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3 - Les rencontres de l’humain et du non humain dans la littérature de voyage / Human and Nonhuman Encounters in the Fiction of Travel

Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mountain Exploration in Mani and Roumeli: a Plea for a Nomadic Awareness

Isabelle Keller-Privat
p. 151-168


Les récits de voyage Mani et Roumeli de Patrick Leigh Fermor rendent moins compte des années d’expérience de l’auteur en terre étrangère qu’ils n’invitent le lecteur à l’accompagner dans ses pérégrinations pour tenter de suivre le fil d’une méditation déambulatoire dans les montagnes de Grèce, lieu par excellence de la rencontre de l’humain et du non-humain où les déplacements physiques, culturels et linguistiques ré-enchantent notre vision de l’humanité. Découvrir et connaître le lieu dans ses particularités infimes, les hommes et la nature qui la peuplent, se conçoit comme un exploit, une victoire sur soi-même et sur un environnement souvent hostile, un privilège. Déployant un paysage littéraire clairement ancré dans les théories du sublime de Burke, et explorant conjointement, la matière physique et haptique du lieu, Patrick Leigh Fermor replace l’humain et le non-humain sur un pied d’égalité. Géographie physique et exploration métaphysique, description géologique et zoologique et écoute poétique se mêlent dans cette attention que Patrick Leigh Fermor prête au monde qui l’entoure. L’élan nomade de cette poésie de l’inattendu et de l’insaisissable laisse entendre la musique infime des formes de vie modestes et esquisse la possibilité d’une humanité nouvelle.

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1As early as the first pages of Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani and Roumeli, the reader is aware that the travel narrative he is offered will lead him into unexplored territory. Patrick Leigh Fermor is indeed well-known for his taste for rough travelling as well as for his thoughtful, slow writing process which led him to rewrite all those drafts he had carried along with him through the Caribbean, Europe and Asia.

2Having left home at the age of eighteen and walked through the Netherlands and Austria at the time when Mitteleuropa was slowly disintegrating, he reached Constantinople in 1935. He then moved south into Greece where he served as a British liaison officer throughout WWII. His travels in Greece continued through the late 1940s and 1950s. Only after Patrick Leigh Fermor had experienced "the unparalleled calm" of the Benedictine monastery of Saint Wandrille, Normandy, in 1948, did he publish, in 1950, his first travel book, The Traveller's Tree, which describes his travels in the Caribbean in 1947-8. Mani, Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, was published in 1958, and Roumeli, Travels in Northern Greece, in 1966. Both texts are deceptively built as travel guides, starting with a map of the region that faces the first page of the narrative in Mani, and precedes the introduction in Roumeli. They also include detailed indexes of place names and authors and Roumeli ends on two appendixes explaining the etymology of "Sarakatsán" and the linguistic specificities of "Boliaric Vocabulary" (Roumeli 235-40).

3Significantly, however, both travel books on Greece start with a warning to the reader advising him to distance himself from his first expectations and to look for something else than a mere "guide book," which usually includes "the best-known parts of ancient Greece" (Mani xi). Instead, the reader is led into a paradoxical country which is organized in Mani, around "the unco-ordinated strands of many previous travels and sojourns in all parts of Greece" (Mani ix) opening onto "a far wider area of Greek lands, both in space and time, than the brisker chronicle of a precise itinerary would have allowed" (Mani x). The first chapter entitled "South from Sparta" even chooses a starting point that lies off the map facing the first page of the text.

4Similarly, Roumeli is introduced as a country which "is not to be found on maps of present-day Greece," "a regional, almost colloquial name" which "meant roughly the north of the country" and provides the narrator with "an alibi [...] and an illusory semblance of unity to these random journeys" (Roumeli 1). Thus the reader is scarcely surprised when he discovers the long subpart entitled "Sidetrack to Crete," which naturally lies off the map as well (Roumeli 125-44).

5We shall see how Patrick Leigh Fermor's travel narratives are not so much intent upon rendering his past experiences and residence in foreign lands as on inviting the reader to share his peregrinations and follow the erratic thread of a meditative wandering. The composition of each book shows indeed that Patrick Leigh Fermor does not so much represent Greece but rather tracks down the infinitesimal, unremarkable natural features of its landscapes and people, opening a radically new perspective upon the world which is evocative of the travel writings of Nicolas Bouvier, Jacques Lacarrière or Bruce Chatwin.

6As a consequence, Patrick Leigh Fermor's concern for the mountain tribes of shepherds that characterise Northern Greece or for the various cultural, religious and literary encounters is to be read as emblematic of a nomadic writing that seeks to reorient our gaze towards the invisible mountscape.

7This invisible mountscape, which slowly detaches itself from realistic geographic bearings, reassembles itself around the organic and animal life of the land. I contend that Patrick Leigh Fermor's art lies in the hidden journey that takes us from what looked at first like a barren, hostile, and mineral wilderness into a rocky expanse that merges with the sea and the sky, a territory always on the move.

