But then I thought that there are so many other books to read, and so many more authors whose literary craft I have yet to discover (or maybe, re-discover), so that in the end, I decided Muir will have to wait.
After a bit of exploratory work on Google, I chose Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes as the third book I would read AND then write an overview and review on. It was written by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), a renowned Scottish novelist, poet, and essayist. I already knew something about Stevenson, having been introduced to his literature upon reading, a few years ago, Treasure Island, a tale of ‘buccaneers and buried gold’, which I thought was a rather entertaining piece (I will read it again soon, and maybe write an overview and review of it).
But apart from Treasure Island, I’ve read no other work of his. It is in this context that I’ve decided to go for his Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, hoping that I would find it even more entertaining than his fictional novel about fell pirates and faraway treasure.
Similar to what I did with Roughing It and The Mountains of California, I obtained my copy of Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes in EPUB format from Project Gutenberg, a vast online repository of thousands of mostly older books and literary works, all in digital and electronic formats, all available for free for anyone to access, download, and read.
And similar to how I wrote the two preceding book overviews and reviews, this book overview and review is divided into two parts, the overview and the review. The overview is simply a brief summary of the book, while the review is largely an account of my experience with book.
To minimize the ridicule, damage, and hurt I might incur when, by one miracle or another, people who are actually learned and skilled on these matters, chance to discover my little – and lowly – blog, in particular this overview and review, please know that I am no literary critic, nor do I flatter myself to be one. Also, this piece is not in any way a literary critique, nor did I write this with the intention of being such. I am only a humble reader desiring nothing more than to share my reading experience with my fellow lovers of books and of reading.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, published in 1879, is one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s earliest published works. It recounts the hiking journey he made in the autumn of 1878 through the Cevennes, a mountain range and a culture region in south-east France, his sole companion being a female donkey named Modestine.
All in all, his trek lasted twelve days and spanned a distance of some 120 miles (193 kilometers). As to the reason behind his undertaking – the raison d’être, if you will – Stevenson states as thus:
Stevenson embarked upon this journey on September 22, 1878, from the highland town of Le Monastier in the region of Velay, where he had spent a good while acquiring supplies and making other necessary preparations; and where he had purchased Modestine to be his beast of burden.
From Le Monastier, Stevenson traveled southwards, from Velay and thence through the region of Guevadan. He made his way along the mountainous countryside, passing by idyllic scenes of pastoral life and through hamlets, villages, and little towns; and all the while engaging with the folk of the French rural highlands.
Initially, Stevenson’s journey was fraught with mishaps and misfortunes, and he spent a great deal of time and effort seeking to master a stubborn Modestine, which a frustrated Stevenson thought proved true indeed to her kind – an ass. He spent the nights in inns wherever he found them and whenever he reached them, but at one point, when he was refused aid and accommodation in Fouzilhac, he was forced to pass the night camping among birches and beeches on the wayside – an affair to which he remarked:
On September 26, 1878, Stevenson reached the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of the Snows, where he was admitted by the monks. There he gained an insight into the life and philosophy of the monks, to which he devoted much time musing upon. There also he shared the company of two fellow boarders, a country parish priest and an old soldier, with whom he discussed politics and religion, and both of whom sought to convince Stevenson, a Protestant by upbringing (though a non-believer by philosophy), to convert to Catholicism then and there – an endeavor that was unsuccessful in the end.
He left the monastery and set out south once more, with faithful Modestine alongside him. The night of September 28, 1878 found him attempting to scale a portion of the Lozere (in the region of Mont Lozere), but when darkness closed fast around him, he resolved to make his camp among the pines. And such a night under the stars, embosomed in Nature, Stevenson passed in peace, solitude, and contentment, remarking as thus:
On September 29, 1878, Stevenson finally crossed into the ‘Country of the Camisards’, the ‘Cevennes of the Cevennes’, as he called it (though he has been in the Cevennes all this time), a region steeped in rich history. It was here that the cruel Camisards War was waged, when the Protestants (Huguenots) of the Cevennes – the Camisards – rose in revolt against the Catholic monarchy to defend their religious freedom. From 1702 to 1704, several thousand Camisards fought against tens of thousands of royal troops, and it was not until many years later that a political solution was reached and an end to the hostilities declared.
