Saturday, November 21, 2009

Franklin curiosities: Erebo y Terror

Over the years, I've come to acquire all sorts of oddities and ephemera relating to the Franklin expedition, including chapbooks, newspaper articles, trading cards, and even toys (in the form of a lovely replica miniature can of poisoned beef, complete with box and informative notes -- it will be the subject of my next posting). But by far the rarest and most curious printed item is this tiny book, Erebo y Terror, published as part of a "Library of Micronesia" by Juan Miguel Muñoz, who at the time (2004) worked at the Spanish branch of Random House publishers. The book, bound in red, is accompanied by a small leaflet and a copy of Beard's daguerreotype of James Fitzjames, which themselves are contained in a CD jewel box, on which a tiny miniature compass is mounted (see photo). Both are enclosed in a slipcase featuring the logo of the Library, a tooth with the motto "De la pulcra Ceniza," which as far as I can make out with my limited Spanish, means "a little bit of ash."

I do wish I had better Spanish, as the book itself is entirely written in that language. Happily, the accompanying materials, including a little sheet of glassine which is folded inside the cover, have both English and Spanish texts. The publisher informed me that the book's first three sections -- Introducción, Prólogo, and Los pergamos del cabo Félix -- are fiction, and intoduce a fabulous manuscript said to be found among Franklin's relics, written by Paco Alarcón. The latter parts -- Mallory y Hatteras and El Paso del Noroeste -- are nonfictional accounts of the search for the Passage from Frobisher to Amundsen. According to the publisher, Franklin was never a major figure of interest in Spain, which was why this limited edition of 250 had, as of the time of his writing, not sold a single copy; 50 were sent as gifts, of which mine is numbered (paradoxically) A63. It seems like the sort of little book that might have been imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, and lain on a shelf between a Wycliffe bible and the Book of Sand -- and yet here it is, in my hand.

If anyone knows more about this curious volume, I'd be very happy to hear from them! I'll be featuring a different item from my collections every week or so, so if Arctic cabinets of curiosity stir your interest, do 'stay tuned'!


  1. Dear Russel,

    it is indeed a curious book. I have looked in the web for some additional info, but practically nothing is available. However, this J. Munoz is a sculptor, and these books are really collection items, not "ordinary books" for selling [a kind of "bibliographic sculpure"] This explains the low number of copies (and distribution). I also disagree with the fact that the interest on Franklin is low. I haven't found any information on the collection itself, which explains that even interested people never heard from it, unless they frequent certain bibliophile circles where arctic explorers or scholars are certainly rare.
    Actually many years ago [1965] there was an excellent encyclopedia on expeditions and explorers [from ancient time to Sputnik] written by some scholars in France [P. E. Victor among them], and I remember that Franklin was devoted half a volume [the fourth I believe].

    Although the text on your photo is not perfectly readable, I will translate the part that refers to your comment:

    "De la Pulcra Ceniza" is not "a little bit of ash" [that would have been "Un poco de ceniza", rather unpoetical], but "From the Neat Ashes", possibly making some reference to mythology.

    Further sentences that are worthy to be translated:

    Los pergaminos del cabo félix : The parchments of Cape Felix

    Text at the bottom of the page

    "De la Pulcra Ceniza ha hecho del sexto número de "Libros de la Micronesia" una edición de doscientos cincuenta ejemplares numerados: Nº 163"

    "De la Pulcra Ceniza" has made an edition of the sixth number of "Library of Micronesia"
    consisting of 250 numbered copies: Nr. 163

    It is rather obvious for me that your copy is not A63 but number 163 [from 250], which makes perfect sense with the text.

    best regards,

  2. Rutger,

    Many thanks indeed for your thoughtful comments, and especially for the translations. I guess it is the writing style of the "1" in "163" that made me think it was an "A."

    The "parchments of Cape Felix," as I understand it from the publisher, are the fantastical manuscripts found among Franklin remains; to me, it's a little reminiscent of Cervantes, or Borges -- an imaginary manuscript with scholarly commentary.

    I myself don't think that interest in Franklin in Spain, or other Spanish-speaking nations is so very low -- this was just what the publisher said to me in his note. Some years ago, I knew of a site, "Muerte en el Artico" which had a very detailed account of Franklin's last voyage.

    "From the neat ashes" -- I quite like that. It is indeed, a small three-dimensional work of art.

  3. Rutger, just a quick note -- I have located a blog page which has at least some additional information on this series.

  4. Russel,

    thanks for that link. Unfortunately the information on the series is very scarce, it is more a comment on publishers like Taschen, Ivory press, etc. It contains however an e-mail address that could be related to some of the editors.
    Further, I have tried to find some info on the "parchments", but found nothing. No additional clue on the author. As far as I deduce from the cover you included, this text is quite recent (2002). The title suggests indeed some connection with the work of Borges, but it could as well be some piece of "scholarship" in the Lovecraft style (like "At the mountains of madness" but in the Arctic). Is it one piece of text or divided into chapters? From the titles further information could be deduced.

  5. Here is a slightly more informative source, although it's brief and the link leads nowhere ...

  6. The link you have found is some catalonian page making some comments on the editor, unfortunately without further clues to the collection. The photo however shows that the set is really a little piece of art. This lack of information really explains why almost nobody has heard from it.
    Something else: I apologize for having miswritten your name twice.

  7. What an interesting little volume! There's a short flash video of it on the publisher's website: