It’s not very often you get to use the word “charming” for a piece of literary scholarship. That’s precisely the word, though, that fits Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s Voyages to the Moon, published in 1948 by the Macmillan Company. The book is 66 years old, which the same age I am until my birthday rolls around, which it will in two weeks. Reading it, you feel yourself transported into a vanished world in which learning could be light-hearted without being facetious, and professors–even Marjorie Hope Nicolson, who in 1961 was called “the greatest of living American literary scholars”–could look upon their undergraduate students as valued colleagues in the quest for truth.
The book opens with the “invaders from Mars” scare created in 1938 by the Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. It ends with UFOs, which back then were plain old flying saucers. On her last page, Nicolson writes:
“Only this morning I heard it [the fascination of the cosmic voyage] again, when I turned on the radio to hear the most recent chapter in the ‘Strange Saga of the Flying Saucers’ that is amusing or terrifying us today. The President of the United States, I was told, said yesterday at his press conference that accounts of those flying-disks reminds him of the Moon-Hoax a century ago. The next moment I heard over the air—as I have been expecting to hear for some days—that the latest theory about the apparitions is that they come not from Russia but from Mars!”
The reference is to Harry Truman’s press conference of July 10, 1947. For someone who plainly knows The War of the Worlds inside and out, Nicolson takes the notion of the saucers’ Martian origin with remarkable equanimity.
But how did human beings travel to places like the moon in the centuries before our own, before flying saucers or rocket ships had ever been heard of? That’s what most of Nicolson’s book is about, and most of her cosmic-voyage tales come from the 17th and 18th centuries, although every so often she ventures into earlier or later territory.
The structure of her narrative comes from an extraordinary book published in 1638 by the even more extraordinary clergyman and scientist John Wilkins, Discovery of a New World in the Moone. “There are four several ways whereby this flying in the air hath been, or may be attempted,” Wilkins wrote. “Two of them by the strength of other beings, and two of them by our own strength. 1. By spirits or angels. 2. By the help of fowls. 3. By wings fastened immediately to the body. 4. By a flying chariot.”
Each of the next four chapters is devoted to one of Wilkins’ categories, with a multitude of delightful examples taken from the scientific and fantastic literature of a time when “science” and “fiction” hadn’t been divorced. (Any more than “science” and “religion” had; witness Wilkins’ career.) In 1638, the same year that Discovery of a New World came out, Francis Godwin published his best-selling Man in the Moone: or A Discourse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales.
The fictional narrator, Gonsales, finds he can fly by harnessing to his vehicle “a certaine kinde of wild Swans” native to a lush tropical island where he’s been abandoned with a faithful man-Friday type servant. He knows those swans hibernate. What he doesn’t know is that the place where they hibernate is the moon.
Which is where they proceed to carry Gonsales and his makeshift chariot.
This isn’t quite what he had in mind but, scientific curiosity trumping homesickness, he makes the best of it. Traveling “Fifty Leagues in every hower”—about 175 mph, close to the speed of a modern propeller plane—he reaches the moon in “Eleven or Twelve daies.” Neither he nor his swans seem to have any problem breathing en route; outer space was evidently conceived as an indefinite extension of Earth’s atmosphere. Nor do the inhabitants Gonsales encounters on the moon, a race of gigantic men and women, the noblest of them 28 feet tall. The moon itself? It’s a world “most glorious and delightfull, that can possibly be imagined.”
The quaintness, that we’re bound today to perceive (or misperceive) in all Nicolson’s tales, is at its most amusing in her chapter on “flying chariots.” Their modes of propulsion vary. Cyrano de Bergerac—not just a stage-and-screen character with a big nose and a yearning heart, but a remarkable 17th-century author who dabbled in science fiction—reasoned that you could travel upwards by fastening to yourself vials of dew. (The sun sucks up dew, doesn’t it?) Others, though, were more inclined to put their trust in the “Load-stone” and its mysterious magnetic powers.
In this, they were the forerunners of 20th-century UFOlogists. The now forgotten French Air Force Lieutenant Plantier, who occupies a place of honor in Aime Michel’s 1956 The Truth About Flying Saucers, worked out a particularly elaborate and impressive theory of UFOs traveling along magnetic or quasi-magnetic “force field” lines. It was impressive, at least, to those who don’t know a great deal about science, which category I was in at age 15. (I won’t speak about age 66.) So impressed was I, that I conceived the certainty that within a few years, following Lieutenant Plantier’s guidance, I would build a functional flying saucer, whereupon girls would surely be willing to go out with me. The notion that there might be easier and more straightforward ways to get dates was, unlike UFOs, entirely beyond my capacity to believe.
This parallel, not particularly profound or surprising, and Nicolson’s concluding reference to the “Strange Saga of the Flying Saucers”–an enticing little nugget of testimony to how Americans felt about the new phenomenon, a little over two weeks after the Kenneth Arnold sighting that started it all–are two bits of UFOlogical interest in Voyages to the Moon. There’s a third, and it seems to me that it may be of some importance.
Domingo Gonsales’s moon-people, Nicolson tells us, “are able to detect signs of innate depravity at birth. They exile potential sinners—here Godwin picked up an old mysterious tale of ‘green children’—sending them to earth, where they exchange these ‘green children’ for good children—an explanation nicely accounting for the excessive amount of terrestrial depravity, particularly in North America!” (Where most of these exchanges take place; Nicolson, page 83.) I wish she would say more about that “old mysterious tale”; she doesn’t. But on page 89, describing Elkanah Settle’s trite stage-spectacular The World in the Moon (1697), she speaks of the entrance on stage of “ ‘Five green Men,’ in whom there is perhaps a passing reminiscence of Godwin’s tale of the lunarian ‘green children’ who proved unfit for the moon and were dispatched to earth.”
And I’m left wondering: is there any connection between the 17th century’s “green children” or “men” and the mysterious present-day stereotype of UFOs’ being piloted by “little green men”? “Mysterious,” because small green humanoids are almost never actually reported in connection with UFOs. Yet the trope remains unshakeable.
Martin Kottmeyer (“The Anomalist” #10) has observed that the convention of “little green men” first became widespread in 1955, and he traces it to the distorted newspaper coverage of the bizarre Kelly-Hopkinsville incident in August of that year. He suspects that the Irish overtones of the name “Kelly” (as in “kelly green”) were what gave rise the image. Maybe; but this seems a lot of weight to place on a single name. My own sense is that something deep-rooted in the human psyche–dare I say “archetypal”?–is at work here, and that Francis Godwin’s green children from the moon may be part of it.
If so, learning about the green children is not the only reason I’m glad I read this wonderful book by a wonderful scholar. But it stands high among them.
by David Halperin
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