Anthony Grayling, Financial Times, 15/16 January 1994
OBSCURE KINGDOMS by Edward Fox Hamish Hamilton £16.99, 240 pages
A walk on the royal side
A. C. Grayling
In this stylish, informative and sometimes very funny book, American-born journalist Edward Fox recounts his personal pilgrimage to five of the world's remoter monarchies. He went because he wished to understand what makes kings and kingdoms tick. His travels took him to Tonga, Oman, Nigeria, Swaziland and Java. In each he had fascinating and sometimes hilarious adventures, related in a dry and sharply observant prose which signals the arrival, in this first book, of a major writing talent.
Fox turned his back on European royalties because he wished to encounter monarchy afresh, in unfamiliar guises. But he repeatedly found himself "face to face with what I was fleeing: the hand of the British, recreating the empire in their own image." Were it not for the British none of these monarchies would be as they are; most would not even exist.
Tonga's King Tupou IV granted Fox an audience, and during it demonstrated a simplified method of addition for use in primary schools. The King not only invents things -- a joint rugby and soccer goal post, used all over Tonga, is another example -- but conducts agricultural experiments, solves archaeological problems, and is the holder of his kingdom's pole-vault record. He is the fattest man in Tonga because he eats the most, a sign of royal power. It is clear that Fox, although bemused by Tupou, enjoyed meet him, and learned an important lesson: that delays and difficulties are occupational hazards of royalty-watching.
It was much more difficult for Fox to get at His Majesty the Sultan of Oman, an absolute monarch in the traditional oriental mould. He succeeded in attending a levée at which subjects queue to shake the Sultan's hand; but requests for an interview were denied, and when Fox tried to observe the Sultan on his annual meet-the-people tour, in a Bedouin-style cavalcade with Mercedes Benzes substituting for camels, he failed. So instead he read the history of Oman and the "mirrors for princes" written to instruct rulers, and pondered on the fact that “roads and roundabouts are the distinctive post-oil Arabian art form", explained perhaps by the fact that they represent an "ultimate triumph over the former hardships of desert travel". Fox did not come away unimpressed; when he went to shake the Sultan's hand it was in a throne-room that looked like the inside of a gigantic Fabergé egg.
After difficulties of Oman Fox found Nigeria a joy, because it has not one but hundreds of kings and he was able to interview a number of them -- the Aragbiji of Irigbiji, the Akirun of Ikirun, and even the two greatest "obas", the Alaafin of Oyo and the Ooni of Ife. In Yoruba religion Ife is the site of Creation. The exact spot, Fox reports, lies opposite a Total petrol station, marked by an enigmatic granite pillar. Each oba is a guardian of the traditional religion. For those who are now Moslem or Christian this presents difficulties. To become an oba one has to eat the dried heart of one's predecessor, served in soup. But the benefits, it seems, usually outweigh scruples; on meeting an oba one says "Kabiyesi!" which can either be translated "May you live long" or "You cannot be contradicted".
Heartened by his successes in Nigeria Fox proceeded to Swaziland, only to be disappointed again. Young King Mswati III proved unmeetable, hidden behind layers of suspicious advisers. Fox noted a mysterious empathy between the Swazis and the British: "They saw a bit of themselves in each other. Each had a culture of clenched good manners, restraint, discipline, understatement and secrecy, arranged in a strict social hierarchy with a King at the top." The Swazis have a saying: "Let the Swazi and the English deceive each other with politeness, and the Zulu and the Boer have it out with clubs."
But all frustrations were compensated in Java, where Fox had a satisfying encounter with Sultan Hamengkubuwono X of Yogyakarta, whose full name runs to two dozen words. Here Fox was able to meditate on the secret of monarchy: its place between the secular and divine, its use of the mysteries of inaccessibility, its function as a centre for artistic display, political patronage, and symbolic meanings. It is a privilege of royalty to be unavailable when it chooses; in Nigeria an oba's henchmen would turn away petitioners by saying his master was still abed. "These kings were like disappointing zoo animals," Fox remarks, "always asleep when you wanted to see them.”
The author of this highly entertaining mixture of travelogue, history and royal essay appears as a wryly engaging observer. One looks forward to his next book with great relish.
