Traveling Light

Patrick Leigh Fermor is renowned for his exploits in Crete during the war. Together with his companion Xan Fielding, he captured the German commander of the island, General Kreipe. During periods when, disguised as Cretan shepherds, they were in hiding, they exchanged reminiscences of their prewar boyhoods. A Time of Gifts, which is dedicated to Fielding, is the result of these recapturings of time past. It recalls a journey which Leigh Fermor made in 1933, going on foot from London to Constantinople. He was eighteen years old and had just been expelled from the Crammers, where he was at school.

But the book is much more than that, and might be described as a prose poem in which the writer, forty years after the events described, re-creates a journey which is partly real, partly symbolic, a journey from boyhood to manhood. It was perhaps in some sense a test of the boy who had failed and who imposes on himself difficulties over which he must triumph. The double nature of this journey is shown in the introductory letter to Xan Fielding, when Leigh Fermor recalls the moment of vision in which he decided to make it:

Even before I looked at a map, two great rivers had already plotted the itinerary in my mind’s eye: the Rhine uncoiled across it, the Alps rose up and then the wolf-harbouring Carpathian watersheds and the cordilleras of the Balkans; and there, at the end of the windings of the Danube, the Black Sea was beginning to spread its mysterious and lopsided shape; and my chief destination was never in a moment’s doubt. The levitating skyline of Constantinople pricked its sheaves of thin cylinders and its hemispheres out of the sea-mist; beyond it Mount Athos hovered; and the Greek archipelago was already scattering a paper-chase of islands across the Aegean. (These certainties sprang from reading the books of Robert Byron….)

So there are two maps, the imaginary and the real. But the real provides confirmation of the imaginary, the itinerary envisioned. Leigh Fermor has a mind capable of imagining vast expanses of geography and history, but, however fantastic these visions communicated in his exuberant rhetoric, they are realizable as actuality. The journey provided the transition from boyhood to manhood by demonstrating that the map inside the mind could be projected onto the geographical landscape by the physical body. This connection between boyhood and manhood was essential to him and the reasons for this are to be found in his childhood, of which he provides a very vivid and amusing preliminary account.

Born early in the First World War, he was left in England by his parents—his father being in the Indian government. Leigh Fermor was billeted on “a very kind and very simple family” of farmers who let him run so wild that he was unfit for “the faintest shadow of constraint.” After this, he was sent to progressive schools, whose greensward libertarianism he describes hilariously. He proved intractable even by their empathetic…

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