to simultaneously vary and heighten what he had done up to now.

 

In his first sequence, he shows the touch that made him great. As he skips and skids along the narrow path, a gigantic bear appears behind him and follows him. A lesser comic would have turned, seen the bear, and possibly got a lot of laughs out of panicking on the slippery path. But the bear disappears into a cave just before Charlie turns around. We know the danger he has escaped; he doesn’t. This is not only funnier, it is also serious: it exemplifies one of the Tramp’s qualities–innocence, and an unwitting faith in the power of that innocence.

 

Horizon caption: ‘In an uproarious Klondike saloon, the Lone Prospector watches Georgia Hale, the dance-hall girl atop the bar. In this famous shot, Chaplin puts the camera below eye-level, silhouetting his own figure so that both he and Georgia stand apart – she on her pedestal, he alone on the periphery of the mob.’

…Who is the Tramp? What is the secret of his unique effect on us?

…When Georgia invites him to dance, he is wearing silly clothes and has wrapped one foot in rags to replace the eaten shoe. But he dances with exquisite style. Who is he? When he invites the girls to dinner, he not only knows how to cook, he knows all about table settings, party favors, dainty gift wrappings, and etiquette. Who is he? When he performs the Oceana Roll, he knows a chorus-girl routine. Who is he? When Georgia’s bullyboy tries to force his way into her room, Charlie chivalrously bars the door, contemptuous of danger. Again – who is he?

I propose no supernatural answer, that he is a divine messenger in ragged clothes, a fool of God. I do suggest that part of the genius of Chaplin, part of his superiority to all other film comics except Buster Keaton, is his ability to make us believe in a comic character whose standards are better than our own, just as his body in motion is more beautiful than our bodies. I suggest that one of the reasons we have loved him all these decades–and young people seem to feel that they have loved him for decades, too–is that he has not concentrated on merely making us laugh, but has shown us the funniness in a hero-clown, an unsententious agent of exemplary values. He is not dully angelic; he sometimes pulls off con games, though usually to a good end or to flout oppressive authority. But in the main he compensates for the shortcomings, social and physical, of our lives and beings. In his movement and in his code, even in his cunning, he is what we feel we ought to be.

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