Times Literary Supplement, 14 January 1994
The king’s the thing
Ten years or so ago, anyone who owned a pair of Timberland boots, and had enough money for a cut-price ticket to Timbuktu felt free to inflict a book about their journey on English readers. Over the past few years, however, publishers are no longer keen to fund this kind of project; the result is a pruned but altogether more thoughtful body of travel prose. Obscure Kingdoms is a book in such a vein. Instead of taking a country, Edward Fox takes a theme, and with it, a pleasingly oblique way of looking at the world.
Fox's theme is kingship. Who, or rather, what, he asks, are kings? And how, at the end of the twentieth century, an age surely inimical to them, have they managed to survive? They are thought by some to bring paradise to earth, "fructifying the land and subduing it at the same time". Others are thought to be capable of attaining a mystical union with God: they are receptacles of supernatural power. Is kingship (there are no queens in Fox's compendium) a symbol of self in its highest state of fulfilment? Or is it merely a form of delusion, a state of manic-depressive psychosis? (Fox wryly points out that the cure for ordinary mortals who suffer from similar psychosis -- delusions of grandiose identity etc -- is 800-1600 grains of lithium daily.)
Although his quest takes him to five different countries, Java, Nigeria, Swaziland, Oman and Tonga, there can be few travel books in which the author is quite so dismissive about the actual act of travelling. In fact, he sets out to do as little of it as possible. In Java, waiting to see the king, he boasts of how he did not visit Borobudur, the fabulous Buddhist temple complex which rivals Angkor Wat; he preferred to sit on the verandah of his hotel and read War and Peace. And, he despises other travellers: "I was interested in transcendental kingship. With them it was just Bali, Bali, Bali." Indeed, he becomes so locked into the idea of his "quest", that the search for material, for cracking the nut -- an intellectual rather than a geographic nut --becomes an obsession. There is probably no travel writer who has not experienced something of this sort, but Fox carries it further than most. In each country that he visits, he sets out to meet the king. But kings, of course, are notoriously difficult to meet. In Nigeria, Fox dreams that he has been condemned to spend the rest of his life compiling an encyclopaedia of Yoruba kings (of which there are countless numbers): in Java, he arrives to find that he has just missed an important palace contact, who is carried out of his house in his coffin as Fox arrives. One cannot help feeling that the official has died on purpose, in order to avoid seeing him. Just getting to Jakarta, a longish but simple aeroplane journey, reduces Fox to a state which he describes as "plankton ...eyeless, defenceless, senseless, directionless". In Nigeria, where the Yoruba language is tonal, it is some time before he realizes that instead of saying the word for "palace" each time he gets into a taxi, he has in fact asked for an "albino". Fox is always lucid, and his observations are counterpointed by a fine, dry sense of humour. His analysis of the mystery of kingship is elegant, but Obscure Kingdoms succeeds best as a study of obsession (it is the only travel book I have ever come across which might reasonably be expected to sell the strip cartoon rights.) The kings’ world, like one populated by fabulous mythological beasts (which in a sense they are), frequently takes on the flavour of hallucination. “Everywhere I went… meaning seemed to evaporate as soon as I approached it. It glittered only from a distance, like a mirage.”
Since we can no longer travel further than our predecessors, today’s travelers must journey deeper. In this, Edward Fox admirably succeeds.
Literary Review, October 1993
Sucking Pig and Yams Explain their Torpor
OBSCURE KINGDOMS By Edward Fox (Hamish Hamilton 258pp £16.99)
IN AN AMBITIOUS attempt to explore the nature of kingship in its ceremonial, spiritual and political aspects, and to understand the reasons for its survival in places as disparate as Tonga, Oman, Nigeria, Swaziland and Indonesia, it is the spiritual dimension which most intrigues Edward Fox: how and why rulers create and maintain the perception and acceptance in their subjects of a link between temporal and divine power; why there is always an element of the sacred associated with the person and office of the king. Fox sets out to interview the rulers themselves, to ask them directly how they view their roles and tasks, especially their relationship with the sacred.
His choice of Eshu, the Yoruba deity , as guide and mentor for such an undertaking is not such a good idea; he is after all the Trickster God in the pantheon of the Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria, amoral and wont to use and confuse mere mortals for his own amusement. He is said to accompany travellers, frequently leading them astray down difficult and dangerous paths. It is all credit to Fox's tenacity that after long delays and much kicking of heels in the antechambers of the mighty he manages to have meetings with his chosen subjects everywhere but Swaziland, although his contact with Sultan Qaboos of Oman is limited to a limp handshake. It is hardly surprising that all are reluctant to give the game away, to reveal any links their rule may have with the spiritual or divine.
