When Byzantines Flew

by Mary Reed

When writing about our protagonist’s adventures, our theory has always been when nothing is known from the historical record, if an event can be extrapolated from what is known and it does not violate the laws of the universe, then it is acceptable for use in our fiction.

Thus widely different sources contributed to the viability of the seemingly impossible flight of our 6th century protagonist, John the Lord Chamberlain, in Four for a Boy.

One involved an everyday autumn scene, the other two came from incidents centuries apart.

To begin with, there was the matter of watching leaves — as surely we all do — drifting to earth.

Then there was an illustration in Professor Barbara T. Gates’ Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes and Sad Histories, discovered in passing while researching for an as yet unsold Victorian mystery. The online text of Professor Gates’ book is hosted by the Victorian Web, and in Chapter 7 she reproduces an illustration for G. W. M. Reynolds’ Mysteries of the Courts of London. (1)

In this drawing, a woman has thrown herself from a window to avoid unwanted attentions. As Professor Gates notes, the woman’s skirt resembles a parachute.

Similar is the tale of a 19th century suicide attempt by Sarah Ann Henley, who jumped from the Bristol suspension bridge in England. She fell over 200 feet, but was saved by the wind billowing out her crinoline, as described in a verse by one William E. Heasell reproduced on the Henly/Henley family website, which specifically mentions crinolines and a parachute descent (2)

But the most important source of inspiration was a flight that took place not far from where John took wing, albeit more than a thousand years later. According to one Turkish source, Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi, a 17th century resident of Constantinople, succeeded in gliding from the top of the Galata Tower across the Bosphorus using “eagle wings.”

Sultan Murad IV, who observed the feat, richly rewarded the flyer. However, it is said the sultan, describing Celebi as “a scary man… capable of doing anything he wishes”, decided “it is not right to keep such people,” and so exiled him to Algeria, where he died.

We visualised Hezarfen Ahmet Celebi’s wings — and John’s — as constructed after the fashion of a modern hang-glider. Based on the sources mentioned, we felt our protagonist could fly far enough to escape his pursuers, and, although injured, that’s exactly what he did.

Did readers believe us? We hope so.

(1) http://www.victorianweb.org/books/suicide/pl17.html
(2) http://www.henly.org.uk/henly/sarahhenley.html


Mary Reed is the co-author of the John the Lord Chamberlain mysteries set in sixth century Byzantium. The current entry is Nine for the Devil.

You can also follow Mary on Twitter.

11 Responses to When Byzantines Flew

  1. Well, you certainly convinced me as I was reading that particular adventure of John the Lord Chamberlain — although for a few paragraphs I was wondering if you were going to spin a Harry Turtledove alternate history tale.

  2. Ah, flying we all want to try it.

    My father and his little schoolmates made a set of wings. They were going to try them out during lunch hour and assembled by the second story window. But who should have the privilege of going first? Till Booth won. Then they suspected he would fly off and never give the rest a chance. He assured them he would only circle the school yard once and fly back in the window.

  3. Bravo! I think your standards are entirely justifiable, and — and this is the crux of the matter — entirely true to your story. My husband the aerospace engineer approves.

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