Gazing into the crevices of writing

8Whereas Mani starts on the description of Patrick Leigh Fermor's harrowing ascent of the Taygetus, the highest mountain range in the Peloponnese, Roumeli shifts the focus from the narrator's ascent to the transhumance of the Sarakatsans whose progress through Bulgaria, Southern Albania and Macedonia mirrors his own. Once again, Patrick Leigh Fermor puts his feet into the nomads' steps: "I got up and dogged his steps at a discreet distance" (R 4). The lengthy description of their geographic, linguistic and cultural background is both informative and symbolic of the writer's own progress:

A gathering of beehive huts was scattered over the wintry hills slanting to the Black Sea; / brushwood folds ascended the green slopes and thousands of shaggy black goats and sheep grazed over the rainy landscape, / their heavy bronze bells filling the air with a many-toned and harmonious jangle. Here and there like dark monoliths under the wheeling crows herdsmen leaned on their lance-long crooks, / their faces almost lost in the deep hoods of high-shouldered goats' hair capes reaching to the ground; / capes so coarse a weave and so stiff with rain that their incumbents could almost step forth and leave them standing like sentry boxes. (Roumeli 4)

  • 1 Nomad is an adjective and a noun that comes from the Latin nomas, nomadis and initially referred to (...)

9As the description develops the reader is struck by the ascending ternary rhythm of these two sentences where the alliterative pattern of each successive clause strengthens the syntactic and thematic coherence. Beyond the mere evocation of the Sarakatsans, Patrick Leigh Fermor is slowly building up the image of the nomad with whom he identifies. For like, the Sarakatsans whom he keeps encountering and following, Leigh Fermor enjoys a personal, physical relation to the land where he never pictures himself as a newcomer but as a long-suffering walker. Like the Sarakatsans he is always on the move and always there, a hovering presence "on the outskirts" (Roumeli 5) of the picture, always prompt to vanish "out of sight" (Roumeli 5) behind the object of his narrative. Like the Sarakatsans who bring their herds to graze, he is a nomad who, by definition,1 belongs to the long chain of those walking around the world to share the fruit of their quest and relentlessly coming back to their point of departure. Indeed, the regular, cyclic transhumance pattern is indeed quite different from a migration process. As Leigh Fermor explains: "They never looked on these enormous journeys as expatriation" (Roumeli 6).

10By sharing the progress of the Sarakatsans, the writer thus symbolically embraces the fate of the nomad which has been defined by Deleuze and Guattari as "intermezzo":

Even the elements of his dwelling are conceived in terms of the trajectory that is forever mobilizing them. The nomad is not at all the same as the migrant; for the migrant goes principally from one point to another […] But the nomad goes from point to point only as a consequence and as a factual necessity; in principle, points for him are relays along a trajectory. […] sedentary space is striated, by walls, enclosures, and roads between enclosures, while nomad space is smooth, marked only by 'traits' that are effaced and displaced with the trajectory. […] The nomad distributes himself in a smooth space; he occupies, inhabits, holds that space; that is his territorial principle. It is therefore false to define the nomad by movement. (Deleuze 380-1)

11This paradoxical definition that establishes the nomad as a dweller, and not as a traveller, is consistent with Leigh Fermor's description of the "beehive huts" that mirror the "dark monoliths" and "sentry boxes" (Roumeli 4). They are part and parcel of the rocky landscape where they dwell and wander, a permanent presence that ignores "the sudden cage of frontiers which sprang up after the Balkan wars" (Roumeli 5). As such, they reflect the narrator's own bold crossing of overlapping cultural and linguistic frontiers which enables him to define a new territory for himself and for his reader, a territory which cannot be subsumed in one word and which he considers as his home, a changing, yet permanent one.

  • 2 Conflicting points of view may be compared in the works of John K. Campell, Honour, family, and pat (...)
  • 3 Likewise, "the War of Troy," "the elephants of Pyrrhus, Alexander's departure to conquer the world" (...)

12This new territory is therefore not an outer but an inner one which the subject describes from inside, as a flux of interconnections, what Deleuze calls "a model of heterogeneity, and of passage or becoming in the heterogeneous" (Deleuze 361). Such a model underlies the very definition of the nomad since the word, applied to human tribes, originally described the herds. Etymologically speaking, 'nomad' thus refers to a human behaviour that derives from the animal one and thus connects the human and the nonhuman. And this process accounts for the translation which Leigh Fermor operates between the costumes of Sarakatsan women and the designs of Geometric art. Looking for the obscure origins of the Sarakatsans, Leigh Fermor compares the "white rectangles, those woven dog-tooth staircases and saw-edges and triangles" to the horizontal decorative bands of zigzags, triangles, meanders and swastikas that adorned Greek vessels from 900BC to 700 BC. In doing so he tries to prove that these people "may have detached themselves" (Roumeli 32) from the earliest Greek tribes that flocked southwards and may therefore be "the most Greek of all the Greeks" (Roumeli 33). Beyond the mere anthropological issue, which has not been solved yet,2 the argument evinces the narrator's desire to establish a nomadic model which allows for the overlapping of different spatio-temporal frames through the superimposition of the potter's art on the loom.3 Therefore, the only truthful reality that underpins our world is that of the flux coalescing different historical periods and testifying to the presence of a common origin, a primary source, an intrinsic essence.

