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Alabama Shakespeare Festival Enter for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Paradise of the Damned

This week, Don reviews “Paradise of the Damned: The True Story of an Obsessive Quest for El Dorado, the Legendary City of Gold” by Keith Thomson.

Two years ago Thomson published his study of pirates in the Caribbean, “Born to Be Hanged,” and this new book covers some of the same ground. These seamen “adventurers” are on royal expeditions, Spanish and, in this case, mostly English.

Sir Walter Raleigh, like many, had heard the stories of the golden city of El Dorado—located somewhere deep in the jungles of Venezuela, Brazil, Guiana, who knew for sure. A Spaniard who claimed to have been there reported that gold was so abundant, the ruler moistened his body each day, rolled in gold dust and was rowed to the center of the lake and jumped in. All the gold dust settled to the bottom as an offering gift to the gods.

Raleigh had begun life as a soldier, a good choice since he was the youngest of five sons in a not rich Devonshire family, and earned distinction for crazy bravery in battle and for his willingness to follow orders. At about 25, Raleigh decided to become a courtier, one of perhaps two thousand young men who surrounded the vain, jealous Elizabeth, vying to get her attention. He spent all his money on clothes and, if legend can be believed, as Elizabeth was approaching a mud puddle, lay his “new plush cloak upon the ground whereon the Queen trod gently.” Oh my.

Raleigh became a favorite: he was handsome, debonair and a renowned poet, but this “virgin” queen was a jealous mistress; courtiers were to love only her. Raleigh fell in love elsewhere, got his girlfriend pregnant, secretly married her, and was thrown into the Tower of London. When he got out Raleigh began raising funds, royal and otherwise, for expeditions.

There were gold and silver mines in the new world, and the plunder could be in the billions. In this case, the search was up the Orinoco River, through the jungle to no one knew where. This was suicidally difficult. Expeditions went in 300 strong and came out a year or two later down to a few dozen, barely alive. Besides Indians killing them from ambush with poisoned arrows, there was “nature” and this was not England’s green and pleasant land of roses and daffodils.

There were anacondas 30 feet long and weighing 550 pounds. The water had piranhas and high-powered electric eels seven feet long. There were jaguars, scorpions the size of lobsters, carnivorous bats with three-foot wingspans. Orinoco crocodiles could grow to 23 feet long and weigh 1,000 pounds. Thomson does a beautiful job of instilling terror into the reader in prose that is authoritative, smooth and effortless to read.

Given the suffering these men endured, the question is constantly before us: why did they do it? Two reasons present themselves. First was, of course, greed—the perennial hunger for wealth beyond need or measure, but beyond greed, there was, in the Renaissance, an even more powerful lust for honor and glory and immortality, not seen much since.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.