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Notes on Life Underground
 Nordic Special

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Professor Mark Brake
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Life Underground
Professor Mark Brake
Notes on Life Underground: Journey to the center of the Earth through the eyes of Nordic science fiction writer, Ludvig Holberg.

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Summary:Notes on Life Underground: Journey to the center of the Earth through the eyes of Nordic science fiction writer, Ludvig Holberg.

Notes on Life Underground

Professor Mark Brake

Hell.  The centre of the Earth.  The locus of the Devil and his legions.  The lowliest and most corrupt place in the entire universe.

Aristotle had pictured an unchanging cosmos of nested crystalline spheres each made of ether, the fifth element.  The lowly Earth was placed at its centre, the only region of space subject to change and decay.

The Church had gone a step further.  Dante’s great fourteenth century poem, the Divine Comedy, describes a journey through the Christian universe.  The quest starts on the planet’s surface, descends into the bowels through the circles of Hell, each populated by the sinful dead, and ends at the Earth’s core. Dante’s subterranean vision mirrored Aristotle’s universe above.

The notion stuck, for some at least, until the C18th.  One theologian suggested that the Earth’s rotation was a result of the damned scrambling to escape Hell.  Perhaps not, brother.  The idea of nested spheres persisted in scientific circles.  Newton’s friend, astronomer Edmond Halley, proposed in a paper published by the Royal Society in 1692 that several rotating globes inside the Earth caused its magnetic field.

Ludvig Holberg

The first striking use of Halley’s idea came in the form of Ludvig Holberg’s Nicolaii Klimii iter Subterraneum (1741).  Translated as Niels Klim's Underground Travels, Holberg’s book is about a young Norwegian who stumbles down into the Earth to discover an inner planet populated by intelligent non-human lifeforms.  It is a satirical novel, which is an account of a utopian society.  From an outsider's perspective, the book spoofs a range of topics, including science, religion, governments, and philosophy.

Niels Klim Image

Ludvig Holberg

Ludvig Holberg was born in Bergen, Norway in 1684, during the time of the Dano-Norwegian double monarchy.  He was a well-educated and well-travelled man.  Even as a youth, he visited many of the Europe’s finest cities, spending time in Netherlands and France, and living for a short time in Rome.  He also stayed in Oxford, England between 1706 and 1708, unusual since at the time intellectual life was centred in continental Europe.  At Oxford, Holberg spent his time there using the libraries and participating in Latin discussions with the English students.

Before Holberg's time, of course, science had been closely linked to theology. But, come the Renaissance, science became more popular.  Though he was mainly considered the founder of modern Danish literature, Holberg also played his part in promoting science as a new foundation, with new possibilities.

Niels Klim's Underground Travels was Holberg’s only novel.  He was well aware of the satirical content of the novel.  And well aware too that it would cause uproar in Denmark-Norway.  So, the book was first published in Germany, in Latin.  In so doing, the book got a wider readership than it would have got in Holberg’s homeland alone, making him widely acclaimed throughout Europe.

Niels Klim's Underground Travels

The novel starts after Niels Klim returns from the university in Copenhagen, where he studied philosophy and theology. His scientific curiosity drives him to investigate a strange cave hole in the Earth, on the mountain above the town. Niels ends up falling down the hole, and after a short while finds himself floating in free space.  The Earth, it seems, is hollow, but populated with an array of alien, but intelligent creatures.

After a few days of orbiting a planet within the hollow Earth, Niels finds that the planet revolves around an inner sun; it is a Copernican system of inner worlds. Niels is set upon by a gryphon, and falls down onto the planet, Nazar. On the planet, Niels is eventually taken prisoner by tree-like creatures, accused of attempted rape on the town clerk's wife, and put on trial. The case is dismissed and Niels is set the task of learning the language of this utopian state, Potu.

Niels Klim Image

The Journey of Niels Klim to the world undergound

During the book, Klim chronicles the colourful culture of this Potuan utopia.  He details their religion, their many countries, and their way of life.  For example, the Potuans believe that if you perceive a problem at a slower rate, the better you understand and solve it.  He is appalled at their gender equality; men and women share the same kind of jobs.  So he tables a request to the Lord of Potu to remove women from higher positions in society.   For his ignorance, he is exiled to the inner rim of the Earth’s crust where he finds a country inhabited by sentient monkeys.  Later still, Niels becomes emperor of a land inhabited by the only creatures in the Underworld that look like humans.  Eventually he falls up through the crust and back up to Bergen.

Like Cyrano de Bergerac before him, Holberg imagined meetings between man and alien.  His is a universe fit for life, even if it does reside within a hollow Earth.  And the novel can be read as a satirical attack on human self-esteem, and the assumed pre-eminence of humanity.

More Subterranean Life…

But the industrial revolution changed all that.  The steam engine opened up the veins of the world.  The fossil record spewed out signatures of creatures no longer found.  The dinosaur was reborn.  Among countless others.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864)

As geology developed and the death roll of extinction grew, the terrible extent of history began to dawn.  Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) wielded the new geology like a club.  Verne’s book is a voyage through a subterranean world, and a conquest of space.  Gone are Dante’s mythical speculations of an Earthly core, locus of the Devil and his legions.  In its place is a quest into the depths of evolutionary time.  The explorers find the interior alive with prehistoric plant and animal life.  And their aim is to possess nature for science. 

When Darwinism provided writers with the metaphor of evolution, around seventy futuristic fantasies were spawned in England alone between 1870 and 1900.  One of the first, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), was a book about subterranean supermen. 

His fascinating, if bizarre, tale is set in a subterranean world of well-lit caverns.  As with Ludvig Holberg’s story, Lytton’s book begins as the narrator falls into an underground hollow.  Their heroes, it seems, are unduly careless.

Nonetheless, a mysterious human-like race is discovered, who derive immense power from vril, an all-permeating fluid that has enabled them to master nature.  Indeed, The Coming Race proved to be truly inspiring for a Scottish industrialist; he made a fortune from a strength-giving beef extract elixir known ever since as Bovril.

Niels Klim's Underground Travels

But the idea of subsurface life is with us still.  On Earth, and on Mars.  The relatively new field of ‘deep biology’ has unearthed bacterial spores trapped in three-billion-year-old rock in a South African gold mine, and minute single-celled organisms, foraminifera, living at a depth of seven miles in the Marianas Trench, the deepest location in the Pacific Ocean.

And in 2007, NASA discovered seven candidate skylight entrances into subterranean caverns on Mars.  All seven are located on the flanks of Arsia Mons (southernmost of the massive Tharsis-ridge shield volcanoes), a region with widespread collapse pits that may well indicate an abundance of subsurface void spaces.

Is there some form of Martian life below?

Professor Mark Brake