13However, this essentialist perspective, which can be traced throughout Leigh Fermor's texts, is undermined by the open, fluctuating pattern of the writing which delves into arcane languages, such as when Leigh Fermor investigates the origins of the word "boliarévo" in Roumeli (189-95), a word which is "inexistent in Greek" (190) and prompts a strange dialogue made of "odd sounds," "outlandish words" that may well be "pure invention" (Roumeli 192). As the reader progresses he realises that Leigh Fermor's artistic, cultural and linguistic translations testify to his desire to track down the traces Man has left upon his world and to envisage the world as a totality welding the past and the present, the mythological and the Christian influences: "Dionysus became St. Dionysios [...] Artemis became St. Artemidos [...] Demeter [...] became St. Demitrius" and "Helios the sun-god became the prophet Elijah" (Mani 175). As Greek Gods are renamed after Christian saints, Man's relation both to the worldly and the spiritual is profoundly altered for he cannot fail to see himself as one of the many links in the long chain of seekers for the divine at the heart of the mundane.

14Like a mountaineer examining the path to discover previous footprints, Leigh Fermor follows the thread of human activity, tracing the various layers of cultural, artistic and linguistic deposit that meet and overlap as so many signs that tell us, as anthropologist Tim Ingold explains, how "people shape the landscape even as they dwell" (Ingold 203). Describing the landscape thus amounts to following the traces of the various forms of resurgence and persistence, such as those of the "divine maquisards [who] have led a spiritual [life] underground for close on two thousand years" (Mani 178). Examining the elusive imprints left by past generations, Leigh Fermor also succeeds in bridging the temporal gap that separates us, from prophetic poetic figures such as W. H. Auden (Roumeli 34), Kazanzakis, Valaoritis, Palamas, Cavafy or Seferis (Roumeli 213), Swinburne (Roumeli 126), Homer, Robert Graves and Gérard de Nerval (Mani 131-2), to quote but a few examples. His intertextual references are as eclectic as subtle, not unlike the geometric patterns of the Sarakatsan clothes. They are fleeting traces hinting at the intricate pattern of men and women passing through and leaving a part of themselves through what Tim Ingold describes as "histories woven, along with the life-cycles of plants and animals, into the texture of the surface itself" (Ingold 198). Leigh Fermor thus invites us to look down into those infinitesimal, ephemeral traces that function as so many clues to the spirit of the place and lead us to pay attention to the invisible mountscape.

Looking into the mountains for the hidden depths of the world

15The mountains not only serve as a vantage point wherefrom Leigh Fermor offers the reader a vista upon his own writing act, but they also enable him to define a new perspective upon man's poetic dwelling in the world.

16When he asserts that "human dominion is never more than barely tolerated by these half-wild flocks" which the herdsmen "seem only to control" (Mani 167), Leigh Fermor prepares the reader for a comic displacement whereby the goats become the main actors in the narrative. The anthropomorphic description of the goats whose yellow gaze "spells only wickedness and cynicism and a kind of off-hand and humorous connivance, as if they were jeeringly abreast of our most carefully hidden secrets" (Mani 167) paves the way for the personification of "a nimble nanny-goat" jumping into the trees in search of young leaves, arousing the fury of the goatherd:

'Pimp!' he shouted, ‘Catamite!' and 'Whore!'; all in vain. [...] The goat sailed up into the air and over our heads in a wide arc and alighted on the hill side, where, cool as a cucumber, the female cuckold went on munching some gloomy plant. They vanished as quickly as they had come leaving nothing but a rank whiff and a pattern of neat intaglios in the mud round the troughs. The barking and jeering dustclouds diminished and died away in the direction of the towers and vanished towards the sunset in a golden, far-tinkling haze. (Mani 167-8)

17The whimsical man-animal exchange that ends on the goat's victory that alights "cool as a cucumber" from the tree leads us to ponder upon the implicit irony that underlies this romantic sunset scene. The delicate "neat cloven intaglios" are debunked by the "rank whiff," the insubstantial "dustclouds" and the poetic "golden […] haze" resonate with the "barking and jeering" of mocking goats.

18These unwieldy animals precede the mythical apparition of half-imagined, half-real beings: the "nereids," former "sea-dwellers [who] seem to have moved inland and become fresh water denizens haunting remote streams, springs, fountains, watery grottoes, mountain rivers and torrents" (Mani 168).

19These nereids, true "denizens" since they are not native born inhabitants but are nevertheless very much at home inland, are dwellers from within, living in the anfractuous recesses of the land and within the secret folds of a magical time: they are "not immortal" but "live a thousand years" (Mani 168), a detail which makes use of a realistic time frame to endow them with a fantastic life span. They connect the sea and the land, the human and the nonhuman world, the real and the fantastic realms:

They are wonderful cooks and spinners of flimsy and diaphanous fabrics. 'Cooked by a nereid!' 'Spun by a nereid!'—these expressions used to be common praise. […] It reminds one of the cave where Odysseus landed on his return to Ithaca and the 'great looms of stone where the nymphs weave robes of sea purple marvellous to behold.' (Mani 168)

