Kepler’s dream of Iceland
My name is Duracotus and my fatherland Iceland called Thule by the ancients. My mother, Fiolxhilde who died recently left me at leisure to write something which I already ardently desired to do.
While she lived she diligently saw to it that I did not write, for she said that there were many malicious usurpers of the arts, who, because they did not understand anything, on account of the ignorance of their mind, misrepresented them and made laws detrimental to the human race.
Under these laws, many men would assuredly have been condemned and swallowed up in the abysses of Hekla.
Written in 1608 by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), the novel ‘Somnium’ (“Dream”) is by many—including such luminaries as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Jorge Luis Borges—thought to be one of the first examples of science fiction.
Although ‘Somnium’ was not published until 1634, after Kepler passed, he wrote the story as a student at the University of Tübingen, after being inspired by an essay topic he was assigned: What does the earth look like to a man standing on the moon, observing it from above?
Kepler presents ‘Somnium’ as an account of a dream, narrated by a 14-year-old Icelandic peasant boy, Duracotus. The boy’s elderly mother Fiolxhild (these are somewhat unusual Icelandic names, to say the least—but Kepler had never been to Iceland, and probably never met an Icelander), is skilled in magic, and ekes out a living selling magical trinkets to foreign sailors.
After Duracotus ruins one such trinket, she sells him to a sailor who takes the boy to the then-Danish island of Hven, where he meets the famed astronomer Tycho Brahe. Brahe and Kepler were familiar with each other and it is likely that it was through Brahe that Kepler became interested in Iceland.
After five years of learning about the cosmos with Brahe, Duracotus returns to Iceland, and asks his mother what she knows about the world above:
Duracotus, my son, knowledge is available not only in other provinces to which you traveled but also in our own homeland. […] We have among us very gifted spirits who shunned the greater light of other regions and the chattering of men and they sought our shaded areas to converse familiarly with us. […] One of these, by far the gentlest and most innocent, was particularly known to me.
Often, in a split second, I was transported by its power to other shores which I selected for myself. If I were kept away from certain places on account of their distance, I gained ground by questioning about those places just as if we were present there. He reviewed for me very many facts about those objects that you had examined with your eyes, accepted from report, taken out of books.
I would especially like you to become a spectator, my companion, of that region concerning which he told me. How wonderful were those things which he told me about it. He conjured up Levania.
Duracotus is eager to learn more about this “Levania,” so he has his mother conjure up the spirit, which describes the mystical region and the way to reach it:
The island of Levania is located fifty thousand German miles high up in the air. The journey to and from this island from our Earth is very seldom open; but when it is accessible, it’s easy for our people. However, the transportation of men, joined as it is to the greatest danger of life, is most difficult. We do not admit sedentary, corpulent or fastidious men into this retinue.
We choose rather those who spend their time persistently riding swift horses or who frequently sail to the Indies, accustomed to subsist on twice-baked bread, garlic, dried fish, and other unsavory dishes.
There are dried up old women especially suited for our purpose. The reason for this is well known. From early childhood they are accustomed to riding goats, or on mantles, and to travel through narrow passes and through the immense expanse of the Earth. Although Germans are not suitable, we do not reject the dry bodies of Spaniards.
According to the spirit, the trip to Levania only takes about four hours, although the distance is vast—50,000 German miles are around 375,000 kilometres. For comparison, the average distance between Earth and the moon is 384,000 kilometres. It is thus clear that the island of Levania actually refers to the surface of the moon.
The initial shock is the worst part of it for him, for he is spun upward as if by an explosion of gunpowder and he flies above mountains and seas. On that account he must be drugged with narcotics and opiates prior to his flight. His limbs must be carefully protected so that they are not torn from him, body from legs, head from body and so that the recoil may not spread over into every member of his body.
Then he will face new difficulties: intense cold and impaired respiration. These circumstances which are natural to spirits are applied force to man. We go on our way placing moistened sponges to our nostrils.
With first section of the voyage complete, our conveyance becomes easier. Then we expose our bodies freely to the air and withdraw our hands. All these persons are gathered into a ball within themselves, by reason of pressure, a condition which we ourselves produce almost by a mere sign of the head. Finally, on arrival at the moon, the body is directed into its intended place by its own accord. This critical point is of little use to us spirits because it is excessively slow.
Therefore, as I said, we accelerate by gravity and go in front of the man’s body, lest by a very strong impact into the Moon he might suffer any harm. When the man awakes, he usually complains that all his members suffer from an ineffable lassitude, from which, however, he completely recovers when the effect of the drugs wears off, so that he can walk.
‘Somnium’ is really only a short story, about twenty pages in print, but Kepler also wrote very detailed footnotes, that elaborate on his theories about the surface of the moon—these in total are three times as long as the text of the story itself.
The rest of the story goes on to describe Levania, or the Moon, in more detail—it is a place both intolerably cold and unbearably hot—and the Icelandic setting with Duracotus and Fiolxhild fades into the background.
Duracotus never actually travels to the moon. He only listens while the spirit his mother conjures describes the journey, so the headline of this article is admittedly a bit of an overstatement. Nonetheless, it can be said that an Icelander is at the centre of literature’s first science-fiction story.
You can read a translation of Keplers story for free online.
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