By Matt Schudel
First Published in The Washington Post, Sunday, June 12 2011
Long before Patrick Leigh Fermor died June 10 at age 96, his extraordinary achievements as a writer, adventurer and war hero had entered into legend. At 18, he set out across Europe on foot, reciting poetry along the way, sleeping in a barn one night, in a castle the next.
He rode into battle on horseback in a Greek cavalry charge in the 1930s. He went into disguise as a shepherd on the island of Crete and, in one of the most daring escapades of World War II, pulled off the kidnapping of a German general. In a subsequent movie about it, he was portrayed by Dirk Bogarde.
Mr. Leigh Fermor was a constant traveler who wrote books about monks in France, islands in the Caribbean and the people of Greece. Finally, more than four decades after his solitary transcontinental trek as a teenager, he wrote two books, “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and the Water,” which have become classics of modern travel literature.
His books, composed in a striking, original prose style, led British author Jan Morris to pronounce Mr. Leigh Fermor “beyond cavil the greatest of living travel writers.”
Although he lived in Greece for many years, Mr. Leigh Fermor died at his home in the English county of Worcestershire. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Until the end, he remained the classic British writer-adventurer, a blend of casual diffidence, cool confidence and infinite charm. Historian and journalist Max Hastings called Mr. Leigh Fermor “perhaps the most brilliant conversationalist of his time.”
Mr. Leigh Fermor’s formal education ended when he was expelled from a British boarding school for boys, ostensibly for sneaking away to see girls.
“He is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness,” a housemaster wrote in an official report, “which makes one anxious about his influence on other boys.”
At first, Mr. Leigh Fermor hoped to qualify for the military, but after intense study, he abruptly embarked on a fresh direction when he decided to walk across Europe.
“All of a sudden, this was not merely the obvious, but the only thing to do,” he wrote in “A Time of Gifts.”
“I would travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps.”
On Dec. 8, 1933, he boarded a steamer for the Netherlands and never looked back. His sojourn took him through Germany and Austria, the modern-day Czech Republic and Slovakia.
He crossed Hungary and lingered in Bulgaria long enough to learn folk songs. He passed through gypsy camps and befriended Romanian shepherds and Orthodox Jewish lumberjacks in Transylvania. He reached Istanbul, which he insistently called by its ancient name of Constantinople, on New Year’s Day 1935.
Mr. Leigh Fermor carried with him the work of Latin poet Horace. To pass the lonely hours, he recited long passages of Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson from memory. Then he would recite the poetry backwards.
A prodigy of languages, he taught himself German by reading Shakespeare in translation. He spoke Greek like a native and picked up bits of Slavic languages, Yiddish and Hungarian.
At 20, he fell in love with a 32-year-old Romanian princess he met in Athens and lived with her on her family estate in what is now Moldova. Mr. Leigh Fermor was forced to leave his prolonged idyll with the outbreak of World War II, when he joined the British army.
He was assigned to Albania, Greece and, in 1942, to a special forces unit on Crete, where he went underground as a shepherd. In 1944, Mr. Leigh Fermor, another British officer and several Cretan partisans flagged down the limousine of the commanding German general, Heinrich Kreipe, on a dark highway.
Within seconds, they opened the car doors, pulled the driver from behind the wheel and had Kreipe on the floor of the back seat, with a knife to his throat.
Mr. Leigh Fermor sat in front, wearing the general’s hat and calmly smoking a cigarette, as the car, with its waving Nazi flags, passed through 22 German checkpoints without being stopped. (The other British officer in the daring raid, W. Stanley Moss, wrote a book about the incident, “Ill Met by Moonlight,” which was made into a movie, starring Bogarde, in 1957.)
For three weeks, Mr. Leigh Fermor and his comrades marched the general through the mountains, sleeping in caves, before they could spirit him off the island on a ship bound for Cairo.
One morning, as they gazed from a cave at Mount Ida, the birthplace of the god Zeus, according to Greek myth, the German general began to recite one of Horace’s odes in Latin. He stopped after the first line. Without hesitation Mr. Leigh Fermor continued the poem, reciting its five remaining stanzas.
After a long silence, the general said, “Ach so, Herr Major.”
“It was very strange,” Mr. Leigh Fermor wrote in “A Time of Gifts.” “As though, for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before.”
Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor was born on Feb. 11, 1915, in London. His father was a geologist working in India, and young “Paddy,” as he became known, was sent to live with a farming family in the English county of Northamptonshire. He didn’t see either of his parents again until he was 4.
A free spirit from the beginning, he attended a progressive school, where students and teachers sometimes danced in the nude. He had private tutors before his final attempt at formal education at the King’s School in Canterbury, which gave him the boot.
In Cairo during World War II, he met British photographer Joan Eyres-Monsell. They were together many years before they married in 1968. She died in 2003. There are no immediate survivors.
After publishing poetry in his teens, Mr. Leigh Fermor turned to writing after World War II. His first book, “The Traveller’s Tree” (1950), was based on his travels in the Caribbean. Except for one novel, “The Violins of Saint-Jacques” (1953), he concentrated on finely wrought accounts of his travels.
“A Time to Keep Silence” (1953) was about life in monasteries, and “Mani” (1958) and “Roumeli” (1966) were set in Greece.
When “A Time of Gifts” appeared in 1977, followed nine years later by “Between the Woods and the Water,” critics marveled at Mr. Leigh Fermor’s sparkling prose and his evocation of a lost age.
“Every part of Europe I had crossed so far was to be torn and shattered by the war,” he wrote in “Between the Woods and the Water.” “When war broke out, all these friends vanished into sudden darkness.”
Mr. Leigh Fermor had long promised a final book about his European adventure of the 1930s. Three years ago, a reporter visiting his home in Greece noticed a manuscript eight inches thick. On it, in red felt-tip pen, Mr. Leigh Fermor had written “Vol. 3.”