20The story of the nereids is more than a picturesque digression that enables Leigh Fermor to open up his narrative to the immense library of ancient texts that haunt his writing. Homer's poem does not just function as a literary framework that would strengthen the illusion of fiction, leading the reader to believe that, as Montalbetti explains, "fiction, in a way, took place in the real world" (Montalbetti 73), and inviting him to cross "the watertight boundary that separates the reality of fictional worlds and walk into fiction itself" (Montalbetti 95). Although Leigh Fermor does play on the transgression between distinct worlds his purpose is to bring the reader back into the real one and to lead him to follow the flow of singular coincidences whereby the human and the nonhuman, the material and the spiritual world intersect, such as in the linguistic expressions or the mythical echoes that function as so many streams running throughout the text. In so doing, Leigh Fermor opts for the approach that has been defined by Deleuze as "following":

A distinction must be made between two types of science, or scientific procedures: one consists in "reproducing," the other in "following." […] Reproducing implies the permanence of a fixed point of view that is external to what is reproduced. […] But following is different from the ideal of reproduction. Not better, just different. One is obliged to follow when one is search of the "singularities" of a matter, or rather a material, and not out to discover a form; [...] And the meaning of the Earth completely changes […] with the ambulant model, the process of deterritorialization constitutes and extends the territory itself. (Deleuze 372)

21Following the flow of animate and inanimate matter, Leigh Fermor both "extends the territory" and resemanticizes the landscape, paving the way for the fantastic man-animal creature, the popular figure of the kantzaros, the "hippo-centaur," which is in fact "the idealization of a much wider and more inclusive and variable range of hybrids" (Mani 195). As he follows the folkloric and linguistic evolution of this fantastic breed, Leigh Fermor metamorphoses the mountscape into a land of spontaneous, never-ending creation in which man is part and parcel of the rhythm of the Earth and can no longer exist as an independent, external and all-encompassing source of knowledge. Depending upon his sensorial perceptions, and allowing himself to be carried along by the object of his gaze, the narrator challenges commonplace territorial boundaries and discloses instead "an objective zone of fluctuation that is coextensive with reality itself" (Deleuze 373). The description of the Greek landscape thus ushers in a "human milieu" which has been defined by Augustin Berque as "a relationship, not an object. [...] We are ontologically part of this relationship, just as everything else in our milieu; which means that their being and ours overlap, or even identify with each other to some extent" (Berque 142). Significantly Leigh Fermor concludes the subpart entitled "Centaurs at home" upon a vision that marries the animal and the human to the point that the reader finds it difficult to tell them apart:

[...] I hear the thud of a cavalcade and see sleek piebald and skewbald flanks, the fall of abundant tails and the slither of spatulate leaf shadows over hairy quarters and sunburnt biceps and the merge of muscular peasant backs into strawberry-roan withers. Classical centaurs are at large. [...] The leisurely swish of tails dispels the mayflies and there is a murmur of confabulation. Somewhere among the glaucous trunks a new-peeled spit is turning and a whiff of roast reaches the nostril. The tuning note of a plucked string vibrates in a hollow tortoiseshell. (Mani 199-200)

22The kinaesthetic description weaving visual, auditory, olfactory and gustatory sensations conjures up a strikingly singular, harmonious and timeless world in which the mountainous folds of Greece act as a secret crucible where the world is poetically re-founded. The narrator is a sensitive witness to the reciprocal identification of man and beast, to the harmony of the new rhythm where the "swish of tails" and the "murmur of confabulation" answer each other, interlacing the articulate and the inarticulate into fraternal expressions of ease and fulfilment. The music of the tortoiseshell celebrates a bountiful land where inanimate, empty matter vibrates with life, where the animal and the human are joined through art into new, fluctuating and revivifying forms.

23It is then scarcely surprising to note that while at sea, as he is journeying to Kotronas, the narrator fills in the days reminiscing animal stories (cats, turtles, dolphins) until the sight of "the watershed of the Taygetus" (Mani 274) prompts a further digression that takes the reader from the picture of a "sierra as desolating as a dirge" (Mani 274) to the second map embedded in the text, a symbolic one that represents the invisible: that of the wind rose. The Greek names of the winds render the map even more mysterious for the reader who wonders how to connect the various parts of the chapter with each other and how they might be related to the general scheme of the book. The narrator's comparative study of the Greek and Italian names of the various winds takes its full meaning when one reaches the conclusive passage:

The air in Greece is not merely a negative void between solids; the sea itself, the houses, the rocks and trees, on which it presses like a jelly mould, are embedded in it; it is alive and positive and volatile and one is aware of its contact as if it could have pierced hearts scrawled on it [...] or grasped in handfuls. [...] It is no wonder that the Greek word wind—anemos—should have produced the Latin word anima, for soul; that pneuma and spiritus should mean spirit and breath and wind in both languages. [...]
There is, in fact, more in the air than meets the eye. (
Mani 277-8)