The only one to provide more than a hint is Sultan Hamengkubuwono X, perhaps because Javanese culture and cosmology are so precisely codified. By contrast Fox comes up against an absolute and rigid refusal when attempting to gain access to the young King Mswati III: the cordon of advisers and interest groups remains totally impenetrable, exemplifying the truth of the Swazi national motto: 'Siyinqaba', 'We are the fortress'.
The visits to the five countries are prompted by a desire to investigate kingdoms untouched by European influence; a tall order and naive hope, given the once-pervasive presence (and still sometimes relevant imprint) of the British everywhere but Indonesia -- and even here Fox unearths a rather tenuous link between Stamford Raffles and the present authority of the Sultanate of Yogyakarta.
There is a certain irony in reading descriptions of rulers who have all realised the necessity of achieving a balance between distance and proximity, between awe-inspiring majesty on the one hand and approachability and concern on the other, and comparing their varying degrees of success with the recent dismal record of the British royal family.
Much of Obscure Kingdoms is taken up with waiting for the call to the palace, for Fox to put on his ceremonial costume of Brooks Brothers' blue and white seersucker suit and sally forth. It is in fact the waiting, rather than the eventual meetings with rulers, which provides most of the interest of this sometimes haphazard but frequently engrossing book. Fox supplies many interesting snippets from history and anthropology .He writes of the manner in which Qaboos engineered the overthrow of his father in 1970 with the help of a conveniently available SAS detachment -- no easy task when he had been his father's prisoner for the previous six years. Sultan Sa'id had become increasingly eccentric during his reign, installing telescopes in his palace to watch over his subjects at all times. He would occasionally overstep the mark, for example telephoning the British Consulate in Muscat across the bay to protest whenever he saw someone smoking on the verandah.
Fox describes the acceptance by Yoruba people of the power of witchcraft in everyday life in Nigeria, where a national newspaper tells how a mother angry with her son caused an accident to his brand-new car from which he barely escaped alive. Fox (an American educated in the UK) also notes the close resemblance between the British and the Swazi, quoting a saying to emphasise his point: 'Liswati nalingisi, Zulu nelibhunu' -- 'Let the Swazi and the English deceive each other with polite- ness, and the Zulu and the Boer have it out with clubs.' In Yogyakarta he realises that not only the person of the Sultan, but also his palace, Mount Merapi, and the beach of Parangkusumo have their place in a specific and preordained symbolism where sacred geography joins with the holiness inherent in the person of Hamengkubuwono to create a coherent whole.
Obscure Kingdoms brings to life many of the people and the cultures with which Fox comes into contact during his search for the meaning of kingship. Omani society is so eerily calm and enclosed that few foreigners gain any real access. The chief failure is Tonga, which remains flat on the page perhaps because it was the first country visited before Fox fully refined his technique of dealing with royalty. His interview with the king is arranged with ridiculous ease compared to the tribulations encountered elsewhere, but it is notable for its banality. It may well also be that Tonga itself breeds torpor; the amount of food eaten (with vast quantities of sucking pig and yams central to the menu) would certainly be conducive to extreme laziness.
Michael L. Nash, Contemporary Review, December 1994
Book Review – Obscure Kingdoms
What can one say about a book which has only one footnote, and that footnote is about the meaning of life? This is an indication of this extraordinary and absorbing book. The reader is intrigued also by the author, an American who studied both at Cambridge and Columbia, and who combines a winning reticence and modesty with an original and memorable turn of phrase. It is a somewhat surprising mixture of the American film director and the traditional English scholar. In absorbing both of these cultures, Edward Fox set forth to discover the meaning of monarchy; not from the well-known and ancient monarchies of the West, so sorely tried in recent times, but from the 'obscure' monarchies of Tonga, Swaziland, Nigeria, Oman and Indonesia.
A great deal is to be learned from this book, on all kinds of levels. It is entertaining and philosophical; it is an excellent travel book of a traditional genre; it is above all (and in this it succeeds) an explanation of the world's fascination with the idea of monarchy. It explores 'the peculiar, the supernatural and the ceremonial', and using the analogy of the onion, peeling away layer after layer, attempts to get to the heart of monarchy. Fox spent a great deal of time waiting to see his chosen sovereigns. He concluded, quite correctly, that this an essential element of the institution. A great many people wait a great deal of time. In doing so, they focus the mind, though not always the patience. Englishmen could have told him that if you scratch a monarchy, you will almost certainly find British influence somewhere. He was surprised to find that the British had ruled Java from 1811 to 1816 and had left their mark, but it was so. More predictably, in Oman, in Nigeria, in Swaziland and in Tonga British influence was apparent, if not indelible.
