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Finnegan, Begin Again: The Strange Appeal Of The World’s Most Unreadable Book

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At this point, the works of James Joyce mostly serve as a badge of cultural status. The man was a genius, but there aren’t too many people left that are going to spend the time to slog through all 730 of Ulysses jumbled pages. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is used as a way for angsty university students to prove their literary-ness far more often than it’s enjoyed as recreational reading.

But while an almost too-obviously leafed through copy of Ulysses is still prominently portrayed on many a young intellectual’s bookshelf; while conspicuous quotes from Dubliners can still be overheard in university pubs from tables seating young boys who are (falsely) convinced they’re impressing the young ladies beside them; while Joyce remains an author that is more often claimed to be enjoyed than actually enjoyed, there’s one Joyce book that nobody claims to have read. I don’t care how badly a young literati wants to prove their chops, no one would have the guts to try and say they’ve made it through Finnegans Wake. It is, without question, the most difficult book to read in the English language.


A drawing of Joyce (with eyepatch) by Djuna Barnes from 1922, the year in which Joyce began the 17-year task of writing Finnegans Wake

While Ulysses is undeniably a long, intimidating, and challenging book, at least the idea of finishing it is believable. Finnegans Wake is a different story. For any current or prospective students out there right now, I can tell you one thing for certain: if a hip young man casually brings up that he’s read Finnegans Wake, he is lying to you—in my experience at least, this delusion has been overwhelmingly masculine. Like I said, nobody reads Finnegans Wake. I know simply claiming that fact will inspire some people out there to prove me wrong; to become the rarest of rare souls who have managed to make it through Joyce’s final work. Don’t bother. Need a reason? Well, here’s the book’s first line:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend 1 of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to 2 Howth Castle and Environs.”

Here’s another, that I honestly just picked at random from the online version that Trent University has thanklessly made available online:

“He, praise 20 Saint Calembaurnus, make clean breastsack of goody girl now as 21 ever drank milksoep from a spoen, weedhearted boy of potter and 22 mudder, chip of old Flinn the Flinter, twig of the hider that tanned 23 him.”

Do you see what I’m saying? Ulysses is difficult, but at least it’s in English. At least it has characters and plot. Finnegans Wake is something else entirely. So why the heck did Joyce spend 17 years writing this nonsense? Well, it may shock you to hear this, but what you just read isn’t actually nonsense. In fact, if you can get past the fact that it’s utterly unreadable, Finnegans Wake is maybe the most impressive creative work in human history. It’s just that Joyce vastly overestimated the world’s ability to parse his genius.

When Wake was first teased the reaction was, unsurprisingly, negative. Many people came to the obvious conclusion and accused Joyce of writing a book of pure gibberish. Joyce was quick to point out that “if it were meaningless it could be written quickly without thought, without pains, without erudition; but I assure you that these 20 pages now before us [i.e. chapter I.8] cost me twelve hundred hours and an enormous expense of spirit.” A decent argument—nobody spends 17 years writing a complete novel of complete gobbledygook—but still, many were not impressed.

July 1968: The Martello Tower at Sandycove in Dun Laoghaire, which is the location of the first scene in James Joyce’s ‘Ulysees’. The tower was bought by Irish architect Michael Scott and turned into a Joyce museum.

Other critics at least admitted Joyce’s book held meaning, but were frustrated by its unrelenting difficulty. H.G. Wells once told him: “You have turned your back on common men, on their elementary needs and their restricted time and intelligence […] I ask: who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousands I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?” Honestly, I must admit, Wells has a point here. Most novelists write books at least in the hope that somebody out there will be able to, you know, finish them. Evidently, this was not one of Joyce’s major concerns.

Turns out, you can’t write the most unreadable book in history without raising a few eyebrows, but the reaction wasn’t all negative. There’s a reason we’re still talking about Finnegans Wake today—the book attracts nearly as much awe and appreciation as scorn and frustration. It’s frustrating and confusing and opaque and bizarre, but its pages hide a truly remarkable creative work, unlike anything else in the history of literature.

