Robert Nye

"The Voyage of Destiny"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 16, 2003)

"The Greeks believed that Astraea, the goddess of justice, was the last of the deities to quit our earth, and that when she returned to heaven she became the constellation which men still call Virgo. My Destiny is guided by no star tonight, either virgin or whore, while my hand must write a story more peculiar than any in the Greek Mythologies."

The Voyage of Destiny by Robert Nye

The legendary Sir Walter Ralegh (who spelled his surname without the customary "i") reflects here on his early life, his extraordinary experiences in the court of Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, and his current mission aboard his ship, Destiny, anchored off the coast of Guiana. Through a journal which he begins in 1618 while aboard the Destiny, he hopes to correct the public record, salvage what remains of his reputation, and leave a written legacy for his son Carew, a boy who is almost a stranger to him and whom he is not sure he will see again.

Elizabeth has been dead for fifteen years, and the 64-year-old Ralegh is on a mission for her successor, King James, searching for gold in South America. He sees this trip as his one last chance to redeem his honor after thirteen years' imprisonment in the Tower of London, falsely accused of treason. He has been released for one reason only--to find the gold at the heart of the El Dorado legends.

Ralegh believed from the outset that his trip to the New World was doomed, and his circumstances at the time he begins the journal have justified this belief. Just out of Kinsale in Ireland, his ship sprang a leak which drowned three sailors in the hold. The "scum of men" who have been his crew are unreliable, dangerous criminals who have signed on only to escape the courts in England. He has been betrayed by the French, who accepted his money but then failed to accompany his ships as protection from the Spanish fleet, and he has proof that King James has double-crossed him by revealing his entire plan of action in advance to the Spanish occupiers of Guiana, the site of the supposed gold mines. Now six months after he has set out, he is anchored in the channel between Trinidad and Guiana, half his ships having deserted, his son Wat dead at the hands of the Spanish, his health so poor he has been unable to walk without aid, his search for gold fruitless, his reputation in tatters, and all hope of salvaging his honor gone.

"A dead man writes this book," he says to Carew. "A man dead in law these 14 years, convicted of a treason he did not commit, yet never executed by him [King James] who most desires his death...A dead man writing to his posthumous son." He still believes there is gold to be found, though probably not a city made of gold. "That's just a story for children. I tell my child the truth. There is gold up the Orinoco there...I would not have sailed half the globe over, and put my honour at stake thus, for a lie or a fantasy or a far-fetched hope. The tragedy is that I could not lead our actual expedition to fetch the damned stuff back."

With famed courtier Sir Walter Ralegh as his speaker/writer, author Robert Nye creates a fictional journal which includes all the elements of high drama the reader would expect of this vicarious peek into Ralegh's very private and very intriguing world--his climb from obscurity to the highest levels of court life, the nature of his tumultuous relationship with Queen Elizabeth, his career as a soldier, his secret courtship and marriage, his relationship with Sir Francis Bacon, his opinions of Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlow, and William Shakespeare, his depiction of the venal King James, his thirteen years in the Tower of London, and his eventual release to search for gold.

The journal, which begins in 1618, moves back and forth in time, alternating vivid tales of Ralegh's tenuous existence in the New World aboard the Destiny with his colorful reminiscences of life in Elizabeth's court, when, as a young man he was living the heady life of a courtier. The ebb and flow of the journal creates its own narrative movement and conveys both the vibrant excitement of Ralegh's days as a young man and the melancholy self-reflection, which dominates his old age. Sensuous descriptions and self-deprecating wit characterize his revelations about his younger days, while the privation and trauma he experiences at the end of his life elicit both sympathy and admiration as he tries to redeem his pride and reputation while walking a tightrope between his mutinous crew, his duplicitous king, and his Spanish enemies.

While many authors might be satisfied with successfully recreating the tension and high drama of Ralegh's life and giving the reader some peripheral insights into his thinking, Nye gives us much more. Ralegh, however much he may epitomize the ideals of the Elizabethan courtier, becomes a real human with flaws he recognizes and acknowledges in his journal. But Ralegh also wishes to achieve understanding, not only of himself, but also of the real values which give meaning to man's existence.

