On your right you can see a picture of the cover of a book I recently read. The book is called “The Nine Unknown” and the name of the author is Talbot Mundy (1879-1940). It’s part of Mundy’s JimGrim series and one of the best of the lot, supposedly. Even though the book is out of print since late 60’s, [[ Author’s comment dated 17 Nov 2012 Correction – it seems that it is still possible to buy this book from Flipkart.com (online store in India), but it’s an imported edition ]] I managed to get hold of a copy from eBay here in the U.K. And I read it.
And that’s all about it I can say in a rational tone. Changing the tone to one of awe-and-wonder-struck, when one keeps the fact in mind that this book was written and published in 1923, I just like to say “WOW”! Before hearing about this book (while I was doing some research on certain “new age” concepts and clicking on various links randomly), I never heard the name of Talbot Mundy. As it turns out, I should have. Between the era of H. G. Wells / Jules Verne and our modern age of SFF, it seems he stood like a grandmaster in his own right. The Indian background (he was in the British Indian Police for 25 years) in his books can clearly claim a radical stand-alone categorisation among SFF. What almost none had attempted over time – to plant the seeds of their SFF imagination in the fertile and mystic lands of the vast subcontinent of India – had been done by him with elegance and mastery more than half a century ago and time let us forget it! What a shame!
Coming to the book itself – and its theme – it makes me wonder where to start. Frankly, I struggled when I started the book. The English was that of 1920’s flavour. For me it was different. From the construct of the sentences to the references in French and Latin – all was new. But that could just be me – and so I stuck to it. I went through page 1, and then 2, then 3, and 4… and then I sank. I couldn’t breathe… I couldn’t put the book down (well, not literally, because I am only allowed a limited reading time before bed and so the book actually kept me company for a couple of weeks before it ran out of story). Anyway, story was even culture reach, for one get to know a little more about the then India and its social hierarchies. I especially liked the references to the famous Babu Culture of British India – something that I had read in the history books and came to see the real application in a real context for the first time in this book!
But that aside, the story was fantastic. It’s sometimes difficult to put things on right perspective – the story of course doesn’t stand a chance today against it’s modern SFF competetors – but we have to remember that we are talking about the 1920’s. It’s a time when probably only a select group of people had even heard the name of Atlantis, and virtually only researchers on the life and times of Emperor Asoka knew about the concept of the Nine Unknown Men. Mundy made the concept hit the western consciousness on a more popular realm. The oldest and the most powerful secret society on Earth rocked the urban consciousness in such a fashion that strange claims of associating Pope Sylvester II and scientist Jagdish Chandra Bose with the Nine started hitting the tabloids and paperbacks (I have even bought this book, and it’s still untouched). The storyline had an abrupt start, with the heros already hot on the trail of the Nine Unknown, which later on turned out to be the trail of the wrong (and evil) Nine, and the pretext was slowly revealed. When our characters were finally revealed the truth about the real Nine – the powerful and benevolent ones – and their deeds that had kept the planet safe – again there was an abrupt end. The reader gets to know too little about the real Nine – and the book doesn’t even contain one of those modern gimmicks – ‘epilogue’ – so that we get a sneak-peek at the thoughts of the Nine just for a satisfying closure of our own train of thoughts. I guess it’s all about the style of storytelling in those days and of course the style of the author. But nevertheless the story, the turns and twists, the characterisations (a difficult task with so many lead characters in such a small book, and thankfully Mumdy did not presume that the readers were followers of the JimGrim series as well, so he needed not explain trivia), and mostly the gripping flow of the storyline – all were superb.
But that’s all about the book. What about the Nine Unknown? Who are they? Did they exist? Do they exist now? What do they know? Why do they exist? Why are they secret? Are the Nine Books indeed present? Hundred of questions – and no answers. The Nine even have their fan followings in social networks like orkut. But their legend lives on. In the book Mundy said that the purification of the Ganges was done by the Nine harnessing the atomic power from gold atoms. In other places other people have claimed Nine’s association with the creation of the Iron Pillar of Delhi (which doesn’t rust), creation of Judo, the mysterious truth-telling-automaton-head owned by Pope Sylvester II, and many such things. But just like the legend of Atlantis, or that of the Illuminati/Templars/Priory of Sion, it’s just like getting an unconfirmed glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. One never gets to know what is truth and what is not – what is history and what is a fictional note wriiten by a (pseudo)historian.
Even though the usual legend claims that the society of the Nine was established by Emperor Asoka, but in his book Mundy made the legend ageless when he claimed that the Nine had existed before the people of Atlantis learned to plough. I mean, that’s a legend if I’ve ever known one. But this aside, what intrigues me most about this legend is the part about the Nine Books. Allegedly, the volumes (if they actually represent 9 physical books, which as per Mundy, is not the case) were treasuretroves of information from fields like (1) Propaganda/Psychological Warfare, (2) Physiology (inc. the art of the “touch of death”), (3) Microbiology, (4) Alchemy, (5) Communication (inc. extra-terrestrial communication), (6) Gravitation (and levitation, vimanas etc.), (7) Cosmology, (8) Light, and (9) Sociology. As can clearly be seen, some of the fields of study did not even get invented during the era Asoka reigned. But the claims stand nevertheless. The stupefying claim that all scientific knowledge of modern world are basically what the Nine allowed to get leaked out from their tomes really feels believable if the range of information domain could have been the above 2000 years ago!
Probably the finding of the truth behind the legend of Nine is for another age of human history, perhaps it will never be known beyond popular beliefs. Whatever be the case, I convey my best wishes to The Nine Unknown and wish them a Happy New Year of 2008! Keep the world safe and let us know what we can handle.
For those who are interested in the literary works of Talbot Mundy, some are available from Project Gutenberg in here. Unfortunately, The Nine Unknown is not part of this collection. I guess you’d just have to buy it to enjoy it!