Saturday, June 6, 2020
Baron Ludvig Holberg 1684-1754
Niels Klim was a Norwegian student with aspirations. He graduated from the university at Copenhagen and pursued a career as a mailman for four years. Tiring of that, he returned home and occupied his time in studying the geology of the mountains surrounding his home town of Bergen. With several friends, he climbed Florien mountain and found a large cavern at the top that had warm air flowing out of it. He decided to explore the inside of it and descended on a rope held by his friends. The rope broke and Niels fell for a long time, until the darkness began to recede and sunlight displaced the blackness. A new world impinged itself on his eyes as he floated around in the atmosphere for three days. A very large eagle made a pass at him and he fended it off at first with a boat hook he had had the foresight to bring along. But the danger became greater so Niels stabbed the bird with the boat hook and they both plummeted to the ground, the eagle cushioning Niels fall. it happened to be dark at the time and Niels found a soft spot and went to sleep. A ferocious roar woke him up and he saw that a large bull was about to attack, so he jumped up and ran to the nearest tree and began to climb up. With a low, shrill scream, the tree hit him with a branch and knocked him to the ground. Another tree came along and picked him up, and with a sort of arboreal entourage, carried him into the nearest town. Later Niels was informed that he had greatly offended the local sheriff's wife.
The citizens of this newly discovered country were trees. Some of them were quite large, and they all had human-type heads situated in their tops. They were mobile, but slow, meandering about upon their lower appendages that resembled roots. The town consisted of high, tower-like buildings in which the tree people lived, and featured larger structures that housed the various mayoral entities, secretaries, attorneys, judges, etc. There was a class framework of sorts, based on the number of branches possessed by the citizens. They were in general a peaceful population with a high regard for their traditions and law-abiding to a fault. Law-breakers were scarce and when they were apprehended, were sent off to a distant town named Maholki, populated by thorn trees that were appreciably more contentious than the general run of trees, and frowned upon as a result.
Niels was imprisoned for a year while he learned the language and the social character of his jailers. He learned about their religion and the country's constitution. There were five holy days a year, there were no sects or prejudices, and attempts to explain or interpret their holy books were punishable by law. A King ruled the country and the Kingship passed down through the eldest sons. The system of justice was based on principles, not laws, and strict equality was observed in the courts. There were three "academies"that taught history, political economy, math, and the like, but education was not particularly respected, as the habits of the people were slow and methodical, eschewing haste in any form.
After two years of inculcative instruction, permission was granted to Niels to travel the world and make reports on what he discovered about the inhabitants. The land of Quamso was the home of oak trees. They were passionless and boring, as contrasted to the occupants of Lalak who lived in a veritable paradise and were idle and drowned in luxury. Cypresses lived in Mardak, where class distinctions were measured by eye characteristics: how many and what shape they were. Kimal was the largest and most powerful state, as that country had extensive gold, and silver deposits, and had an abundance of pearls as well. But they were of nervous temperament because of their wealth, which attracted myriads of thieves and carpet-bagger types. In Quamboja, aging was reversed, babies being old and recovering youth as they grew. The trees of Kokleku were possessed of a feminist government, the males being servants and the females rulers of everything. Maskattia had terrible roads and a decayed infrastructure, probably having to do with the universal addiction to philosophical wrangling that occupied most of the citizens most of the time. Niels was beaten by some of the more intense debaters, and made his escape from that country just before they were about to dissect him out of curiousity. etcetera...
After returning to Potu (the city near his initial touch-down) and publishing a book on his travels, he offended the government by suggesting that ladies don't belong in official positions. As mentioned, equality is universal in Potu. So Niels is banished to the Mezendoric archipelago, which is the name for the separate civilization that occupies the inside of earth's crust. The island he landed on is called Martinia, an aristocratic metropolis that has a king and a religion that features hundreds of sects, inspiring endless arguments, wars, debates, and disagreements. The denizens are monkeys who are devoted to endless numbers of pointless projects, like burrowing through the crust to the earth's surface. They deride Niels, of whom they credit his species as "long-eared mortals, in perpetual fogs, oft losing their way in horrid bogs". Niels can only find a job as a porter, carrying the king around in his sedan chair. Later he makes wigs. But he gets in trouble when the Queen falls for him and he's sentenced to be a galley slave.
Aboard ship, he visits many more countries and describes their occupants. Picardania is inhabited by intelligent magpies, Music-land has live instruments, bouncing bass-viols and flying flutes that communicate with musical phrases; Pyglossia is a very stinky country, Iceland has sentient icebergs, and Mezendoria, the largest island, has many different species: a lion is regent of the country, senators are elephants, geese are counsellors, magpies are lawyers, goats are grammarians, and wolves are bankers. A sow writes Niels a love sonnet.
Continuing on their trading mission, a giant storm develops that wrecks the ship and Niels is cast away in the land of Quama, the home of humans. This is a type of Mongolian civilization that has a lot of horses and a rather inadequate government. Over time, Niels rises in importance until he becomes King of the country. He builds a vast army and makes war on his neighboring countries, eventually creating his own empire. At one point he has the entire library of Tanaquite transferred to his castle and finds a fragmented manuscript that was written by an explorer of Europe. He reads various summaries of European cultures, German, French, Italian, that parodize the individual cultures in unflattering estimations. Germany has many rights, but they're not available to the people. In England the population lives on smoke. Religion allows no independent thinking. Science promulgates the opinions of the few over the sentiments of the many, Spaniards live on air, Rome sells heaven, philosophers preach self denial until they are rich, and so on...
Niels conquers all and turns cruel and unjust, a veritable Nero. Finally a disgruntled faction gains enough power that they are able to defeat his armies and Niels vacates the castle and disappears into a dark wood in which he falls into another cave and apparently due to momentum, finds himself back on the surface of planet earth. He's a poor scholar again. He gets a job as sacristan in a local church, marries and has three sons and discusses his adventures underground with nobody. After a calm and pleasant life, he gently passes on in 1695.
This was a somewhat mind-bending book, considering the early date at which it was written. And it's hard to believe that Jules Verne didn't read it before writing "Journey to the Center of the Earth". It's a lot different than Verne's book, but even wilder in the events and figures it describes. It's obviously supposed to be satirical of practically every solemn cultural component of the time. Religion, clothing style, politics, government, war, peace, are all viewed through a mordant microscope; how Holberg managed to stay out of the hands of the authorities of the time seems a mystery. But it was fun to read, and turns the society of that era on it's head, so to speak...