While Finnegans Wake is not gibberish, one could be forgiven for thinking so, because Joyce decided to completely forgo any attempt at clarity for a writing style that offered limitless creative expression. He invented his own idiosyncratic dialect, which borrowed words from countless real languages and relied almost exclusively on puns and portmanteaus to give nearly every single word in the book’s 650+ pages multiple meanings. The title, which seems relatively straightforward, is a good example of what Joyce was trying to do with language in the book.

Joyce intended this book to be cyclical, a story that turns back on itself. A snake eating its own tail. He didn’t simply put “Finnegan” in its title because it’s a common Irish name. Like with the rest of his book, Joyce chose his words very, very carefully. In this case, the book’s Ouroborean nature is hidden within that one word. It starts with fin, the French word for “end.” It also sounds similar to “begin again.” Finnegan. Fin, again. Finnegan, begin again, end and begin, again and again. This cycle is why the first sentence of the book looks so strange. If you noticed while reading that opening line above, the first letter was not capitalized. That wasn’t an error, because the first sentence of the book is actually only the second half of a sentence. Where’s the first half? I bet you can guess—it’s the final line of the book.

“A way a lone a last a loved a long the…”

“…riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend 1 of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to 2 Howth Castle and Environs.”

Fin. Again.

And that’s just one word. Joyce did this same absurd, lexical fudging in every paragraph, sentence, and word for hundreds of pages. And I’ve only talked about the easy words so far. Joyce also took it upon himself to include ten 100-letter words that have affectionately come to be known as “thunderclaps,” because it’s believed the first of them was intended to simulate the sound of thunder. They look like this:

“bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk.”

“Perkodhuskurunbarggruauyagokgorlayorgromgremmitghundhurthrumathunaradidillifaititillibumullunukkunun.”

…umm, could you please use the word in a sentence?

What we’re left with is the literary equivalent of quicksand. Trying to make sense of Finnegans Wake feels almost futile. It can take days to try and parse just one sentence, and even then, it’s hard to feel like you haven’t missed half of what Joyce meant.

This is an infinitely complex—and some would argue utterly absurd—way of writing a novel. It’s no surprise that it took Joyce 17 years to finish the thing, finally publishing it in 1939, just two years before his death. The book, it would seem, took everything he had left. But even today, nearly a century since it was published, we still barely know what the book is about. We know that it features the Earwicker family, with the father HCE and the mother ALP. Their children are Shem the Penman, Shaun the Postman, and Issy, though all of these characters go by many, many different names in the book. As far as anyone can tell, a rumor has gone around about HCE, and his wife tries to clear his name while his sons try to take his place. Most people agree on those aspects, but almost everything else about the book is up for debate.

That doesn’t exactly sound like Harry Potter, does it? With such an obscure and obfuscated plot, with such impossible language, and with the sheer length of the book, it’s a perfectly fair question to ask: “Why would anyone ever want to read this thing?” Well, you’re in luck. You don’t have to read it. Crusty old literature scholars have been doing that for years. For me, Finnegans Wake is a book that is far more fun to read about than it is to actually read. Just knowing that James Joyce managed to write, and actually finish, no less, a 650-page book when every sentence must have taken hours upon hours to create, is truly a wonder. Any small hints at the genius held within its pages make it more exciting that it even exists at all.

That Joyce managed to hide ridiculous puns and visual jokes deep in a book that he must have known almost nobody would be able to read is absolutely hilarious. One scene of the book that people generally agree on features Shem helping Shaun with math homework. Shem draws out a complex mathematical diagram featuring intersecting circles, triangles, and obscure symbols, and it takes his brother a very long time before realizing Shem is messing with him, and that the “diagram” is actually a drawing of a vagina. That is funny, but someone would probably have to read that passage 1000 times before they ever got the joke—which makes it even funnier.

There’s a reason that there are entire academic papers devoted mere paragraphs of Finnegan’s Wake. Why A Clockwork Orange novelist Anthony Burgess called it “one of the few books of the world that can make us laugh aloud on nearly every page.” It’s completely inaccessible to 99% of the reading public, but just because I’m not smart enough to understand something, doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it—albeit with a little guidance. So no, I’m never going to read Finnegans Wake, but I’m never going to explore the universe either. That doesn’t mean I can’t stare up into the sky and be awed by the sheer scope of it. I know a little about the universe, and that only gives me more respect for what else might be out there, completely comfortable with the fact I’ll never discover it. I look at Finnegans Wake the same way.

