Land to the West is a dichotomic epic that might well be guaranteed to hasten schizophrenia in any unsuspecting reader who takes the author seriously. So great is the bifurcation of claims and disclaimings (for the same things and events) that one feels he is being conned.
The dust jacket reads A Search for Irish and Other Pre-Viking Discoverers of America, and inside this cover we are reassured that the book is exactly that—a search for evidence and nothing more. There are to be no claims for discovery, only a pursuit of clues to see if an Irish discovery were plausible. But four blank pages from the cover we are confronted with the title page and a different subtitle: St. Brendan’s Voyage to America. Before the text details the promised search for evidence, the reader is tossed the positive assertion that Brendan actually got over here. But this apparent contradiction is resolved (?) in the very last sentence (p. 297) of this remarkable narrative: “The Irish conquest of the Atlantic was a contributory cause of his [Columbus’] own, even if it never happened; and while Brendan may not have discovered America, he has no rival as the patron saint of American discovery.”
Land to the West wanders as far as the alleged voyage of Brendan. The reader is whisked from Erin’s shores (via the Hebrides, Orkneys, and Faeroes) to Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia. From North Salem, New Hampshire (and its “unexplained” ruins) to Mexico, Central America, and the high Andes the magic carpet flies. There are asides with Quetzalcoatl, Kukulcan, and Viracocha; there are visions of Minoan voyages to New England. All of this is seasoned with hits of mythology from Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Phoenecia. If this is not enough, Atlantis is at long-last “positively” located!
The criticism here is not of the suggestion that there may have been pre-Viking visitors to America. There probably were. Henry Sinclair was almost certainly in Nova Scotia by 1398 A.D. Even Brendan, or other Celts, may have been successful. Ashe’s attempt to make sense of the hodge-podge of Mediterranean and Celtic navigation myths is above adverse criticism. Nor is there anything wrong with the author’s literary style. Generally, it is excellent. He poses many questions that need answering, and some of his hypotheses are plausible and merit further testing. Ashe is criticized for trying to write on both sides of a number of issues; for trying to say all things to all readers. He strays often from the subject at hand, and re-hashes well-worn material that, though interesting in itself, is not germane to the immediate issue. He has committed the unpardonable sin of omitting some of the evidence—even evidence that would support certain of his contentions. And lastly, there are significant gaps in his bibliography at the end of the book.
If Land to the West stimulates inquiry into the whole problem of pre-Viking voyages to America it will make a real contribution to the history of exploration. If pieces of the text are used to champion the extreme pro or con arguments raging about this phase of history it will be of limited value.