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Killing Dragons: The Conquest of the Alps.

by Fergus Fleming

Condition: See description


London, UK Granta Books, 2000. Hardcover First Ed; First Printing indicated. First Ed; First Printing indicated. Near Fine in Very Near Fine DJ: Both book and DJ show only minute indications of use. Book shows a bit of shelving wear at the bottom edge and the heel of the backstrip is slightly crimped; the binding shows barely discernible lean, while remaining perfectly secure; text clean. DJ shows only the mildrest rubbing; the price is unclipped; mylar-protected. Overall, while no longer pristine, remains very close to 'As New'. NOT a Remainder. NOT a Book-Club Edition. NOT an Ex-Library copy. 8vo. 398pp. Hardback with DJ. "Killing Dragons" is an engrossing series of portraits of men and mountains woven into a chronology of alpine exploration that spans 150 years. The bulk of the narrative focuses on two big, suggestive mountains - Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn - and their two principal suitors: de Saussure and Whymper. But there are delightful side roles for a whole throng of colourful characters such as Bourrit, Forbes, Tyndall, Ruskin, Stephen and Coolidge. Ultimately it's also a story about how surprisingly quickly and drastically man's relationship to nature can change: in barely two centuries the general mood regarding the mountain world switched from superstitious awe to scientific interest to exploratory zeal to nationalist competition to, ultimately, solipsistic thrill-seeking (which is still the dominant ethos today). Fergus Fleming is a masterful storyteller with a penchant for tongue-in-cheeck humour, quirky details and the burlesque. In one or two cases it's even over the top, as when he inserts a footnote with a deadpan comment of Edward Whymper on the ubiquity of "crétins" (deformed, mentally handicapped people) and goitre sufferers in rural Alpine communities: "Let them be formed into regiments by themselves, brigaded together, and commanded by cretins. Think what esprit de corps they would have! Who could stand against them? Who would understand their tactics?" An example of a more successful gag comes when Fleming comments on the death of Coolidge who, after the demise of his beloved aunt Meta Brevoort, withdrew and became and quarrelsome, exasperatingly punctilious Alpine historian. Fleming: "An imp of perversity was loose in Grindelwald that season - either that or the Swiss possessed a keener sense of humour than they were normally credited with - for the great pedant was given an exquisitely apt send-off. The 'Echo of Grindelwald" misspelled his name in its official notice, the authorities put the wrong age on his headstone and the carver missed out the the 'u' in 'mountains'." The book is full of these kinds of hilarious observations. (Incidentally, Fleming himself may have something of Coolidge's pedantry as he is remarkably scrupulous about spelling of French and Germain toponyms throughout the book). On the whole, Fleming does an admirable job in weaving the locales, the societal trends, the climbing epics, the individual characters and their relationships and rivalries into a rich tapestry. My only complaint is that this book refers only in passing to and omits a more extensive discussion on Albert Mummery, an important and colourful character who heralded a new era in mountaineering. His remarkable ascents on the great Alpine peaks (Zmutt ridge on the Matterhorn, amongst many others) and his fantastic daring to be the very first to attack a Himalayan 8.000 meter peak (already in 1895!) would have been a more fitting and logical conclusion to this very British epic than the unsavoury story of the German siege on the north face of the Eiger.


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