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Scholar Mountaineers

Scholar Mountaineers, by Wilfrid Noyce. 164 pages, with 12 full- page illustrations and wood-engravings by R. Taylor. London: Dennis Dobson, 1950. Price, 12/6.

What does the title Scholar Mountaineers lead one to expect? Maybe a series of essays about dons who have climbed, or an account of the climbers who have written scholarly works on the history and literature of mountaineering. Instead of either of these, Wilfrid Noyce has given us, under this title, a dozen brief, informal studies of figures whom he describes as “Pioneers of Parnassus”: Dante, Petrarch, Rousseau, De Saussure, Goethe, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Keats, Ruskin, Leslie Stephen, Nietzsche, Pope Pius XI and Captain Scott. Each of them is studied “simply in relation to mountains”; each is considered as having made “a peculiar contribution to a certain feeling in us.” Such is the author’s interest in them (and, of course, in mountains) that a reader is soon prepared to suppress the little question that nags at first: How many were “scholars,” and how many were “mountaineers”?

Reading on, one becomes more and more interested in these selective treatments of the “Pioneers,” and in the differentiation of attitudes which they expressed or—in most cases quite unintentionally—fostered. Dante appears, for example, as “the trembling and unwieldy novice” who “comes near to wrecking the whole expedition through Hell”; and Keats is detected in a moment of what seems to be bravado—composing a sonnet on the summit of Ben Nevis. The discrimination of various attitudes toward mountains, Nature and action induces renewal of inquiry concerning the motives of (say) our friend X What does a mountain stand for, in his eyes—cathedral, or laboratory, or gymnasium? Coming out of the mountains, is he filled with wonder and humility, or with satisfaction over his prowess ? Is his climbing sport, or is it sublimation ? Does his experience seem to have bound him closer to life and his fellow beings; or has it rather set him apart, in contemptuous and lonely pessimism? Can it perhaps be said that, after all, X just climbs because he likes to? Scholar Mountaineers encourages fresh pointing of all such questions.

D. A. Robertson, Jr.