- William Bolitho’s “Twelve Against the Gods” was a bestseller when it was published in 1929.
- The book gained a second wave of attention in 2016, after Elon Musk gave it a shout-out.
- The non-fiction work tells the stories of 12 historical risk-takers.
- Back in 2016, it took me a month to get my hands on an old copy. It’s since been reprinted.
The 89-year-old book delves into the lives of 12 famous – and infamous – historical adventurers, malcontents, and non-conformists.
Musk’s endorsement sparked a bit of a frenzied search for copies of the out-of-print non-fiction book. At one point, the work was listed on Amazon for a not-at-all intimidating price of $US575.
But back in 2016, I didn’t have that option. I volunteered to find and read “Twelve Against the Gods” because I like history and old books. The epic title didn’t hurt either – to me, “Twelve Against the Gods” sounds kind of like a Hellenistic blockbuster.
I had to do quite a bit of digging before I could get my hands on the rare text. Everywhere I looked online, “Twelve Against the Gods” was either astronomically expensive or unavailable.
Just when I was beginning to suspect that the book itself might not actually exist, it turned up in my local library system.
I was put on the waitlist and, about a month later, finally obtained Bolitho’s account of the lives of 12 “wanderers.”
The copy I read was old, with a scuffed, dark red cover and yellowing pages. (It’s got that sweet “old book” smell, too.) I was careful to keep it away from the sand when I began to read it on the beach one cold, windy weekend.
The book profiles the lives of unconventional historical figures
Each chapter paints a portrait of a historical figure that smacked convention in the face through war, exploration, political intrigue, romance, or all of the above. Subjects include big names like Alexander the Great, Christopher Columbus, Giacomo Casanova, the Prophet Muhammad, Napoleon I, Isadora Duncan, and Woodrow Wilson, as well as slightly less famous characters like Lola Montez, Alessandro Cagliostro and Lorenza Seraphina Feliciani, Charles XII of Sweden, Lucius Sergius Catilina (also known as Catiline), and Napoleon III.
Beginning with Bolitho’s proto-adventurer Alexander the Great and his destructive sweep eastward, each of “the twelve” follows a similar, often tragic, arc. They display promise and make their mark on history in a spectacular fashion, only to eventually succumb to hubris or circumstances.
The biographies must have been considered pretty edgy at the time. Bolitho shines the spotlight on his subjects’ often unusual life choices and colourful antics, noting that true adventure is “rarely chaste, or merciful, or even law abiding at all, and any moral peptonizing, or sugaring, takes out the interest, with the truth, of their lives.”
I especially enjoyed the chapters focusing on the less famous figures. I had never even heard of Lola Montez, the mistress of a Bavarian king who pushed for liberal reforms until she was forced to flee Europe altogether; Cagliostro and Seraphina, a couple known for everything from occult rituals to an infamous scandal involving Marie Antoinette’s diamond necklace; or Charles XII of Sweden, a “saint” of adventure who emulated Alexander the Great and led an initially successful, but ultimately fatal, march on Moscow.
Keep in mind, the book is often super dated, historically and culturally problematic, and riddled with offensive and cringeworthy nuggets (“with the woman-adventurer all is love or hate … her adventure his man; her type is not the prospector, but the courtesan” – yikes), but given its publication date, none of that is exactly surprising.
Ultimately, one of the book’s most intriguing characters is not one of the twelve.
Just like Musk, the book’s author had roots in South Africa. Charles William Ryall – who went by “Bill” and later adopted the pen name William Bolitho to avoid confusion with the sportswriter George Ryall – was born in England. His father was a Baptist minister who moved the family to Cape Town, South Africa when Bolitho was young.
The author led an unconventional life himself
Fascinated by Bolitho, I called up China Ryall, Bolitho’s daughter. He died when she was just two years old, but she has spent years digging into her father’s legacy.
He led a wild life, not unlike his adventuring subjects.
Ryall found that Bolitho originally wanted to follow in his father’s pastoral footsteps, entering a seminary and becoming an Anglican deacon as a young man. But history intervened, and Bolitho enlisted to serve in WWI. The experience changed his life.
“The legend is he went off to war and then sort of lost his interest in God,” Ryall told Business Insider. “He saw all the mayhem in the trenches.”
Bolitho was badly wounded and buried alive in the 1916 Battle of the Somme. He was taken to a hospital in Scotland to recover where, according to Ryall, a group of poets befriended him and encouraged him to become a writer.
Bolitho reported on fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in Italy, wrote a book called “Murder for Profit” about infamous killers, and published “Camera Obscura,” a collection of his essays. Bolitho turned out pieces on everything from the saxophone to stamp collectors to the gangsters of Chicago.
“He just had this enormous curiosity,” Ryall said. “He wrote about anything that interested him. He wrote about anything and everything.”
Like many of his 12, Bolitho didn’t have much time to savour his success. Just a year after achieving enormous recognition with “Twelve Against the Gods,” Bolitho died of appendicitis while in France. He was only 39.
There’s still space in the world for adventurers to break new ground
Ryall has a good idea of some of the present-day adventurers fit to be added to a modern update of the book. Her first pick was the man who kicked off the resurgence of interest in “Twelve Against the Gods”: Elon Musk.
“All that he does with the rocketry and the tunnels under LA – he’s always thinking about inventing things,” Ryall said. “And he gets in trouble, as lately we know. He doesn’t lead quite a pure life.”
Ryall also said that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who Musk promised to take to the moon, and the late chef and journalist Anthony Bourdain, would also qualify as adventurers.
All in all, “Twelve Against the Gods” provides an interesting perspective on what drove and impeded this group of adventurers. It’s a good read for anyone who’s interested in history or looking to find some motivation to switch things up and break the rules. Although, take everything with a grain of salt – don’t get yourself so hyped up that you declare yourself a god and try to conquer everything from Greece to India.
As is the case with many histories, the book often reveals more about the author than its historical subjects. Bolitho was quite a character himself, and might have become equally as famous as some of his dozen adventurers had he lived. Taking some time to read about his thoughts on promise, risk, and success is definitely worthwhile.
“You have to read the books in the context of the times in which they were written,” Ryall told Business Insider. “Some of the perception is rather dated. But I think it’s also very appropriate for this day and age. We need adventurers, and there still are a lot of adventurers.”
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