Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Eminent Theologian Vexed by Board Game

The set-up: In 1927, the Greek government is commemorating the Battle of Navarino (1827) by treating an assortment of British and Russian guests, among others, to an all-night pleasure cruise, where they have furthermore provided — “with a hospitality, a largeness of heart, which deserves immortality in some Treasury of Golden Actions” — an open bar.

From The Station: Travels to the Holy Mountain of Greece by Robert Byron, who was not on the cruise but heard about it later:

One of our friends, who was an attaché at the Legation, had purchased, before leaving on this expedition, a game of snakes and ladders, and one which had been expanded into a landscape beset with witches and deadly nightshade.

A distinguished professor of theology, the greatest living exponent of the Orthodox view of the Filioque, had also been of the party. And it was, we were informed, piteous to behold him, in the guise of Little Snowdrop, counting up his dice and crashing the life’s edifice of his intellectual prestige upon an encounter with an ogre or a swallowing of poisoned berries. Obliged to return to the beginning again, he felt it as though Eastern Christendom had renounced the Patriarch in favour of the Pope.

In our opinion [and I should mention that the author was distantly related to Lord Byron and therefore sentimentally attached to the war this cruise was meant to commemorate], it would have been more fitting if in place of these floating gin-palaces and gambling-hells the occasion had been observed in the spirit of Remembrance. But that is because we were not there.

The Station is not a frivolous book, the above notwithstanding. His chapter on the monks’ autonomous (as in, Greece deals with them through its Foreign Office) system of government, “which has functioned uninterrupted over a longer course of years than any in existence,” is quite scholarly. And when he explains how, in 1913, Russian troops were sent to quell a flare-up of imiaslavie, the heretics withheld the keys to their vestments closet, a gun battle evolved from this minor impasse, and no one was killed he does not introduce into the story any more black humor than is inherent in it.

And, because I like to provide this information whenever possible: Robert Byron's cigarette brand was Gold Flake.

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