Distance and accessibility are part of monarchy: a balance is required. The kings of Tonga, Swaziland and Oman are all heads of state; those in Nigeria and Java have a social sovereignty, and a religious one, but not necessarily a state or political one, although one tends to tip over into the other. In Java the Sultan is king and politician, (cf. the metamorphosis of Otto von Habsburg from heir to one of the greatest monarchies on earth into one of the subtlest, most consummate and experienced politicians in Europe).
When monarchies fail, their shadow is sometimes very long, as if rooted in the human psyche. In Hawaii one of its princes became a long-serving American senator; in Java the sultans were crowned at the spot where the presidents of Indonesia are now inaugurated.
What is still surprising is that all monarchies seem to have so much in common: the king has some kind of meditative or ethical role; he symbolizes the people and their identity; those through whom one can gain access are important because of this role. There is also the union of opposites; the union of male and female principles -- no wonder it is difficult being a sovereign!
One is constantly amused and delighted by Fox's language. We identify with him in every situation. He is human and witty. In Java the Sultan's throne room 'was like the interior of a gigantic Faberge egg'; of the interpreter: 'She spoke shattered English at a furious rate': more is quotable than one review would suffice.
It is perhaps fitting to end on a British quotation (even if a politically incorrect one). Attitude towards monarchy acts like some kind of solvent, or litmus paper: it changes other conceptions or overrides them. Edward VII, as Prince of Wales, tried his diplomatic skills to win over King Kalakua of Hawaii, to bring him over to the British side when he was veering towards the Americans. On a visit to London he was literally treated royally, wined and dined on every occasion, dancing with the Princess of Wales, and given precedence over mere princes. This was too much. The Crown Prince of Prussia objected. The Prince of Wales retorted: 'Either the brute is a King, or he's a common or garden nigger; and, if the latter, what's he doing here?' This, like the book, speaks volumes for both monarchy and for attitude.
Charles Glass, Catholic Herald
A Kingdom for the Taking: Colonial Self-Imagining and Contemporary Responses to
Dear Dr Vincent,
I was amazed to see your article on Obscure Kingdoms in English Academy Review. Everything you say is fair enough, but there is one thing I must tell you, even though it's all water under the bridge.
You wrote (p. 79): “At another moment, Fox overtly turns to fiction in his attempt to maintain mastery. He imagines ‘ the memoirs of a hypothetical tutor, charged with teaching the boy-king the lessons of history’ (p. 175). For instance: ‘The King never listened to anything I said. Sometimes I would give him a page of a book to read. I would hand the book to him and wait while he read it. It was the only way I could be sure of getting him to read anything. I would glance over at him as he struggled with the text, moving his lips as he read.’ (ibid.) His fictional fantasy that reduces Mswati to a semi-literate, spoiled brat and situates himself in the tradition of royal colonial tutor may be good fun, but a kind of parallel in reverse can be drawn with Owen O’Neil’s Adventures in Swaziland, where the author incorporates actual photographs into his fictional narrative. The caption underneath a photograph of Labotsobeni is supposed to be a quotation from the Queen Regent herself: ‘The white man’s little black box is very wonderful!’ (1920, 197). He then claims that it was the only photograph ever taken of her. Owen’s belittling and racist treatment of his subject may be a product of a particular time and place, but though long out of print, many of the book’s strategies stubbornly appear in other guises.”
This stung me, and I'll tell you why. You're referring to the paperback edition. The hardback edition was different in this part of the narrative. My way into Swaziland, all those years ago, was a former tutor to the king. He indeed was the person who got me interested in Swaziland in the first place. He was of great help to me & even let me stay in his house outside the capital. He told me extraordinary and not very complimentary things about the boy-king as he then was. I put these all into the book -- the first edition, that is. I guess this made him furious. He wrote to the publishers a very cross letter and insisted that in any future edition reference to him be removed. I didn't want to upset him, and in a spirit of conciliation agreed to alter the text to remove reference to him. ("I may want to go back to Swaziland in the future," he wrote.) Hence the "fiction" you referred to in your article. I changed the real tutor into an imaginary one. I still feel bad about that, and if the book is ever re-published I will want the original (hardback) text to be used.
With good wishes,