The Camisards War was long over when Stevenson arrived, yet its grim and bloody memory was kept alive by the folk of the region. And though he found Protestants and Catholics living side-by-side in peace, still each community kept to their own traditions and to their own versions of history. Both sides agreed, however, that it was ‘a bad idea for a man to change’, i.e., it was bad for a man to change his religion.
Stevenson himself was well-versed in the history of the Cevennes, and wherever he passed – Pont de Montvert, La Vernede, Florac, Cassagnas, Saint Germain de Calberte, and beyond – he evoked vivid, dramatic scenes from the history of the place and recounted the deeds and valor of Roland, Cavalier, Castanet, and other famed figures from the Camisards War.
In these final stages of the trek, Stevenson passed two nights camping in the open – once in the valley of the Tarn, and once in the valley of the Mimente – and the rest at inns wherever he found them.
Stevenson would have carried on to Alais with Modestine, but on the morning of October 3, 1878, in Saint Jean du Gard, an ostler pronounced the female donkey unfit for further travel and in need of rest for at least two days. Stevenson, however, could no longer wait, so he decided to continue his journey to Alais by stagecoach. He sold Modestine and finally parted with her, but not without difficulty, for though he found her stubborn and ungovernable at the beginning of the journey, he had now come to love her in the end. He describes this parting as thus:
ReviewI must admit that I felt unsure as to how to proceed to write a review of Stevenson’s Travels with A Donkey in the Cevennes. It took me a rather long while to compose my thoughts and figure out how and where to begin, but in the end, I decided I simply must write something.
First of all, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes is a short and simple read; it took me just a couple of hours or so to see it through to the end. But it was a pleasant and entertaining book, all things considered, and there were many parts throughout which I greatly enjoyed. Moreover, I found it to my liking especially because it is a piece of outdoor literature, a genre which I am a huge fan of, and his descriptions of the French highland country were very interesting, to say the least.
The initial parts of the book I found to be mostly amusing, and sometimes frustrating. The entertaining bits were largely his comical troubles and mishaps at the beginning of the journey, which he recounted in a delightfully humorous and even ridiculous manner, especially his account of how he acquired Modestine, and of his setting forth from Le Monastier and the misfortunes that befell him early on.
I also thought that his love-hate relationship with Modestine was very amusing. But there were instances when his heavy-handed treatment of and his self-righteous conduct towards Modestine became rather annoying and exasperating – this is not a judgment on Stevenson’s character or his disposition towards animals, mind you, but simply a credit to the author for his ability to draw in readers and keep them engaged, immersed in his story, and render them empathic to his characters.
Besides, I would not dare judge the man’s handling of the donkey, as I myself have never been up close to a donkey before, much less purchased one as my beast of burden and companion for a hike spanning many days and traversing many kilometers/miles, trusting that it would stand me in good stead.
Though these first parts of the book were largely a retelling of the hitches, hiccups, and hindrances Stevenson faced as he began his journey, including his generally unsuccessful attempts to govern a recalcitrant Modestine, and a few incidents involving unhelpful French peasantry, and though all these were mostly told in an absurd and humorous manner, they proved more insightful than I had expected, or than they initially let on.
For one, these complications are very much relatable to modern-day travelers, in particular to the novices. A lot of people today harbor grandiose and often romanticized notions of travel and adventure, shaped, in part, by idealistic visions and stories from books, films, etc. But when people actually experience real traveling, especially when they set out on their first trips, they are then beset by a whole host of problems that they have failed to account for, and so have a difficult time dealing with. And in such a predicament, many people quickly realize that they have been betrayed by their idealistic notions of adventure, thus becoming disenchanted with traveling and giving it up altogether.
