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Darkness Over Tibet (Mystic Travellers…
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Darkness Over Tibet (Mystic Travellers Series)

by Theodore Illion

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This weekend, I read Darkness Over Tibet, by Theodore Illion. Actually, I think I picked it up Friday afternoon, read more than half Friday evening, and finished it Saturday. It's a quick read, but that's probably the only good thing I'll say about it.

I've tried to find out more about Illion, but have failed. The only additional material I've found is a Wikipedia article in Finnish that claims he had at least two additional pen names, and some Getty photos taken in London in 1934 that show that he at least was pretending to prepare for a Central Asian trip. But also of interest is the fact in those photos he appears with two companions, neither of whom appear in the book.

Darkness is a very bizarre book, first published in English in 1938 I think, that claims to be the author's travelogue of part of Tibet. It follows on In Secret Tibet (which I have not read), and purports to show the dark side of Tibetan mysticism. Of course, it is more about the author's anticlericism, entirely from a Western perspective.

Chapter 1 is an odd little adventure story about fleeing from robbers. It has no bearing on the rest of the book, and nothing to do with Tibetan mysticism. Unless the intent is to show the author's noble character, it has no purpose at all, really. It ends unsatisfactorily, with the source of Illion's problems simply disappearing.

After that, we get more to the point. Illion visits a monastery to see a medium channel demons. He protects a beautiful Tibetan girl who of course takes a shining to him, and willfully sneaks away from her family's caravan to see him every night. We learn that Illion can walk as fast as a horse can ride in a day, because he modestly informs the Tibetan girl whose caravan he is following. She of course is not only beautiful but bright, and puts Illion in touch with a local leader who is also a mystic.

Illion's new-found mystic friend secures Illion an invitation to a underground city, which he gradually comes to realize is ruled by a cannibalistic prince of darkness masquerading as a prince of light. It is for this reason that the work was popular in the 1940s in America, with the so-called Shaver Mystery at its height.

The book is not particularly well written and also is poorly translated for cheap publication. It also has very little to do with Tibet. Illion writes ferociously against priests, both Catholic and Tibetan, but it's really only clear that he knows anything about Catholic priests. He writes against certain sayings from the Bible (letting one's right hand know what one's left is doing, a preoccupation with salvation via the works of another, a repentant sinner is loved more than the sinless, etc.), but shows no familiarity at all with Buddhist texts, not even those which were readily available in the West at the time. And what author does our doughty adventurer discuss with the leader of the Black Lodge? Shakespeare, of course. What little in the book honestly described Buddhist rituals (and it was very little) could have easily been gleaned from travel authors who preceded him -- specifically Alexandra David-Neel. Occasionally Illion will show how cool he is by describing his spy cameras and his bravery at using them, but of course none of his photographs survived his journey to be included in the book. The small photo section at the end of the book has nothing to do with the rest of the work, and were clearly bought from a photo news agency.

And frankly, if there really were a fantastic hidden city peopled by cannibals, you can bet your sweet bippy the People's Liberation Army would have made a spectacle of it during the Cultural Revolution.

Illion's work is important if, like me, you are studying certain fringe religious groups of the twentieth century in the West. Most of the good reviews I've read on the internet are written by people who appreciated having their own prejudices parroted back to them. If you're interested in Tibet of the 1930s, I wouldn't recommend Darkness Over Tibet. ( )
1 vote marc_beherec | Sep 28, 2011 |
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