24Just as Leigh Fermor discloses his writing method in his description of the Sarakatsans in Roumeli, he unveils his aesthetic ideal in his description of the invisible airy substance in Mani. For the various animals on which he focuses in this apparently out of place chapter that momentarily estranges us from the Taygetus range, partake of a comprehensive landscape: they act as connecting spirits uniting the sea and the sky, the earth and the wind, and drawing our attention upon that unsubstantial link that is the true core of life. As a result Leigh Fermor succeeds in capturing a moving landscape which reorients our gaze towards the invisible, the immaterial. The binary enumeration—"the sea itself, the houses, / the rocks and trees"—that gives rise to a ternary development—"it is alive / and positive / and volatile"—conveys the surging strength of the impalpable that leaves its deep, secret trace upon man's inner eye ("as if it could have pierced hearts scrawled on it"). Such a vibrant relation to the intangible and the invisible corroborates David Reason's analysis of the landscape as

[…] a polyrhythmic composition of processes whose pulse varies from the erratic flutter of leaves to the measured drift and clash of tectonic plates. Relative to the human span, the view before us seems composed of fleeting, ephemeral effects which create a patina of transience on apparently stable forms. (Reason 40)

25Trying to pierce through the rind of those "apparently stable forms," Leigh Fermor abandons the initial geographic map and replaces it with an abstract diagram that materialises the invisible "pulse" of the universe. So that if "there is, in fact, more in the air than meets the eye" it is because Leigh Fermor's purpose is not to confine himself within any cartography but to expand and belong to a territory which is built on what Deleuze calls "a set of relations [...] a tactile space, or rather 'haptic,' a sonorous much more than visual space" (Deleuze 382).

26This is achieved through a terrestrial navigation that displaces the maritime element upon the earth so that the mountains are conceived as a smooth, undulating and rhythmic space:

Dawn and sunset civilize and rationalize these blank expanses of grey mountains, / reducing systemless chaos to sense and running the mountains into each other with a fluid swing,/ quickening them with rhythm and sinuosity. Laying soft shadows along their flanks,/ dawn turns the ashen slag to champagne-colour and apricot and lilac / and unfolds the dark branching torrent beds and pins them espalierwise across the ranges / until they shrink and vanish under the climbing sun, / waiting for dusk once more to expand and subdue them. (Mani 128)

27Once again, Leigh Fermor shows his reader that there is "more [...] than meets the eye" by capturing not the mere shape or colours of the mountains but their "rhythm and sinuosity". Narrated time is replaced by a cyclic one which partakes of "a continuum" (Mani 282) that informs the syntax itself. The crescendo lilt of the sentences that play on alliterations and assonances, the slowing pace emphasised by the accumulation of modifiers, the shift to the present tense and the cyclic temporal frame endow the scene with an aura of eternity. The mountscape becomes the singular territory where the impetus of a landscape on the move marries the peaceful stasis of a perpetual renewal. Thus Mani opens up a new expanse where "the frontier between the physical and the metaphysical is confounded" (Mani 288).

Poetic nomadism: gazing into eyes of stone

28This new expanse is only to be discovered through a chaotic journey that keeps branching off and jolting the reader throughout Mani and Roumeli. Indeed, only by connecting "the unco-ordinated strands" (Mani ix) of the two travel books may the reader weave together the slow, erratic, and piecemeal metamorphosis of the mountscape.

29As early as chapter 2 Mani plunges the reader into the "Abomination of desolation": the mountain is described as an unattractive, hostile wilderness. The first paragraph of the chapter develops the comparison with the "entrance to Hades" (Mani 12-13) wherefrom the view of the sea brings no relief: "the blank Mediterranean, sinking below enormous depths" is a wild, unfathomable expanse devoid of colour that stretches like a shroud. The cleft landscape that looks like "a tooth fresh torn from its gum," the "jagged" outline "subsiding to north and south chasm after chasm," and the "bare and waterless inferno of rock" (Mani 12) compose an awe-striking yet fascinating picture which is strongly reminiscent of sublime Gothic landscapes. As a result, the mountain is not a mere backdrop to the narrator's portrait of Greece but becomes his counterpart in a savage fight:

[...] we toiled up [...] trudging far above [...] we climbed the steep mountainside and the sun climbed the sky, [...] we were forever slipping backwards on loose stones and pine-needles. [...] These torturing hours of ascent seemed as though they could never end. [...] Feet became cannon-balls, loads turned to lead, hearts pounded, hands slipped. [...] Why, we kept wondering, though too short of breath for talk, does one ever embark on these furious wrestling matches, these rib-cracking clinches with the sublime? (Mani 13)

30As the mountaineer and narrator ascends this "wildnerness of barren grey spikes" (Mani 13) and proceeds downhill along dry river beds "filled with bleached boulders [...] between confining walls of rock" (Mani 17), the reader cannot help but descry, behind the realism of the description, a literary landscape that echoes Burke's Philosophical Enquiry. It is characterised by what Burke calls "greatness of dimension, [which] is a powerful cause of the sublime. [...] A perpendicular has more force in forming the sublime, than an inclined plane; and the effects of a rugged and broken surface seem stronger than where it is smoothed and polished" (Burke 66). Leigh Fermor plays indeed on the sharp contrast between the "winding ravines" (Mani 13) and the pastoral sceneries where springs and streams are wont to flow, bringing back in their wake, colour and life: "On a narrow ledge that overhung this chaos we found a miraculous spring: a trickle of cold bright water husbanded in a hollow tree-trunk lined with brilliant green moss" (Mani 14).