But there are also many other people who, when faced with the harsh realities of traveling, actually rise to the occasion, persevering through, learning to adapt, and swiftly adopting a more reasonable and pragmatic perspective on travel. These are the people who would then go on to become great travelers and explorers, fulfilling their dreams of worldwide wandering and adventure.
As the story progresses, as Stevenson begins to adjust into life on the road, his new reality, a sense of calm and composure steals into his storytelling, at least it seemed to me. And this tone is made more manifest after Stevenson was forced to spend his first night (at least in the story) encamped outdoors, lying in a sleeping bag underneath the stars, and discovered the following morning that the whole affair was not so bad after all; that it was, all things considered, a novel and refreshing – exciting, even – experience.
After that unforgettable night, Stevenson settles into a more contemplative mood, or at least his writing does, and this only becomes more evident throughout the rest of his narration. The problems he grappled with initially now seemed faint and faraway, and outright mundane, as his storytelling is increasingly filled with his own musings, ruminations, and introspections, most of which were inspired by his observations into French life, religion, politics, and philosophy.
Stevenson’s first night sleeping in the open might resonate well with many people who have undergone a similar experience – not necessarily resorting to camping outdoors at night, mind you, but an experience that serves to open the eye and the mind to the reality of traveling, that if one could only overcome the initial obstacles, the rest of the problems that crop up will seem more manageable, the rest of the journey becomes easier, and thereafter, one derives such an experience from travel that is far more enjoyable, more meaningful, and more worthwhile than even the best of what daydreaming, armchair travel, and other idealistic notions of adventure can come up with.
Stevenson’s contemplative and thoughtful tone becomes even more profound after he leaves the monastery of Our Lady of the Snows and, when night overtakes him, encamps in a secluded piney wood somewhere in the Lozere. And in so calm and peaceful a setting, lying upon the grassy ground in a ring of pines underneath a mantle of stars, he shares some of his most moving and most inspiring insights. After reading this part, I was left feeling with a strange, serene sensation, an utter calmness that filled all my mind, a delicious feeling of contentment, as if a measure of the peace Stevenson felt that night and the morning after was somehow passed on to me.
I must admit, however, that for an outdoor literature, Travels with A Donkey in Cevennes deals in religion and religious discourse more than is normally expected, by me at least. His passion for the Camisards War, the war between the Protestants and the Catholics I could understand, as it was a pivotal moment in the history of the Cevennes and a major factor in shaping the culture and heritage of the region. In fact, I found his account of the Camisards Wars interesting, not so much because it was an utterly engaging topic, but because it was ultimately instructive and educational (the accuracy may be questionable, however), romanticized and glamorized though it be.
But the book was also filled with lengthy and prolix musings, contemplations, and arguments concerning religion, which to me seemed rather excessive and rather pointless. Now ordinarily I would have not cared to comment on the matter, as I am indifferent towards religion as a topic, but Stevenson waxed poetic over such religious discussions, writing about such topics in a dogmatic manner, and sought to pass them on as absolute truths, as the only truths. And though his contemplations were deep and his thoughts seemingly profound at first, I found them narrow and lacking under a closer scrutiny because they were all in the end still constrained within the tenets of religion. Ah, well, a product of its time, I suppose.
Anyway, all things considered, I had an interesting experience reading Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. The book was short, maybe, but it was satisfying, and it was more than just an amusing and delightful tale of an inexperienced and impatient man’s love-hate relationship with a stubborn and ungovernable donkey, but was also full of insights both into the landscape of the Cevennes and the life of the folk that dwelt there.
If you enjoy books about travel, adventure, and the great outdoors, then I recommend that you read Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. It is held in high regard as a classic of outdoor literature, and after reading it, I couldn’t agree more.