I know that James Joyce wrote a stupid sex joke into the middle of the book, even if I had to have it pointed out to me. I know what it sounded like when the author himself read his words aloud and I can appreciate their aesthetic quality, even if I have no clue what he’s saying. I know that the last sentence cuts off midway and that the first sentence is the continuation, as if Joyce not only intended someone to finish his book, but to then go back to the beginning and keep reading. A dream at the edge of our understanding, forever recurring. Finnegan, Fin Again, End, Begin, Again. Just knowing that this book was created, that the human mind has the potential to create something of this scope, is good enough for me.

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History

Margaret and Roumania Peters: Forgotten Champions

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On the Court

Today, women tennis champions like Venus and Serena Williams get paid millions of dollars in endorsement deals, prize winnings, and celebrity appearances. But for a long time, the sport was not only an amateur pastime—leaving even its top athletes unable to make a living from their talent—it was also heavily segregated by race.


In America, black athletes were effectively barred from playing against white athletes, and thus barred from competing in the most publicized matches, until 1950—when Althea Gibson (a tennis player herself) competed against a white player. As a result, the world never saw what many of the top athletes of the 1930s and 1940s were truly capable of. In fact, it almost never saw them at all.

If it had, maybe we would more easily remember the great tennis sisters who came before Venus and Serena: Margaret and Roumania Peters.

Margaret and Roumania Peters: Forgotten Champions

Tennis Stars Are Born

Margaret Peters was born in 1915, and in 1917, her little sister Matilda Roumania followed. The two girls were almost inseparable growing up in the Georgetown area of Washington, DC, so when Margaret began playing tennis at around 10 years old, it was only natural that Roumania (as she was known) joined too.

Their beginnings were humble: the two girls often played in Rose Park, located near their house, on terrain that was hardly Wimbledon-worthy. As Roumania later recalled, the court had “sand, dirt, rocks, everything. We would have to get out there in the morning and pick up the rocks, and sweep the line and put some dry lime on there.”

Nonetheless, their hard work paid off, and soon they were playing with the American Tennis Association. As this was still a segregated, Jim Crow-era America, the ATA was an exclusively African American league. In 1936, Margaret and Roumania attended the annual ATA tournament; Roumania made it all the way up the brackets, losing only in the finals.

And that was just the beginning.

Rose Park Recreation Center – Washington, DC

Pete and Repeat

At that ATA tournament in 1936, both girls were scouted and then recruited as tennis players for Tuskegee University, a historically black college. At the time, Margaret was 21 years old and Roumania was only 19—and not yet finished high school. When they were both offered full, four-year scholarships, Margaret agreed to the deal only if she could wait until Roumania was old enough to enroll in Tuskegee. They entered the school together the next year.

Margaret and Roumania attended Tuskegee from 1937 to 1941, honing their skills and rising up in the ATA ranks. Most good athletes have signature moves, and the Peters sisters became particularly known for their slice serves, which used an underspin to keep the ball low, as well as their chop shots, which used a now-rare technique that returns a serve with an underspin.

Yet while both girls were talented singles players, they really shone together—earning them the nicknames “Pete” and “Repeat.” They won no less than 14 doubles titles in their tenure as world-class athletes, a record for the time. This understandably gained them fame, and the girls performed for luminaries like Gene Kelly, as well as members of the British royal family. Black theater owners would even show the Peters’ matches in cinemas.

But there was a big problem.

Amateur Hour

For all their fame, the Peters siblings were stymied by the state of both tennis and American culture in their prime years of the 1940s. For one, tennis only entered the professionally-oriented Open Era in 1968. Before this, players competing in most large tournaments had to be amateurs, and thus had to pay for their own equipment, transportation, and miscellaneous fees, all while getting no remuneration. For another, most of the prestige of tennis competition in the era was centered in whites-only clubs, leaving the Peters sisters out in the cold.

Photograph of Queen Elizabeth II presenting Althea Gibson with the Venus Rosewater Trophy at the 1957 Wimbledon Women’s Singles Championships.

