The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Wonderful Adventures of Phra the Phoenician (1890)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Wonderful Adventures of Phra the Phoenician were written by Edwin L. Arnold and first appeared in Illustrated London News (July 5-Dec. 27, 1890). Arnold (1857-1935) was a British writer of fantasies and science fiction.

Phra is a Phoenician trader in the first century B.C.E. He buys a beautiful British woman from a slaver and, taken with her, sails to Britain and returns her to her people. He discovers that she is Blodwen, a princess of the Britons. She is assigned the queenship of her people, and she and Phra fall in love, marry, and have a child. But the Romans invade Britain, and while attacking the invaders Phra is captured and brought in front of Caesar. Phra escapes, but on returning to the Britons he is betrayed by the evil Druid Dhuwallon and is sacrificed to Ba’al. Phra wakes up 400 years later in Roman Britain and discovers a blue pattern tattooed on his chest. Phra also finds Blodwen’s diary, which records her life and describes what she did to him: she engraved the tattoo on his chest, which has granted him immortality.

Phra enjoys himself in Roman Britain, carousing and eventually falling in love with Numidea, a British serving girl. Phra also serves as the bodyguard (and implicitly the sex toy) of the depraved Roman noblewoman Lady Electra. When the Romans leave Britain Phra is nearly killed in a rear guard action but is saved by a strange supernatural guide, who accompanies Phra to a resting place. When Phra awakens it is five hundred years later, during the time of Harald Hardraada and the Norman Invasion. Phra falls in love with Editha, a Saxon, and marries her. Phra accidentally discovers the altar on which he was sacrificed. He falls asleep and sees Blodwen, who explains the metaphysics of her existence as a shade and his continued existence: she is following him through the centuries, which are scant moments to her, and she either causes other women to fall in love with Phra or possesses their bodies so she can be with Phra. Phra is happy with Editha, but the Normans are not going away, and after fighting against them and losing, Phra flees from them, accompanied by Editha. Phra gets her to safety but then falls asleep and awakens in 1346. Phra meets Isobel and Alianora, the daughters of a nobleman. Phra falls in love with Alianora–Phra forgets his previous loves and acquires new ones with startling rapidity–while Isobel falls for him. After Phra declines Isobel’s affections in a cold manner, Alianora spurns Phra in a humiliating fashion, and Phra leaves to join King Edward in the war in France, accompanied by a young knight who is a friend of Isobel’s. Phra and the knight endure battles and triumphs, but the knight eventually sacrifices himself to save Phra, who then discovers that the knight is Isobel herself. Phra, who has just written a love letter to Isobel, is crushed by her death and returns to England, bearing news of the English triumph at Crecy. He is shipwrecked on the way home, staggers ashore, and falls asleep yet again, to awake in the 1580s. After an embarrassing meeting with Queen Elizabeth–Phra, not realizing that he has slept through another couple of centuries, wants to bring her news of the great victory of Crecy, and she, understandably, does not take this well–he is befriended by an old man who is eventually revealed to be Adam Faulkener, the inventor of the steam engine. Phra lives with the Faulkeners for a time and falls in love with Faulkener’s winsome daughter Elizabeth, but the pair are poisoned by the Faulkeners’ jealous Spanish steward. Elizabeth dies, Phra kills the steward and lives long enough to write his biography before dying for what may be his final time.

Phra the Phoenician is in that class of novels which are bad but entertaining, similar to but not nearly as fine as Ouida’s Under Two Flags. The novel’s history is a mess; although Arnold gets many of the minor details of dress and events correct, the behavior and language and personalities of the past are romanticized, in the late-Victorian style, so that chivalry is an ongoing concern for Phra (who is, after all, a Phoenician from before the birth of Christ and would hardly embrace the ideals of chivalry which a Victorian like Arnold would entertain). In Phra early Britain is a Victorian re-imagining of history rather than a careful, historically-accurate recreation. Arnold goes for, and mostly succeeds with, a sweeping history-in-motion narrative approach, which moves the reader briskly along but in the process sacrifices other elements, such as characterization–Phra is mostly colorless, and the other characters are one-dimensional–and realistic emotions. Phra’s love for Blodwen is simply presented as a given, so that the reader is never really convinced by it. The relationship between Phra and Isobel is much more convincing. Phra also has some minor errors in logic, such as Phra’s ability to speak English without any difficulty despite the passage of centuries. Phra’s British patriotism is also hard to credit. He adopts it instantly, despite being a Phoenician, and maintains it across the centuries. Likewise, Phra’s anti-Irish sentiments say more about Arnold than about Phra.

But even with these flaws Phra is still readable. Phra has an interesting mixture of aspects from the legend of the Wandering Jew, Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” There is something about Phra's face which disconcerts and nonpluses everyone who sees it. Phra’s fearful presence is one of a number of supernatural, occult, or magical moments in Phra, from his serial reincarnation, to Blodwen’s ghost, to an encounter with a family of cave bears, to Phra’s supernatural guide, to the gods speaking through the slumbering Editha. All of these moments are effectively eldritch, and nicely contrast with the otherwise realistic feel of the novel. Arnold has some good descriptions, and he provides scenes of glorious warfare as well as moments which show the savage effects of war.

Phra the Phoenician is representative of what Peter Caracciolo calls the “Buddhism-steeped Nineties”1 in London. Buddhism had been introduced to Europe in the 1820s, but didn’t become popular until the 1860s, so that by the end of the century it was a “widespread topic both in the scholarly and popular literatures.”2 Phra, like Corelli’s A Romance of Two Worlds (1886), Haggard’s She, and Kipling’s Kim, was heavily influenced by Buddhism, or at least the British construction of it, which “came to be determined as an object the primary location of which was the West, through the progressive collection, translation, and publication of its textual past.3 

Phra the Phoenician is not a good book. It has too many flaws for that, most of which betray its author’s biases. But it is almost never boring and can be colorful.

Recommended Edition

Print: Edwin L. Arnold, The Wonderful Adventures of Phra the Phoenician. London: Chatto & Windus, 1936.



1 Peter Caracciolo, “Buddhist Teaching Stories and Their Influence on Conrad, Wells, and Kipling: The Reception of the Jataka and Allied Genres in Victorian Culture,” Conradian 11, no. 1 (1986): 30.

2 J. Jeffrey Franklin, The Lotus and the Lion: Buddhism and the British Empire (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), 2.

3 Franklin, The Lotus and the Lion, 5.