Vestal Fire: An Environmental History, Told Through Fire, of Europe and Europe's Encounter with the World

Stephen J. Pyne, Author, William Cronon, Foreword by University of Washington Press $34.95 (672p) ISBN 978-0-295-97596-2
The history of European civilization, according to Arizona State University historian Pyne, is best understood as the history of fire and its relation to human activity. This book also can be seen as a capstone to the author's Cycle of Fire: Fire in America, World Fire and Burning Bush. Pyne's approach of treating fire as an independent entity is interesting, but he seems to err in turning what should be a metaphor into a type of metaphysics. The opening chapters are full of quasi-New Age sensibility that takes a roundabout way to make the old point that geography is destiny. Different climates and topographies will of course favor some uses of fire and constrain others, but Pyne goes to such lengths to force high-flown explanations of simple phenomena that the exercise becomes irritating. The chapters recounting the history of fire, its uses in agriculture, warfare, religion, manufacturing, etc., and the spread of European culture around the globe impart a tale that is generally interesting and well told. But again, overblown language, inopportune Latin tags top-heavy metaphors make for an awkward style: ""The Age of Reason rewrote the Book of Genesis into a secular language... Adventuring Crusoes of moral philosophy, their old narrative vessels smashed on the reefs of an uncharted mappa mundi, found themselves cast to the shores of desert isles."" There also are factual errors, e.g., the Iliad does not end with the funeral pyre of Achilles, for example, nor does the Odyssey begin with that of Troy. Such problems are unfortunate because they detract from what is otherwise an interesting look at an old topic. 65 illustrations. (Dec.)
Reviewed on: 12/30/1996
Release date: 01/01/1997
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