Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Uses of a Classical Education
Picture this: in World War II, a kidnapped German officer, taken against his will across the rough mountain terrain of Crete by men he regards as unwashed ruffian resistance fighters—animals, really—pauses and looks out across the snow-covered maquis and stunted holm oaks on Lefka Ori and softly recites the beginning of an ode by Horace:
Vides ut alta stet nive candidum
Soracte . . .
One of his captors finishes his line:
…nec iam sustineant onus
Silvae laborantes, geluque
Flumina constiterint acuto,
That man, a British commando in the guise of a Cretan pallikari, was Patrick Leigh Fermor, a man whose life has been lived like a glorious, gracious, swashbuckling novel, who has done us all the service to write some of it down in a literary style almost unmatched. Classicist, adventurer, reckless, courageous, generous, compassionate, a philhellene of great grace, Patrick Leigh Fermor has lived a life worth noting.
There is a small but stalwart group of Lovers of Crete, philokritikoi, who write to capture their view of the multifaceted, shape-shifting, ancient island. Sometimes we succeed in catching some piece of it. But Leigh Fermor has been consumed by Crete, reborn there, and when he writes about Crete, he writes from its core. No one has internalized what Crete is and then framed it as eloquently as he has.
In that surprisingly cavalier way that British parents of the nineteenth and early twentieth century had of leaving their offspring behind as they trudged off to exotic places, Leigh Fermor’s parents went to India when he was a small boy, leaving him in the care of a neighbor until he was old enough to go to boarding school. He resisted any academic structure, and as a result, was sent to a school for difficult children.
Why this didn’t turn him into a dissociative recluse can only be chalked up to his will to flourish. He was ultimately expelled from school, taught himself Latin and Greek, and aimed at applying to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. A better idea occurred to him when he was 18 years old, and in 1933 he left England to travel from the Hook of Holland to Byzantium. On foot.
One would be excused for thinking that such a man, abandoned by his parents and bucking society’s rules in his early life, could not possibly fall in love with the nation of Greece and serve it so generously, by military effort (in the Battle of Crete), by strategic influence on British-Greek diplomacy, and with his writings about Mani, Roumeli, and Crete. Patrick Leigh Fermor is the archetypical English heroic lad, braving all, brash, chivalrous, literate, courteous, both beast and gentleman—and able to write the songbirds out of a tree.
Here’s Leigh Fermor describing the life of the commandos and pallikari, during the war:
“Advancing through the warm night, we had the sleeping island to ourselves and a thousand charms hung in the air. We reached our rendezvous before dawn; a broken-down water mill, a small monastery thinly monked by warlike brethren, a solitary chapel, a circular threshing floor, or a lonely goat-fold on a high ledge. There would be challenge and answer, a scrape of hobnails on rock and a clinking of arms as dark figures rose gleaming from the shadows into the moonlight…”
The key to Leigh Fermor’s brilliance is that, unlike other British adventurers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (think Laurence of Arabia, Dr. Livingston-I-presume and many others, men (occasionally women) pictured holding their rifle at ease with their left foot on the head of a rhino they’ve just shot; think Indiana Jones, too—whose exploits depended on their arrogant belief in their absolute superiority over the indigenous people and their cunning ability to outsmart the dangerous circumstances in which they placed themselves), Leigh Fermor admires and loves the countryside and people of this rough island, sets himself aside as he notes the particulars of their lives, recreates them in a truly elegant and infinitely varied vocabulary, and is hugely compassionate in his views.
Patrick Leigh Fermor has written a lot, but the books that touched me most were the two books about Greece: Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese and Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece. Both are in print. You might also enjoy his translation of George Psychoundakis’ The Cretan Runner. Psychoundakis was a member of Leigh Fermor’s group, running messages and radio equipment across the mountainsides during the time of the Nazi invasion. His account brings another depth to the legends of that extraordinary time.