Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Three Against One

I have on my shelves an incomplete set (seven of the eight volumes), rather garishly bound in a bright blue buckram with lavish gold stamping, of Edward Arber’s An English Garner: Ingatherings from Our History and Literature.  An unsigned inscription on the flyleaf of the first volume reads “To James Abel Esq in memory of the editor of this series May 1913”—that is, precisely 106 years ago.  The publication dates of the various numbers are curiously specific, that of the first volume being “15 Nov. 1877”.  Arber was a transitional figure in the history of British literary scholarship.  Born in 1836, a year before Victoria ascended the throne, he died in 1912 in the early years of George V.  During his lifetime the study of literature moved from amateur antiquarianism toward more solid bibliographical science.  Arber, who became the first Professor of English Literature at Birmingham, represented both the old and the new.  His Transcript of the Registers of the Worshipful Company of Stationers (1875–94) and three-volume Term Catalogues, mainly published at his own expense, were major scholarly contributions.  The miscellanies printed in the Garner show his more antiquarian instincts.

There is a clue to Arber’s sensibility in the two authors from whom he took title-page epigraphs. From Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1614) we get this: “Yea, History hath triumphed over Time; which besides it nothing but Eternity hath triumphed over.”  And there is a single phrase from Milton’s Areopagitca: “[Who shall silence all the] Airs and madrigals that whisper softness in chambers.”  One major theme of Arber’s prose collections is the greatness of English sea-power, particularly in the sixteenth century.  And he anthologizes a very large amount of Tudor and Caroline poetry and song, much of it by famous hands and now available in smart scholarly editions, some of it still rightly obscure and bordering on the unreadable. 

One of the maritime themes favored by Arber are tales of combat, especially three-against-one combat.  There may well be a study of this genre or theme somewhere; there certainly ought to be.  I suspect that it may be related the theological commonplaces of the “three enemies of man” (world, flesh, and devil) and the scriptural cognate of the “three temptations” (lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, pride of life).  Nor do I doubt that it is related to the various tales of three wishes, three obstacles, three challenges, etc., so frequent in European folklore.  Arber would appear to have been an enthusiastic Victorian imperialist, certain that any Briton of any historical period was capable of taking on any three foreign combatants, especially if they happened to be Catholics resident in parts below the Olive Oil Line.  I first became aware of this attitude in Sir Thomas Urquart’s spirited account of the mano-a-mano trifecta performed by the Admirable Crichton at the Court of the Duke of Milan in 1592.  Crichton’s unadmirable reward, of course, was base Italianate perfidy.

I turn to my blue-clad Arbers from time to time either when moved by whimsy or when mentally jostled to do so by some emergent event.  It was the horrible Easter terrorism in the churches in Sri Lanka that sent me back to the first volume, where (I recalled) a certain Robert Knox, one among so many unfortunate mariners, gives an account of his captivity on that island between 1660 and 1679.  The coastal cities of the island were under the control of vying European powers, but the interior (called by Knox “the Kingdom of Conde Uda in the island of Ceylon”) was a heart of darkness, which swallowed up Knox as in Conrad the Congo would swallow up Kurtz.  But Knox at length escaped to write about it.  One thing led to another and I soon enough found myself perusing a piece actually entitled Three Against One. It purports to be the autobiographical account of an English merchant-warrior, one Richard Peeke of Tavistock in Devon, who in 1625 took part in a sanguinary Anglo-Dutch assault on the Spanish military stronghold at Cadiz.  The Protestants had great success from their ships.  They drove the defenders from the fort and captured it.  Imprudently rushing ashore, Peeke was  captured, severely wounded, and placed under sentence of death.  His sporting captors, however, offered him one chance for survival—if he could first sustain battle against three Spanish champions.  The Spaniards were armed with rapiers and poniards.  Peeke’s weapon of choice was an iron halfstaff from which the halberd-head had been removed, but with a “small pike” still one end.  With this formidable tool he immediately knocked one adversary to the ground dead and soon enough disarmed the other two. His captors, irate but honorable, set him free to walk 1500 kilometers to a French port from which he might find a ship bound for England.

Maritime (mis)adventure is a major subject of our early modern prose.  One endlessly fascinating quarry is the collection in many volumes of Hakluyt’s Voyages, also on my shelves; but the great classic remains Defoe’s fictional Robinson Crusoe. Even in the “truest” accounts it may be hard to distinguish the vero from the ben trovato; one must take Peeke’s narrative with an ample pinch of old salt.  An Anglo-Irish bishop is supposed to have remarked that he “doubted a good deal” of Gulliver’s Travels!  In the same vein I think it’s safe to trust “certain parts of” Three Against One.

It is clear that the disaster of the Armada of 1588 had not quelled Spanish military ambitions against England and that the Spanish authorities ran an excellent intelligence operation that gave them detailed knowledge of the fortifications at Plymouth and other English ports.  All this came out during Peeke’s interrogations at the inland military headquarters in Jérez (“Sherrys”, that viticultural capital that was a Mecca for Falstaff and so many other topers of the Elizabethan period).  The attitude taken toward him by his Spanish captors oscillated between competing impulses—an incandescent hatred of Protestant heresy and a medieval chivalry that honored courage and prowess in ceremonial combats.  Fortunately for Master Peeke, it was the latter that prevailed.