Times were changing, but far too slowly. In the late 1940s, African American superstar Althea Gibson rocketed through the tennis world, and after persistent lobbying the powers that be caved and invited Gibson to the Nationals in 1950, effectively breaking segregation. Gibson, however, was a full decade younger than Roumania Peters; by the time tennis opened up, the Peters girls were no longer at their full strengths.

This is not to say that they finished their careers unaccomplished. Aside from their 14 ATA doubles titles, Roumania also won multiple singles titles on her own individual steam. In fact, the youngest Peters sister won one of those titles against none other than Gibson herself; Roumania is still the only African American woman to have ever defeated the Grand Slam champion.

In 1977, the Peters were rightly inducted into the Tuskegee Hall of Fame—but by then, life was much different for the sisters.

The Retired Life

With the odds stacked against them, Margaret and Roumania simply couldn’t support themselves on tennis alone, but this didn’t mean they floundered. The two sisters got masters degrees—Margaret actually got two—and became teachers later in life, with Roumania even teaching at Howard University. Margaret remained unmarried, but in 1957, Roumania wed a man named James Walker, giving birth to two children, Frances Della and James George.

In 2003, while Venus and Serena Williams were dominating tennis, Roumania died at the age of 86. Never one to be too far apart from her little sister, Margaret died a year later, in 2004.

Gone and Not Forgotten

Just after the peak of their athletic careers ended, the Peters witnessed some of the biggest upheavals of the 20th century, inside the tennis world and beyond—from the desegregation of the sport to the wholesale Civil Rights Movement. Though many may not remember their names today, Margaret and Roumania Peters were an essential foundation of this history—not just for women’s tennis or African American players, but for tennis as a whole.

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How Did Bob Marley Die?

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Jim Morrison. Kurt Cobain. Jimi Hendrix. Many talented musicians have died tragically young from the self-destructive habits of their superstar lifestyle. But while we often place reggae singer Bob Marley in the ranks of these rock gods gone too soon, few people know the truth about Marley’s early death. So how did Bob Marley die?


RIP Bob Marley

Bob Marley wasn’t necessarily known for fast and reckless living; a Rastafarian icon, Marley infused reggae music with his spiritual beliefs of gentle love and beautiful harmony. Yet on May 11, 1981, he died at just 36 years old. It felt sudden, but those who knew him had actually spent years preparing for his death.

That’s because back in 1977, the legendary singer was diagnosed with a malignant, and eventually fatal melanoma just underneath one of his toenails. When he died fewer than five years after his diagnosis, Marley was deeply mourned in both his home country of Jamaica and around the world.

His death was tragic, but there’s much more to the story than that.

Bob Marley FactsGetty Images

Death Comes for Marley

You see, many people believe that Marley could have been saved.

When the cancer was first diagnosed, Marley’s doctors suggested amputating the toe to give him a better chance for survival. However, the singer refused. Although this might seem irrational, he actually had a good reason: his religious beliefs prevented him from amputating, as Rastafarian tenets state that the body is a temple and that no part of it should be cut off.

Instead, Marley went with a less invasive but ultimately less effective procedure. He simply had the nail and nail bed removed with the help of a skin graft from his thigh. Ever the trooper, Marley and his band continued planning the world tour for the album Uprising, even after finding out about the cancer. The tour saw Marley reach new heights, playing his biggest-ever crowd in Milan and even playing the iconic Madison Square Garden in New York. For now, it seemed like the storm had passed.

But dark days were coming.

Bob Marley FactsGetty Images

Die Another Day

Near the end of the Uprising tour, Marley’s illness had taken a toll on his body, and it began to show. Just two days before a concert in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in September 1980, Marley suddenly collapsed while jogging in New York City’s Central Park. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors performed a series of tests—and the results were devastating.

The tests revealed that the small melanoma from his toe had spread over the past three years, and was now infecting his brain. In an incredible feat, Marley still made it out to his scheduled Pennsylvania show, but this appearance would be the last concert of his world tour. His team canceled the rest of legs, and Marley—again partly in accordance with his religious beliefs—began to seek out alternative medicines to fight for his last scraps of life rather than submit to chemotherapy.

