This past July, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk revealed that he was reading a largely forgotten 1929 bestseller: William Bolitho’s “Twelve Against the Gods,” a 87-year-old book dedicated to adventure and the memory of famous adventurers.
I volunteered to find and read it 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 Hellenistically themed blockbuster.
Before I could get my hands on the rare text, I was cursed to do quite a lot of digging. Everywhere I looked online, “Twelve Against the Gods” was either insanely costly or unavailable. References to Bolitho’s work were pretty scant too, aside from the reports on Musk’s endorsement.
Just when I was beginning to suspect that the book itself might not actually exist (it wouldn’t have been the first time I’ve been ensnared in a historical wild goose chase), 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.” This book is 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.
Basically, 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.”
The chapters detailing the less-famous individuals were the most interesting. 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; or 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.
It’s also super dated, oftentimes historically 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, William “Bill” Bolitho Ryall had roots in South Africa. He also led a wild life, not unlike his adventuring subjects. As the New York Times reported in its contemporary coverage of his death, Bolitho survived being buried alive in the Battle of the Somme, covered Mussolini’s rise to power as a journalist, and befriended the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward, and Walter Lippman.
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.
All in all, the book 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. This isn’t a criticism, though. 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.
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