The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: The Fall of Rome


The Fall of Rome was published in 1971, but differently titled as Alaric: or The Day the World Ended when it was reprinted in 1993. Once upon a time, I bought this book and I owned it for quite a long time before I was willing to let myself read it. This was because I believed this to be the last R.A. Lafferty book I could and would read: as long as I held onto it, unopened, there was something left to discover.
In this I was wrong. I found a way to afford those tiny circulation chapbooks, one of which will be in this series, and there are still a tiny handful of stories left, and now the faint but actually realisable prospect that some, or maybe all of that unpublished wealth of short stories and novels might someday be available. Of course, the first of these should be the third and fourth Coscuin Chronicle books, but really I’ll take anything.
The first question to ask is, is The Fall of Rome fiction or history? I don’t have the historical expertise to pronounce upon the historical accuracy, or otherwise, of the account, but most locatable reviews, including those rare ones that are unfavourable, seem to treat it as true, if selective. And a look at the Wikipedia entries for some of the major figures, after re-reading the book, accord with the events portrayed within, insofar as battle and politics go.
But this is R A Lafferty and he does not have a completely separate style for non-Fiction, and thus the book is told as a story, and in the grand Lafferty manner, from the equivalent of a Dramatis Personae which begins the book, and which includes such descriptions of the players as: THEODOSIUS THE EMPEROR, the last who can be called ‘Great’ without laughing; SIR ICIUS, the Pope who did nothing; INNOCENT, the Pope who did next to nothing, and ARBOGAST, Count of the Franks, who had the world in his hands, and dropped it.
Clearly, this book isn’t going to be without fresh, forthright and not necessarily respectful opinions.
What Lafferty is depicting is the fall of the Western Roman Empire, which had already ended by dividing itself into Western and Eastern portions, and which in terms of its formal existence would continue some fifty years after its ending in this account, but which ended on its sack by the Goths under their King, Alaric. And Lafferty makes it clear in his terms, as always defined by his deep and ancient Catholicism, that it is Rome as Mundus, as the civilised world, of which he speaks.
The Fall of Rome moves swiftly from place to place and from person to person, of whom the two most major are Alaric the Goth, who was also Roman until almost the last, and Stilicho, the German who was Roman and nothing else, and who was Master General under the Emperor and the most competent man of these accounts, who until he was betrayed and executed, was the Master over Alaric, the Boy Giant. But Lafferty is also keen to define the Goths, more even that the Romans, in terms that will surprise we whose historical outline places them as barbarians, whereas, if we accept what we are here told, were far from it, and were in many ways more civilised than the Romans themselves, whoever they may be.
The book is dense as to both person and place, and without a prior knowledge of the times and the movers, it can be difficult to follow. Lafferty’s history is at one and the same time both more abstruse and more personal, attending to the thoughts and intentions and emotions of those in this expansive game, be they people or races. He is alive to the unreliability, and often paucity of the evidence that has come down to us, and not afraid to admit that a story may be defined but that what defines it remains unrevealed.
Nor is he afraid to give a confident judgement between contradictory accounts, choosing among probabilities and psychic commitments. And he is sweeping, yet thoroughly believable, in what on one level is a single-handed but massive attempt to rehabilitate the Goths from the false image the makers of history have placed upon them for their own ends.
There is no simple analysis of this book. Within what can be known, Lafferty treats the truth as his priority, but also halts the narrative drive to frequently observe things in the round, and to introduce moments where the inevitability of the history we see might, by a simple choice to do or not to do something might have led to a history far from what shaped the world in which we now live.
So The World Ended. According to a later series of lectures given by Lafferty, it does this over and again, though not perhaps at intervals to be known. But the Fall of Rome, and the precipitating of the Dark Ages that followed, during which history seems to stand still, its movements unseen and unfelt in its night of unreason, is the biggest of all of these, and the one that Lafferty presents as a many-sided thing, the understanding of which is heavy and important.

4 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: The Fall of Rome

  1. Another excellent Lafferty review. I need to read this again, since the last time I read it was in the mid 1970s. I still have my copy from back then, fortunately.

  2. Darrell Schweitzer wrote a wonderful introduction to The Fall of Rome for an edition that never saw print. He talked about the way history was written during the Roman Empire and immediately thereafter. The job of the historians then was to create something beautiful that also recounted the history. From that point of view, The Fall of Rome succeeds beautifully, it is deeply fun to read and also shows us a perspective on the Goths that most of us would ever have considered.

    It is a fabulistic history. It gives us the accurate bones, but with some flesh that must be somewhat fictional. Darrell Schweitzer points out the example of the conversation between Alaric and the ghost of his father. No-one was there to report the dialog, and no transcript has survived. Yet the story becomes part of the background for Alaric’s dual loyalties between the Goths and the Empire.

    Did the Gulf of Corinth freeze at Alaric’s command to let his army escape Stilicho? Most likely not, but this story tells us he did make an unlikely escape. Alaric and/or his supporters may have also used the story of this improbable escape to help build up his own mythos in his time.

    Lafferty tells us as much, I think, by including the little bit about Atrox Fabulinius (which could be english-ized as “Atrocious Liar”). Essentially, the truth is in there, but here history serves story, rather than the other way around.

    And what a story it serves! This is a book you can read for the great overarching story of the collapse of the Res Romana, for the narration of strategies and battles and shifting loyalties, or just for the sheer joy of Lafferty’s wordcraft. I frequently would have to stop and revel in individual sentences or paragraphs. For example, the paragraph early in the book where he is discussing what remnants and artifacts survive to tell us about the culture of the Goths in the 5th century AD:

    “The dance is something with no survival, lacking verbal or pictoral record. The Goths may have had it. If they painted, it was not in a medium or on a material that has survived. Their history was unwritten. Their scientific speculation may not have gone beyond mead-table discussions and arguments. There is no record of their early philosophy. Since they were Germans, they must have constructed philosophical systems; and also, since they were Germans, these would have been erroneous.”

    And that’s not even the best line in the book, merely the one that was on the top of my mind from recent conversation.

    Darrell Schweitzer’s introduction is included in his book _The Fantastic Horizon: Essays and Reviews_ (https://www.amazon.com/Fantastic-Horizon-Essays-Reviews/dp/1434403203)
    and reprinted with his kind permission in _Feast of Laughter, Volume 3_ (http://www.feastoflaughter.org/#3)

    1. Once again, invaluable commentary Kevin. I’m not being falsely modest when I say I am flabberghasted at the volume of interest this series is getting, given that everybody else who writes about Laff knows tons more than I do.

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