It was a radical, peaceful choice in keeping with his religion, but it did not delay his death.

Bob Marley FactsGetty Images

Dying Wish

Although Marley tried to keep the cancer at bay by eschewing certain food and drinks, after eight months it became clear that the end was near for the cultural icon. The alternative methods had not stymied the cancer. Bravely facing up to his fate, Marley made a heartbreaking decision to go back to Jamaica to live out his days.

But in a cruel twist of fate, he was denied the chance to die in his beloved homeland.

In May 1981, a very sick Marley was traveling home from Germany to Jamaica. In the middle of the flight, his vitals plummeted. When the plane landed in Miami, Florida, he was rushed to the hospital so doctors could try to save his life.

This time, however, there was no hope to be had: Bob Marley died in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Miami. Before he left this world, though, Marley had one last act to finish.

Bob Marley FactsGetty Images

Gone But Not Forgotten

Just before he died, with the melanoma rapidly spreading into his lungs and deeper into his brain, Marley gave his son Ziggy some final advice, father to son: “Money can’t buy life.” They were fitting words for a man who lived by his own harmonious principles and died on his own terms.

After his death, the world felt robbed of one of its brightest stars. There was one consolation: in the end, Marley made it to Jamaica. The country gave him a state funeral on May 21, 1981, following Rastafarian traditions for the ceremony. He was buried alongside his guitar in a chapel near where he was born.

During the funeral, Jamaica’s Prime Minister Edward Seaga gave the eulogy, saying that, “Bob Marley was never seen. He was an experience which left an indelible imprint with each encounter. Such a man cannot be erased from the mind. He is part of the collective consciousness of the nation.”

Bob Marley FactsShutterstock

To Die, to Sleep, Perchance to Dream

The story of how Bob Marley died is not one of partying and excess, but of a principled man unwilling to compromise for modern medicine. In many ways, this makes him an even more tragic figure than some of his fellow fallen rock stars. The melanoma that killed him at the age of 36 might have been managed and eventually defeated, had he only wanted it.

This, however, was not the way that Marley chose to go. Instead, he fought the cancer in his own way, and succumbed when it was his time. It was his life, and he chose how to leave it. Though he is still dearly missed, we have his many albums and inedible songs to help remember him by.

Rest in peace, Bob Marley.

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The King Who Fell To Earth: The Life And Mysterious Death Of Albert I Of Belgium

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Albert I was King of the Belgians at a very tumultuous time in the country’s history. He ruled through World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, and oversaw his nation’s reconstruction after the War ended. Despite such an eventful reign, it’s not this that he’s remembered for—it’s his sudden and tragic demise in a mountaineering accident. The circumstances surrounding his death immediately drew suspicion, leading to the rampant spread of rumors and conspiracy theories about the monarch’s tragic end. So what really happened to King Albert of Belgium on that fateful day?


A Death in the Family

Albert I was born on April 8, 1875, the grandson of the first King of the Belgians, Leopold I, and the nephew of the reigning king, Leopold II. At that point, he was third in the line of succession, following his father and his older brother, but when Albert was just 16, tragedy struck. His brother, Prince Baudouin, died after a bout of the flu. He was only 21 years old. Prince Baudouin’s sudden death sparked many rumors and conspiracy theories—notably, one that said the Prince had died in a situation remarkably similar to the mysterious suicide of Prince Rudolf of Austria just two years earlier.

With the death of his older brother, Albert found himself in a position where he would inevitably become King of the Belgians. His father, Prince Philippe, although next in line for the throne, was already 54 at the time of the Prince Baudouin’s death. Prince Philippe would go on to pass away in 1905, while his older brother Leopold II was still on the throne. When Leopold II died in 1909, it was time for Albert to take his place as King.

Albert I FactsWikimedia Commons
Prince Baudoin of Belgium

War Hero

By that time Albert had already married, to a Bavarian Duchess named Elisabeth, and the couple had had three children. The first few years of his reign went relatively smoothly, especially since his subjects regarded his stable home life favorably. In the final years of Leopold II’s reign, a public scandal had erupted over human rights abuses in the Congo, Belgium’s only colonial property. The Belgian government had wrested control of the colony from the monarch shortly before his death. Albert’s first few years of rule must have seemed like a fresh start after all the public disgrace that had been heaped on Leopold II over the episode. But all the goodwill in the world couldn’t make up for what would befall Albert—and Belgium itself—in the ensuing years.

