The following is from my introduction to Impossible Journeys, first published in 2006 and currently available in a beautiful edition from the Folio Society, of which more below.
The central idea of Impossible Journeys is this: what would the world look like if you could take a map and wipe it clean, and then start restoring to it all the impossible or lost destinations which have fallen off along the way. It is a book for those, like me, as least as much interested in what the world once contained – even if only in conjecture – as in what it actually contains today. For those, too, who half-regret the slow, empirical death by discovery of a world in which almost anything was possible because no-one really knew what lay over the horizon.
What, though, actually constitutes an impossible journey? Once you stop to think about it, almost everything is impossible – the past being another country and all that – and some criteria were required. The categories I have attempted to work within, then, are as follows:
- Journeys to places which did not exist;
- Claims to have visited or seen places which did not exist;
- Journeys which it is no longer possible to make; and
- Journeys which, whether in planning, execution or outcome, were implausible or unlikely, if not actually wholly impossible.
Clearly, these categories are still vast, and within them I have given myself considerable latitude. My ultimate criteria, if truth be told, would be: did it interest or amuse me? On one level I might be asking myself if the tale might change – even if only for the time it took to read – the way we look out at the world. But, on another, I was just thinking: is this going to be fun to read? The answer – I hope always – should be yes. There is absurdity here, death, tenacity, greed, high drama, vanity, courage, and vision – and a dozen other qualities besides. All, I think, offer small windows onto other versions of the world.
Praise for Impossible Journeys
The reason we marvel so at the heroism of figures like Sir Walter Raleigh, Marco Polo and, more recently, Shackleton is that we find it hard to believe, knowing what we know, that they didn’t understand how dangerous the journeys they undertook were. But of course, they had no idea, as this jocular but scholarly compendium of outlandish voyages makes horrifyingly clear…The perfect stocking-filler for year-off bores.
Time Out, Book of the Week
Obviously a labour of love by its author, Mathew Lyons, it describes a series of weird and wonderful long-distance trips by travellers through the centuries. There are many human dramas, the most cataclysmic being Walter Ralegh’s pursuit of El Dorado… in chasing it, he lost something far more precious: his son Wat, shot in the throat in a skirmish with the locals. Lyons’s account is truly heartbreaking, as is the letter Raleigh writes to his wife to give her the news.
Wendy Holden, New Statesman
Mathew Lyons has had the cracking idea of gathering together, in the form of Chaucerian tales, an anthology of remarkable true stories of intrepid adventurers. He flings his net confidently and wide. He embraces journeys to places that turned out not to exist, like El Dorado in Guiana, or the fabled country of Saguenay in Canada; journeys to places that didn’t exist, but which nonetheless people claimed to have visited, like Paradise or Terra Australis; and journeys to places that no longer exist, sunk between land, sea, or cities. Lyons’s selection is deliberately personal and the fresher for it…
Nicholas Shakespeare, Daily Telegraph
he [Lyons] revives these adventures with great skill and humour
perfect gap-year traveller gift
A beautiful gift for would-be explorers, Mathew Lyons’s book charts voyagers in a time before maps, and even place names. From the puritanical Sieur de Roberval, who marooned his lovestruck niece on the shore of a dim and distant island, to the crew of an expedition in 1536 who ended up eating a companion through extreme hunger, each story is told exquisitely and comes backed with exhaustive research.
Sunday Times Travel magazine
This is an engrossing little book of curious tales culled from the history of human attempts at exploring the world. For every successful navigation it appears there have been a host of comical or inept adventures, dozens of which are recorded… Recommended.
Eastern Daily Press
a fascinating and remarkable compendium.
Lyons examines man’s fundamental need for finding, climbing, sailing, crossing, and conquering our world, real or imagined. With great humour and gripping narrative, he re-imagines these intrepid, hopeful voyages to places that no longer exist, explorations to places that never existed, impossible journeys though people claimed to have made them, and the absurdly dangerous journeys that were supposed to be impossible but weren’t.
Good Book Guide
Far quirkier but no less entertaining is Mathew Lyons’s miscellany, Impossible Journeys. Lyons had the inspired idea of collecting some of history’s most fantastic and sometimes doomed journeys, and turning them into a series of Chaucerian tales. Subjects include “journeys to places that did not exist”, “journeys it is no longer possible to make”, and journeys that “whether in the planning, the execution or the outcome, were implausible or unlikely, if not actually wholly impossible”. From these broad criteria emerge such gems as Thomas Coryat’s “Walkers Tale”, about a Renaissance gentleman who announced to the royal court of 1608 that he intended to walk to India. For a man who had never stepped outside England before, the idea of walking some 3,500 miles might have seemed absurd. But Coryat thought little of it, and his account of the subsequent adventure holds a claim for being the first-ever travelogue. Recording customs, fashions, foods and landscapes, Coryat reached Ajmer in 1616, where he so impressed the Mogul that he threw down a sheet with a hundred pieces of silver in it. Coryat died shortly afterwards from a bout of binge drinking.
In “The Friar’s Tale”, we learn of Friar Odoric, born in Italy around 1286, who spent thirteen years travelling around the East. Among the things he claimed to have seen were “two-headed geese in Ceylon, hens that bore wool instead of feathers and an island, called Moumoran, inhabited by dog-headed people”.
Impossible Journeys is full of the bizarre, but no less literary for that.
Piers Moore Ede, Times Literary Supplement
The journeys Lyons collects are “impossible” because they could not be repeated today, or struck out for places that never actually existed, or just turned out to be impossible to complete. Broad criteria, which give room for the indefatigable Thomas Coryat, a Renaissance Englishman who walked all the way to India and wrote copious notebooks of marvellously detailed description before succumbing to an episode of binge-drinking; as well as for the 19th-century Norwegian explorer Saloman Andrée, who planned to assault the North Pole by balloon and then foot, and who said, marvellously, of his idea: “The thing is so difficult that it is not worthwhile attempting it. The thing is so difficult that I cannot help but attempt it.” … He and his companions eventually froze to death, an episode made the more affecting by Lyons’s lucid and subtle prose. The book as a whole has a kind of understated magic: a non-fiction companion to the tall tales of Italo Calvino’s Marco Polo.
It’s an enjoyable, pocket-sized travelling companion providing a mix of schadenfreude and entertainment with its tales of sailors lost at sea, misguided mapmakers, heroes and drunks.
Food & Travel magazine
Each of the grippingly recalled accounts actually happened … an intriguing and amusing book to dip into time and time again, and one that conveys the tenacity, bravery and occasional bonkers brilliance of the travellers who undertook them.
Impossible Journeys is available here from the Folio Society. You no longer have to join the Folio before you can order its books.