  • 4 "[...] sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones are comparatively small; [...] (...)

31This lush, yet fragile margin, pitted against the outstanding summits, and where Leigh Fermor and his Greek friend take a well-deserved rest, turns into an Arcadian painting with the arrival of the two young local girls "barefoot, raggedly dressed and ikon-faced" (Mani 16). Thus the sublime is set against the beautiful, according to the principles defined by Burke.4 In Leigh Fermor's text, just as in Burke's essay, the experience of the sublime is achieved through pain and terror that can lead to a refinement of the senses, the imagination and the intellect:

[...] if the pain and terror are so modified as not to be actually noxious; if the pain is not carried to violence, and the terror is not conversant about the present destruction of the person [...] they are capable of producing delight; not pleasure, but a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror [...]. (Burke 123)

32Painfully plodding across the Greek mountains, the narrator is both crushed by the magnitude of the scenery and astonished by its overpowering animal life. Thus, the cicadas are described as a mechanical noise that does not suggest the soothing afternoon music of the Mediterranean but rather the hostility of nature bent upon discouraging the traveller:

[...] the roar of millions of cicadas burst on the ear. It came from the shore in rhythmic, grating, metallic waves like the engines of an immense factory in a frenzy—the electric rattle of innumerable high-powered dynamos whirling in aimless unison. (Mani 41)

33Sound, a sensation that cannot be shut off, and invades the mind, emphasises the overwhelming force of the sublime, for, as Burke explains, "excessive loudness alone is sufficient to overpower the soul, to suspend its action, and to fill it with terror" (Burke 75). The mind-numbing rattle of the cicadas foreshadows the sublime vista on the coast across the bare plateau along "the road to the upper world" (Mani 41).

34This rocky desolation sets the tone for the rest of the narrative and is humorously summed up by the innkeeper's wife advising the narrator's wife on her letters to England: "Well, tell them in London that you're in the Mani, a very hot place where there's nothing but stones." (Mani 64). This statement introduces another description of the stony landscape "even bleaker by day than […] by moonlight" (Mani 65) which develops into another "shadowless, desolate wilderness" (Mani 79) when Leigh Fermor describes the Tigani where he desperately craves for shade: "The rock wall [...] was unscalable. [...] The sun and the sea had unhinged our joints, turned our limbs to lead and our throats to limekilns. [...] There was not a tree to relieve the skull-like blankness" (Mani 81). This rocky, barren and scorching wilderness which "had the improbability of a mirage" (Mani 82) ushers in a metaphysical landscape that sends the reader back to T. S. Eliot's Waste Land where there "is no water but only rock / Rock and no water and the sandy road / The road winding above among the mountains / Which are mountains of rock without water" (Eliot 66). Eliot's barren land, materialised in the "Dead mountain" (Eliot 66), opens upon a spiritual expanse, a redeeming vista: "I sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me" (Eliot 69). Similarly, Leigh Fermor's mountscape progressively metamorphoses into a fluid territory where earth, sea and sky are brought together through a change of perspective. Contemplating the south of the peninsula from the ship that takes him to Porto Cayo, Leigh Fermor reassembles the two contrasting facets of the Mediterranean, the sublime and the beautiful:

Here and there as soft as a feather hung the suggestion of a salient, the thread of a celestial ravine descending a little way and vanishing into the sky on which, half-way to the burning zenith, that whole imponderable range was afloat. [...] Behind the two transparent islands, the sea and the sky melted together in the vague and luminous unity of a painted Chinese background. (Mani 134)

35As a result, the reader is progressively led away from the realistic landscape and enters a private country which is not just the fruit of an act of remembrance but which embodies the writer's intimate relationship with its surroundings, what Tim Ingold calls "an act of incorporation [...], a movement wherein forms themselves are generated" (Ingold 193). The creation of the Chinese painting that softens and blurs the rugged lines of the Greek coast, marrying the earth, the sea and the sky in a translucent picture, isolates the landscape in an unreal halo, as if the mountains seen from afar and through the distorting lens of a foreign art could make sense at last. They epitomise the birth of a new awareness, of a conscience attuned to the world thereon conceived as "a total movement of becoming" (Ingold 200). Such is the spiritual becoming which Eliot's poem called forth in its final incantatory chant "Shantih shantih shantih" (Eliot 69) which stands, in the poet's own words for "The Peace which passeth understanding" (Eliot 76).

36This "movement of becoming" (Ingold 200) informs the textual structure that adopts a haphazard, open form since the journey is not completed by the time Mani ends and starts over in Roumeli where the narrator brings us back to Southern Greece and to his Cretan memories.