At the outset of World War I, Belgium found itself stuck between Germany and France—and not just geographically. German forces demanded safe passage through to France, claiming that France planned to invade Belgium to get through to Germany anyway. Belgium refused Germany, leading the Germans to invade Belgium on August 3, 1914. As a result, Britain was then forced to declare war on Germany the next day.

Albert became commander of the Belgian Army and led numerous campaigns to drive the German forces back, but ultimately, his army wound up pushed back into a small area, where they remained entrenched for years. Albert fought alongside his men while his wife worked as a nurse, but the entire time, he tried to encourage other diplomats to negotiate peace with Germany, seeing the damage that the occupation was doing to his kingdom. The forces at war ignored his pleas, however, and eventually, Albert led the drive that liberated Belgium.

When the War ended, Albert and his family returned triumphantly to Brussels, where he spoke to his subjects about the future of the kingdom. He assisted in the Paris Peace Conference in April 1919, but his advice—to not punish Germany too harshly, in an attempt to quell future hostile behavior—was largely ignored, despite Belgium’s heavy losses during the War. He also did what he could to help rebuild his realm, working with the Belgian Ministry of Internal Affairs to create the King Albert Housing Fund for communities that had been destroyed, among other initiatives.

Shutterstock

Tragedy in the Mountains

Albert was known to have a strong interest in mountaineering, so when he asked his driver to pull over so that he could go for a short climb on the afternoon of February 17, 1934, it wasn’t seen as an unusual request—although later, everything that led up to that moment would come into question. He was climbing the Roche du Vieux Bon Dieu in a Namurois village called Marche-les-Dames. Albert’s driver watched him navigate the rocks from where they’d parked. The moment the King went out of sight was the last time that he was seen alive.

As minutes turned into hours, the driver knew something was wrong—after all, the King had an engagement in Brussels to get to that night. He went to the nearby village to ask for help, and soon enough, a search party was formed. At around 2 AM, one of the volunteers stumbled across Albert’s body. He looked to have died of a massive head wound. Albert’s involved role in WWI had made him a name around the world, and when news broke of his tragic death, both his subjects and the rest of the world mourned.

Albert I FactsShutterstock

Dark Rumors

Almost immediately after Albert’s death, whispers about foul play began to circulate. Yes, the king was aging—58 years old at the time he died—and his eyesight wasn’t perfect, but he was also an expert climber with many years of experience, including in solo climbs, under his belt. Many of those closest to him claimed that Albert had told them he planned to stop climbing—so why would he have undertaken such a dangerous climb alone?

One First World War hero-turned-fascist activist gave a speech in which he alleged that despite Albert’s actions during the war, the King’s push to negotiate peace during WWI had angered the wrong people, and that was the reason he’d been targeted for assassination. Others claimed that he must have been killed in another location and had his body dumped in the mountains as a convenient cover-up.

Beloved among his subjects, the area where Albert died became a place of pilgrimage, with many taking souvenirs from the site—rocks, leaves, other debris. A century later, one of these souvenirs would finally provide some insight into that fateful day, finally shutting down some of the more insidious conspiracy theories about the king’s death. A journalist found one souvenir hunter who had taken some blood-stained tree leaves from the site. He purchased the foliage, then had it sent for DNA testing. In 2016, the blood was compared to samples from some of Albert’s descendants, and it came back a match—meaning that the King had, in fact, died at the scene of the climbing accident.

Albert I of BelgiumShutterstock
Albert I in 1919

The King Who Fell to Earth

Albert was a beloved monarch who saw his subjects through one of the worst periods in history, and it was hard for many to accept that he’d died alone and helpless in such a sudden and violent way. Although the revelation provided by the DNA testing did settle some of the speculation surrounding Albert’s death, conspiracy theories are always more intriguing than a simple explanation, and people will believe what they want to believe—and so, sadly, Albert’s legacy will always be as much about the mysterious circumstances surrounding his tragic death as about his honorable actions as monarch.

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