His motto, "By Love and By Courage," has served him well, but now at the end of his life, he is unsure if he has ever really understood what it is to love, and his courage has been put to the test on this voyage of the Destiny. "My past, my present, and any imaginable future seem equal in their total lack of meaning," he says.

An Indian named Christoval Guayacunda is accompanying Ralegh back to England, a mysterious man whose tribe was wiped out a hundred years earlier, and whose ancestral heritage, language, culture, and even real name have vanished completely, leaving him alone, part of no long-standing tradition and lacking the values which would give meaning to his existence. Together Guayacunda and Ralegh make their journey on the Destiny, a journey both real and symbolic. As they share their dreams, they search for an understanding of truth which will give meaning to their separate realities, learning not to accept the moonshine "cast into [their] mind[s] out of other men's fictions," the dreams that are not even their own. They learn they must seek not a single truth, but "truths."

As each determines the truths which are personally important, Ralegh tells us that his journal is ultimately a log of his three voyages: first, the voyage of the ship Destiny -- his present, immediate, and day to day life; second, the voyage of his history -- his past, his life, and his fortunes; and the Voyage of Destiny, not his life or his ship but something more than the present, the past, or both together. "I sail on a sea without a name, an unfathomable ocean," he says. "There's no crew but myself. I can offer no 'position reports.' All I have is this sense that in seeking to go two ways at once I have lit (quite by chance) on a third way. Not backwards. Not forwards. Perhaps inwards? Yet the passage seems out-Out! Out! And beyond."

Satisfying on every level, The Voyage of the Destiny uses the fascinating life of Sir Walter Ralegh to illuminate the search of a thoughtful man for truth and meaning in life beyond what society and its values have imposed, not one truth at the expense of others, but truths which come from a life lived with respect and humility, not with pride or a need for honor. Ultimately, Ralegh, "the voice of the last Elizabethan," says, "My book reveals me as the fool I am…this truth-besotted fool, this dunce of dreams (whose most self-deceiving dream was that he ever could play the role of a man of action, this senseless soul pouring himself out in one canceling confession after another only to discover--What? That there was nothing to discover in the first place. Nothing in the last place...No end and no beginning. Only the voyage. The voyage of destiny."

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About the Author:

Robert NyeRobert Nye was born in London, England in 1939. A precocious student, he attended Southend High School and had published poems in the London Magazine by the age of sixteen. He left school in 1955 and did not pursue additional formal study. Between 1955 and 1961, he worked at a variety of jobs: newspaper reporter, milkman, laborer in a market garden, and orderly in a sanitarium.

Nye married his first wife, Judith, in 1959. In 1961, they moved to a remote cottage in North Wales where Nye devoted himself full-time to writing. There he developed an interest in the Welsh and Celtic legends reflected later in his fiction and children's literature. His first literary success was a collection of short poems. A second volume of poems won the Eric Gregory Award. To supplement his writing income in the early 1960s, Nye began to review poetry for British literary journals and newspapers. He became the poetry editor for The Scotsman in 1967, and was named poetry critic of The Times in 1971, while also contributing reviews to The Guardian.

Nye published his first novel, Doubtfire, in 1967. That same year he divorced his first wife, then in 1968 married Aileen Campbell. The two moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, where they lived until 1977.

During the early 1970s Nye assumed two new roles: playwright and editor. He wrote numerous plays for BBC radio including "A Bloody Stupit Hole" (1970), "Reynolds, Reynolds" (1971), and "A Doubtful Fire" (1972), and wrote an unpublished libretto for Harrison Birtwistle's opera, KRONIA (1970). He also continued to write poetry and to publish novels.

Nye held the position of writer in residence at the University of Edinburgh, 1976-1977, during which time he received the Guardian fiction prize, followed by the Hawthornden Prize for his novel Falstaff.

He currently lives near Cork, Ireland.

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