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niels klim's journey under the ground

2 december 2016

Niels Klim's Journey under the Ground belongs to the 18th-century genre of fantastic voyages, often seen as precursors to science fiction: Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Johnson's Rasselas, Voltaire's Candide and Micromégas. Ludvig Holberg's entry into the genre is notable for arriving from Denmark and using the "hollow earth" motif. The latter is familiar to me from Edgar Rice Burroughs' much-later Pellucidar series. Burroughs too made elaborate use of the idea that there's another world, inverse in many respects, occupying the inner side of the Earth's shell in the same way that we occupy the outside.

But while Burroughs made an attempt to give Pellucidar some endo-geographical coherence, Holberg really doesn't use any science in his world-building. The interior of the Earth might as well be an ocean like Gulliver's or an Abyssinia like Johnson's: all that matters is that it's remote and offers unlimited scope for imaginary realms.

Some of these realms, as Holberg's interminable subtitle indicates, are populated by talking trees; others by talking animals. Only one nation of humans exists under ground, and these, the Quamites, are debased creatures like Swift's Yahoos, at least until our narrator shows up. Niels Klim clothes the Quamites and teaches them useful arts. He teaches them such useful arts that they learn to ride horses and make firearms, and end up conquering the neighboring nations, which are made up of cats, tigers, bears, roosters, and the like. Niels Klim becomes a kind of Alexander the Great, but then turns into a bad Roman emperor type out of Suetonius.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though, because Klim visits the lands of the "sensible animals" only after a long, less glorious sojourn in the lands of the sensible trees. These beings, forerunners of Tolkien's Ents, hold Niels Klim in pretty low esteem. For one thing, he doesn't have very many branches. For another, he's simply stupid, and carries around a lot of cultural baggage. Klim comes from a Europe where theological disputation is the highest form of intellectual activity. In Potu, land of the trees, such disputants are arrested. Klim asks why and is told that

he had publicly lectured on the being and qualities of God—a subject entirely forbidden in this country. Disputants on these matters are regarded as insane, and are always sent to the mad-house, where they are doctored, until they recover their sound reason. (Chapter 3)
That's a window into Holberg's method. Like many another topsy-turvy (or rather, inside-out) speculative world, the Underground gives Holberg a chance to satirize our world by comparison to one that functions quite well while being completely opposite. For instance, in Potu the sexes are equal, leading Klim to remark "Blessed Europe! … where the wives are so entirely subjected to their husbands that they seem to be rather machines or automatons than creatures endowed with free will and noble aspirations!" (Chapter 9).

Inevitably (in Chapter 13), Klim gets hold of a book written by an Undergrounder who has ventured onto the surface, and reads zingers like a description of how the French are always surrendering in war, but beat all nations into submission in fashion, and how Europeans "imbibe a kind of sup made from burnt beans, which they call coffee." He is disgusted by this book but on reflection allows that it might be fair enough in some points.

Holberg gets in some animadversions against the Catholic Church and transubstantiation, probably harmless enough in a Protestant country in the 1740s. But Wikipedia will tell you that Niels Klim's Journey was too hot to publish in Danish, and instead came out first in Latin, in Hamburg, instead. It seems to have made its way into translations soon enough, and is mostly good-natured fun. Only the end of the journey is downbeat, when Niels Klim becomes a murdering tyrant. He escapes problems he's created by his own rapacity, and returns to the surface to marry and live meekly as a sacristan for the rest of his days.

The incisive egalitarianism of Niels Klim's Journey provides a sort of key to Holberg's plays, which might seem like bullying, conservative humor at the expense of the lower and middle classes. Niels Klim establishes Holberg as an ironist of considerable talent, and confirms my idea that the plays are all the sharper for not dropping their veil of seeming ingenuousness.

Holberg, Ludvig. Niels Klim's Journey under the Ground being a narrative of his wonderful descent to the subterranean lands; together with an account of the sensible animals and trees inhabiting the planet Nazar and the firmament. [Nicolai Klimii Iter Subterraneum, 1741.] Translated from the Danish by John Gierlow. Boston: Saxton, 1845. iBooks.