37Crete is "an epitome of Greece" (Roumeli 125) that subsumes the Greek spirit of hospitality and resilience. It is a mineral world where "the mountains were never entirely subdued" (Roumeli 125), it is a place of spiritual and political resistance, of artistic creation and, more fundamentally, a place which transforms the viewer's gaze such as in the "Cubist scenery" painted by Leigh Fermor in words:

The valleys, the foothills and the answering ranges beyond had the gleam of sheet-metal hammered into angles. A blink and a refocus of the eye would bring them close and interleave and volatize them into a floating and unsubstantial universe where only the shadows looked solid: shadows that rocketed in wide spikes up the flanks of the peaks, zigzagged down ravines and spread like immobilized forked lightning along the torrent beds; rock-faults invisible by daylight, slanted in stripes; [...] tapering clefts pitched illusory pyramids: convex and concave changed places. The shade thrown by the nearby fissures, grottos, branches, eyebrows, rifle barrels and scabbards loomed from the insubstantial radiance in geometric figures. They were bars, parallelograms, triangles, lozenges and polygons of darkness; Cubist scenery in which each clump of aloes and cactus rose in a still vortex. (Roumeli 137)

38The description of the mountains during wartime is an outstanding illustration of the "movement of becoming" (Ingold 200) at work within the textual fabric. The ascending rhythm, the alliterations, and the metaphors, partake of a poem in prose that exemplifies the rebirth of the narrator's gaze as he submits himself to the overpowering rhythm of the landscape. Blinking and refocusing his eye, just as the Cretan soldiers behind their "rifle barrels," he captures the essence of a land that combines the hazy outlines of the Chinese painting and the sharp, geometric patterns of the Sarakatsans' weaving in Mani. He produces what Deleuze calls "a movement that holds space and simultaneously affects all of its points [...], an open space with a vortical movement that can rise up at any point" (Deleuze 363).

39The disfiguration of the landscape reaches its climax in the last chapter of Roumeli entitled "Sounds of the Greek World" where Leigh Fermor enumerates hundreds of cities, villages, regions, nooks and crannies as an incantation to the Greek land. Each place is linked to a specific sound, note, or rhythm in an attributive sentence that follows the pattern X—BE—Y in the simple present. The verb BE is thus used in its original meaning, "to have place in the realm of fact; exist; live" (OED). It therefore confirms the existence, the reality of an identification process which relies on a subjective, auditory and transient perception that reveals the inner balance of the world:

The olive-groves of Amphissa, the terraces of corn and vine, are notes on the syrinx, the Pindus is a jangle of goat-bells and the single herdman's pipe.
Arcadia is the double flute, Arachova the jingle of hammers on the strings of a dulcimer, Roumeli a klephtic song heckled by dogs and shrill whistles, Epirus the trample of elephants, the Pyrrhic stamp, the heel slapped in Tsámiko dance, the sigh of Dodonian holm-oaks and Acroceraunian thunder and rain. (
Roumeli 226)

40The progressive ellipsis of the verb reinforces the process of identification through which the visual and the musical are joined. The accumulation of noun phrases and modifiers separated by commas builds up an incremental, syncopated structure that echoes the rhythm of Greek music and slowly seeps into the reader's mind. The entire chapter thus unfolds like "a Byzantine litany" (Roumeli 226) throughout which the reader experiences the reality of what François Jullien, developing Augustin Berque's concept, sees less as a landscape than as a "milieu":

Ce paysage s'étale moins en panorama […] qu'il ne se développe en milieu où, à travers ces mises en tension multiples, vivre à nouveau est en essor, s'émancipe et s'intensifie. Voici qu'on est entré, en effet, en se retirant dans ce domaine de "montagnes" et d'"eaux," dans un réseau plus dense où les branchements se multiplient, où les énergies s'activent en écho, où les potentialités se mettent en phase, c'est-à-dire où jouent pleinement les appariements ; et l'économie poétique […] est telle qu'elle suffit à produire un 'tout' du monde, et même un monde où rien ne manque. (Jullien 57)

41The tracking down of ephemeral traces which characterised the narrator's early descriptions has now been inverted and turned inwards, just as the "convex and concave [which] changed places" (Roumeli 137) in the description of the Cretan mountains. The story of the Greek mountains is then no longer that of the outer shape and meaning of the land but becomes that of an intimate upheaval that dramatically affects the syntax and shatters the narrative line. Eventually, Leigh Fermor takes the reader into the deeper recesses of his own fascination for a landscape that marries the mountains and the sea, the dark, and the rugged, the light and the smooth, allowing him to follow the soft echoes that compose his own personal mindscape:

The seas of Greece are the Odyssey whose music we can never know [...]
by the
islands and harbours and causeways and soundings and crescents of shingle, whirlpools and bays and lagoons and narrows and chasms and roadsteads, seismic upheavals of crags in the haze of meridian panic, sockets and smouldering circles of stone and dying volcanoes; [...] light in the reign of the Pleiades, slowly spinning the sea-sounds that sigh in the caves of solitary islands. (Roumeli 231-2)

42The introductory geographic hand-drawn map that opened Roumeli is thus shattered by the narrative. Just as place names were devoid of any topographic references in the former part of the chapter, as if sensorial impressions had replaced geographic references, topographic references here are nameless. They trigger sensorial and imaginary projections foregrounding the symbiotic identification of the traveller with the land. The nomadic momentum of poetry conveys the voice of the nonhuman—the animal, the mineral, the cosmic and the minute—to create a landscape where space and time boundaries are abolished, a landscape that resonates in the writer and in the reader's mind, leaving its own, delicate imprint. In the soft sibilants of the "sockets and smouldering circles of stone" (Roumeli 232) the reader recognises the pervading presence of a landscape where the stones, gorged with sunlight, seem to watch us back.

