Two Travelers is based on a true historical account that is in the Royal Frankish Annals of Eginhard of Franconia, the secretary and biographer of Charlemagne. It was in the year 787, Gregorian, that Charlemagne sent an ambassadorial delegation to Haroun ar-Rashid, the caliph in Baghdad. Haround ar-Rashid sent a stupefying gift to Charlemagne: his favorite elephant, named Abulabaz ('the father of wisdom').
The interpreter of the Frankish delegation is Isaac the Jew. I love the thoughts that Manson gives the elephant, who, unaware that Isaac finds him horrible and ugly, thinks that Isaac has a very strange smell and wonders if he is the kind of man who hits elephants with sticks or forgets to give them clean straw and water.
It makes perfect sense that Isaac would be Jewish because in this period of history, Jews living in Muslim lands sometimes traveled to Christian courts as representatives of Muslim Sultans.
There is more to this than the truth of the historical fact of the exchange of gifts between great medieval rulers. It is hard to go live in an environment in which one is not accustomed by birth or by DNA. It used to be a terribly long journey from France to Baghdad, a journey of half a world, and travelers didn't know if they would live through it.
Although Isaac and Abulabaz help each other over sea and snowy mountains, Charlemagne sends Isaac off on another errand and builds Abulabaz a house in the palace garden where the elephant pines away. . . .
A true gem of a book
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