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Waking the Dead

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by Don Cox

 You wouldn't exactly call Waking the Dead a scholarly work, but it is eminently readable.  Although the grammar and punctuation are often questionable, Don Cox's enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, and makes for a narrative that holds the attention far better than most works of non-fiction.  His subject (mainly) is history.  Since that is my favourite subject, too, I felt compelled to read on.

Where this differs from most history books is in the presentation.  Unlike most non-fiction, it has no firm structure, no contents page, and no index.  It almost reads like a stream of consciousness.  In the first few chapters, at least, there is nothing new to the serious student of history.  For the layman, by which I suppose I mean the person who hasn't previously had a great interest in the subject, there are ideas to be explored.  I can imagine many a non-academic type finding it an near-revelatory experience. 

 Don Cox talks about his holidays in Egypt, and moves seamlessly into the facts behind the Trojan War.  He may have no qualifications, he may never have studied ancient history as a discipline, but he has certainly given his attention to the ancient writers.  The lack of a formal classical education is, in a way, his strength; it enables him to take a fresh look at what some of us think we already know.

 In doing so, does he actually uncover any new truths?  It's an important question, because Mr Cox's stated intention is to lead us down new paths of knowledge.  There is one major problem with his approach.  When you keep an open mind on everything you read, you risk being led astray.  For example, very little mention is made of Homer, on whose account of Odysseus' doings Mr Cox relies so heavily.  Not only did Homer live 500 years after the events he describes in the Odyssey, but Homer never professed to be a historian; the very concept of "history", as distinct from "story", was then unknown.  What I think this book implies is that Homer and his like had a knowledge of the truth about past events which has been lost to us.  It may or may not be so.

 The links between Greek myth and Egyptian religion are not at all difficult to accept as a premise.  When the author veers off at a tangent to talk about post-Roman Britain, I am in a better position to question his findings.  The real reason the emperor Honorius did not respond to British pleas to help him fight off Hengist and Horsa was that he had already been dead for over twenty years when they arrived.  Moreover, Mr Cox's interpretation of the Arthur and Merlin legends owes more to Mary Stewart's novels than to real historical investigation.  If he had read a little more widely, he would know that archaeologists have long since discovered the origin of the story of the sword in the stone and its return to a watery resting-place.  There is no longer any need to seek an allegorical significance.

 For me, the interest of Waking the Dead is as an account of an individual's struggle to progress from ignorance to understanding by using his own intuition, coupled with an apparently boundless energy.  It is part fact and part fiction, part autobiography and part travel book.  The chapters I enjoyed best were those where Don Cox revealed aspects of his own nature and experience: how he came to develop an interest in the past, and how he plans to preserve details of his own life for posterity.  A better title might have been Waking the Intellect.


ISBN 0 95394 370 4
Published by Odysseus Publishing, 2002
181pp, illustrated hardback
Retail price 14.95

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher

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