43Leigh Fermor does not just record his personal experience of the Greek land but, like a patient goatherd, takes the reader along with him to graze/gaze upon inaccessible heights and change his perspective on man's relationship with the universe. His story telling, through its digressions, erratic halts and eventual dismemberment recalls that of the Western Apalache described by Tim Ingold:

We can surely learn from the Western Apalache, who insist that the stories they tell, far from putting meanings upon the landscape, are intended to allow listeners to place themselves in relation to specific features of the landscape, in such a way that their meanings may be revealed or disclosed. Stories help to open up the world, not to cloak it.
[...] Meaning is there to be discovered in the landscape, if only we knew how to attend to it. Every feature, then, is a potential clue, a key to meaning rather than a vehicle for carrying it. (
Ingold 208)

44Inviting us to "attend to" the landscape in a radically new way, Leigh Fermor chooses the vantage point of the Greek mountains to invert our perspective both on the vertical and on the horizontal axes: the peak dives into an abyss, the range melts into the sea. And as the narrative dissolves into poetic prose, the reader is forced to abandon geographic, temporal, and logical bearings and ponder upon what Augustin Berque calls the "genograms":

[…] those motifs which are often identified by a toponym, and which partake both of a meaning accessible to human conscience [...] and of a dimension that is specific to the earth [...] They are the perceptible shapes of our environment as well as the unconscious motives that guide us towards it, that bind us to it, and that lead us to construct it in a particular way. (Berque 243)

45Only through them can the traveller, mountaineer and poet convey the music of the world through which the Greek landscape takes both meaning and shape, albeit very personal and transient ones. For one fleeting second, the heedful and responsive writer can exclaim, like Freud's successful archaeologist, "Saxa loquuntur!" (Derrida 146).

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Berque, Augustin, Les Enjeux du Paysage. Sous la direction de Michel Collot, Athens: éditions Ousia, 1997.

Burke, Edmund, A Philosophical Enquiry, Oxford: OUP, 1990 (1757).

Campell, John K., Honour, family, and patronage: A study of institutions and moral values in a Greek mountain community, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.

Cusumano, Camille, Greece, a Love Story, Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2007.

Deleuze, Gilles et Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, London: Continuum, 2002.

Derrida, Jacques, Mal d'Archive, Paris : Galilée, 1995.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns, Collected Poems 1909-1962, London: Faber, 2002.

Ingold, Tim, The Perception of the Environment. Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, London: Routledge, 2000.

Leigh Fermor, Patrick, Mani, Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, London: John Murray, 2004 (1958).

Leigh Fermor, Patrick, Roumeli, Travels in Northern Greece, London: John Murray, 2004 (1966).

Levinson, David, Ethnic groups worldwide, Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1998.

Montalbetti, Christine, Le voyage, le monde et la bibliothèque, Paris : PUF, 1997.

Reason, David, The Unpainted Landscape, London: Coracle Press, 1987.

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1 Nomad is an adjective and a noun that comes from the Latin nomas, nomadis and initially referred to the wandering tribes of North Africa. The Latin word comes from the Greek nomas, -ados designating those who changed pastures and wandered like their herds from one grazing land to another. Used as a proper noun it referred to the Numidians. It derives from the ancient Greek nemein, a polysemic word which meant "to allocate, to attribute according to custom," "to believe, to abide by the truth acknowledged by all" as well as "to graze." See Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, Paris : Le Robert, 1998.

2 Conflicting points of view may be compared in the works of John K. Campell, Honour, family, and patronage, of David Levinson, "Greece." Ethnic groups worldwide (40-42) and of Camille Cusumano, Greece, a Love Story (72).

3 Likewise, "the War of Troy," "the elephants of Pyrrhus, Alexander's departure to conquer the world" or "the landing of St Paul on the Macedonian coast" (Roumeli 33) are brought together, disrupting chronological borders just as the nomads encroach upon geographic ones.

4 "[...] sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones are comparatively small; [...] beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy; beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, even massive" (Burke 113).

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Bibliographical reference

Isabelle Keller-Privat, Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mountain Exploration in Mani and Roumeli: a Plea for a Nomadic AwarenessCaliban, 59 | 2018, 151-168.

Electronic reference

Isabelle Keller-Privat, Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mountain Exploration in Mani and Roumeli: a Plea for a Nomadic AwarenessCaliban [Online], 59 | 2018, Online since 01 June 2018, connection on 23 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Isabelle Keller-Privat

Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès.
Agrégée de littérature anglaise et Professeur des Universités, Isabelle KELLER-PRIVAT est membre du laboratoire Cultures Anglo-Saxonnes de l’Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès où elle enseigne la littérature britannique, la poésie et la traduction. Elle a publié aux Presses Universitaires de Paris Ouest le premier essai critique sur les recueils poétiques de Lawrence Durrell : Between the Lines. L’écriture du déchirement dans la poésie de Lawrence Durrell (2015).

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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