Literary Archaeology: Books within Books

Jon Black

The forgotten tome, bound in cracked leather, creaks as the protagonist opens it. Along with the musty smell issuing from its ancients pages comes a crucial clue or essential exposition.

It is a cliché of genre fiction, and for damn good reason. It’s not just a matter of books being a good, plausible vehicle for exposition. Most readers are, at heart, also bibliophiles. We love not only good stories in books but good stories about books.

With that in mind, inventing books to deliver exposition and advance the plot is a time-honored tradition. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon is the superlative example. He, his antecedents, and protégées are the ultimate practitioners of this art, giving us dozens of such fictional books. The best, like the Necronomicon, Howard’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and Chambers’ The King in Yellow have arguably become characters in their own right, with rich backstories and distinctive “personalities.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with inserting an invented book into a story. But HistFic writers have another option, one perhaps more felicitous to their craft: coopting actual historical books into their narrative. Lovecraft and other Mythos authors coopted a number of actual books for their stories—twisting them or inserting content that furthered their narratives. Great for HistFic, such books also work marvelously for contemporary stories with a historical research component.

History’s bookshelf is full of intriguing options. Originally, I intended to profile five such works in this post; including authorships and publication information, summaries, suggestions for their use in HistFic, and links to their text online. In order to do justice to each book, I realized I needed to curtail that to three books (conveniently, giving me material for a series of these posts).

For the inaugural post in this series, I focus on two historical books that have seen extensive use in fiction, The Golden Bough and The Witch Cult in Western Europe, as well as one that, to my knowledge, has not: Pantographia.

The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion     

Author: Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), a pioneering anthropologist from Glasgow who lectured at the UK’s most prestigious universities throughout his career.

Publication: 1890 (original two-volume edition), 1900 (expanded three-volume edition), 1906-1915 (comprehensive twelve-volume edition).

Summary: One of the foundational texts of anthropology, the Golden Bough is a treasure trove containing thousands of examples of beliefs, rites, and rituals from around the world. While Europe is overrepresented in Golden Bough, Frazer grabs examples cover the globe.

Highlighting commonalities between these examples, Frazer argued for the existence of a number of meta-myths (the Killing of the Divine King, the Corn Maiden, etc.) common in pre-modern societies. In some ways, the Golden Bough anticipates the work of Jung and Campbell. But there are significant differences.  Jung and Campbell saw the universality of myth as testimony to its value for the human psyche and human experience. Frazer, in contrast, sought to use Golden Bough to build a case for the unilateral progression of human societies from magical belief through religion to scientific rationalism; by extension demystifying the first two stages and defining them solely as inferior, pre-scientific attempts to understand, and control, the world.

Frazer’s ideas have since fallen from favor. Most modern anthropologists would disagree with the Golden Bough’s axioms that magic, religion, are science are mutually incompatible systems of meaning and that the only functions of magic and religion are to understand and control the material world. Nevertheless, it is still respected as one of the earliest attempts to write scientifically and systematically on the topics. Frazer’s work also has long legs in art and literature. Far from being confined to Mythos writers, artists from T.S. Eliot to Jim Morrison explicitly referenced The Golden Bough as an influence of their art.

TANGENT ALERT: I adore Frazer and his Golden Bough. The rascally and curmudeonly scholar, as well as his gloriously opaque academic prose, were a major inspiration for the character of Herbert Price in the “Bel Nemeton” series.

Possible Uses in HistFic: The greatest value of Golden Bough for HistFic is the enormous volume of examples contained within its pages. Authors can insert an example that advances their plot, either through armchair research by protagonists or as something they must actively investigate. Of course, Golden Bough is so packed with examples that the process can be reversed: picking an appropriate actual example from its pages to be worked into the narrative.

Text Online:


Author: Edmund Fry (1754-1833), an English craftsmen and scholar who was one of the most influential and knowledgeable type-founders of his time.

Publication: 1799.

The product of 16 years, Pantographia is a visually stunning compilation of all alphabets and typefaces in the world that would have been known to an educated Englishman at the close of the 18th century. It also includes samples of languages and dialects as well as, in some cases, very basic lexicons.

Pantographia follows a consistent format: an alphabet or typeface is presented on the left-hand page, while the right-hand provides Fry’s description and commentary. While the typefaces (such as the now obscure “Bastard” font popular in 14th and 15th century French printing) are interesting, HistFic writers will probably gravitate toward esoteric alphabets such as Chaldean, Armenian, Balinese, Coptic, Dalmatian, Egyptian Demotic, and Samaritan. Among the most unusual is “Philosophic,” a script designed by the 17th century Bishop Wilkins as one of the first efforts toward a universal language).

Excerpts from endangered or extinct dialects and languages, such as the Berryan dialect of French and Carnish (which may be Wendish or something like it) and a preserved excerpt of Vandal are also exciting. Some of Fry’s samples are deliberately archaic, such as a transcription of Portuguese that was already 200 years old at the time of Pantographia’s publication.

TANGENT WARNING: Pantographia is an endless, if delightful, rabbit hole. The typefaces and scripts are often gorgeous to look at. Understanding the work sometimes requires decoding more than two centuries of geographical changes and understanding of the world. Sometimes, a little research and puzzle-solving is necessary just to figure out what the hell Fry is talking about. To cite just a few examples: What is the “New England” language? Presumably some Algonquin or Iroquoian tongue, but which one? Ditto “Esquimaux,” is obviously an Inuit language, but which? By “Mexican” does he mean Nahuatl? What is the “Saracen” alphabet? It is presented separately from Arabic, to which its script only roughly correlates. Perhaps some form of Berber? And then there is “Sclavonian.” Fry’s description clearly indicates he considers it a significant language with which his readers would be familiar. I think he may be talking about Serbo-Croatian. But a separate entry for “Servian” renders even that hypothesis less likely.

Possible HistFic Uses: Fry’s preservation of scripts, dialects, and lexicons which were obscure even in 1799 provides means for translating ancient inscriptions or cracking esoteric cyphers. Pantographia’s contents are already so bizarre that inserting Atlantian, Enochian, or Pnakotic hardly seems to make a difference. Also, prior to the internet, unlike Golden Bough or Witch Cult, Pantographia was a truly obscure text with only a few copies known to exist – just finding one could represent a plot point in itself.

Text Online:

The Witch-Cult in Western Europe

Author: Margret Murray (1863-1963) an Indian-born British anthropologist and archeology who conducted research in European folklore as well as ground-breaking (hah!) excavations in Egypt, Malta, and elsewhere.

Publication: 1921

This book first articulates what has become known as the “Witch-Cult Hypothesis,” arguing that “witches” and “witchcraft” as understood by post-Medieval Europe were actually remnants of a continent-wide pre-Christian nature/fertility religion.

Witch-Cult used examples from European folklore as well as evidence and transcripts gathered during witch trials both to support its hypothesis and identify the salient characteristics of the putative ancient faith.

As with Frazer’s work, Murray’s “Witch-Cult” hypothesis has fallen into disfavor. It presumes a cultural homogeneity in pre-Christian Europe that does not appear to have existed. Murray, like Frazer, removes examples from cultural context which may distort their meaning. And using evidence from witch trials, often gained under what could charitably called “coercion,” is fraught with peril. Nevertheless, as with Golden Bough, it remains an influential text that was one the first of its kind.

Possible HistFic Uses: Just because the Witch-Cult hypothesis appears to have been untrue in our world, doesn’t mean it has to be so in a story. Even if it is, that does not preclude one of its folklore examples or excerpts from a witch trial confessions (one actually in the book or inserted by a HistFic author) from being true within the story and providing vital information.

Text Online: