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In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, let us consider voyages to our beloved yet bashful satellite (since Luna only ever shows us half of its surface) and to outer space in early modern literature. As Dr. Kathryn Morris teaches her students in the EMSP course ‘The Origins of Science Fiction in Early Modern Europe’, and related in this 2006 article by David Cressy on ‘Early Modern Space Travel and the English Man in the Moon’, early modern authors since the 16th century were deeply curious about the possibility of meeting the ‘man in the moon’ to confirm the idea of a plurality of worlds.
Seventeenth-century Europe saw the publication of several imaginary voyages to the moon and beyond. Early modern authors were influenced by the transatlantic voyages of Columbus and his successors to consider the possibility of travelling beyond our sphere. Copernican heliocentrism as well as the discoveries of Kepler and Galileo revealed that the earth was not the centre of the universe, and gave rise to the possibility that other planets could be inhabited worlds like ours. The period also saw translations of works by the Greek author Lucian, including trips to the moon, though critics thought that such accounts were purely ha-Lucian-atory.
Several works predated what we might call early modern space travel narratives. In Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (first published in 1516), the English knight Astolfo travels to the moon in Elijah’s fiery chariot (an early, albeit rejected, version of the screenplay for the 1981 hit Chariots of Fire); one can imagine that Astolfo was also ‘furioso’ at the jet lag as a result of going on a ‘knight flight’. In Ignatius His Conclave (1611), the metaphysical poet John Donne imagined a ‘church in the moon’ established by Lucifer and the Jesuit order: this lunatic church connected to Rome showed how the Papal See was also pure ‘Lunar See’. Most importantly, John Wilkin’s The Discovery of a World in the Moone; or, A Discourse Tending to Prove, That ’Tis Probable There May Be Another Habitable World in That Planet (1638) suggested that the moon was inhabited by beings he called ‘Selenites’ (so called because of their habit of sleeping in cold rooms storing their food and wine, i.e., cellar nights).
1638 also saw the publication of Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone; or, A Discourse of a Voyage Thither, by Domingo Gonsales (frontispiece detail pictured above). This was an imaginary tale of the Spanish merchant Gonsales who decides to travel the world by tying himself to a flock of geese. By this means, Gonsales is able to voyage to distant islands, and eventually the moon. Given such long trips, he needed a whole flock so that he wouldn’t run out of ‘geese’. After an eleven- to twelve-day journey, Gonsales finally reaches the moon. Instead of the barren, uninhabited landscape encountered by Armstrong and Aldrin, the moon is full of trees and shrubs and populated by giants with immense life-spans. This world is thus a paradise, in which there is peace, order, good government, and prosperity. For Gonsales, this must have been a honey-moon. He is delighted to learn that the giants are receptive to Christianity: one can speculate that had he written a sequel, the Calvinist Bishop Godwin would have the giants form their own Protestant sect, such as the Lunarens or the Moononites.
Godwin’s tale influenced Wilkins and others. Reading The Man in the Moone, Wilkins speculated on just how earthlings could voyage to the moon; while other literary works played with ideas of interplanetary travel and extraterrestrial life, notably Cyrano de Bergerac’s The Other World: Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon (1657); Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World (1666), discussed in this issue of Early Modern Times; and Aphra Behn‘s 1687 play The Emperor of the Moon. As we can see from Godwin’s tale, Wilkin’s ponderings, and these later writings, early modern authors wondered about how one might travel to the moon–though each method had its attendant difficulties:
Geese: this form of transportation turned out to be bird-brained. Proto-aeroplane: this requires too much improvisation, as pilots have to ‘wing it’. Flying chariot: very time-consuming, as any flight is proceeded by long domestic chats over orange pekoe and biscuits, hence the saying ‘chariot-tea begins at home’. Dream hypnosis (yes, this was actually considered!): impractically hippie-dippie and involving complicated yet anaesthetised root canals, given the component of trance-in-dental medication. Explosives: a powder-full but dangerous method. Supernatural escorts (again, I’m not kidding): doable but slow, as it entails a long ‘fairy-ride’. Bottles of rising dew (used in de Bergerac’s novel): too hurried, as the traveller arrives at the moon in un-dew haste.
Happy travels of the mind!
’til next week,
Director, Early Modern Interplanet-Airy Voyage Studies Program