What does an Italian poet, a French novelist, a British rock star, and a Norwegian student have in common? A journey underground.
I refer, of course, to Dante Alighieri, Jules Verne, David Bowie, and the main character of today’s work, Niels Klim. Why such a varied cast of characters?
Well, by itself, Niels Klim’s adventures are a little dry and the character himself is a little tedious. If not downright annoying. Understanding his story alongside other, similar, more accessible stories can help us understand Niels’ reasons for his journey, his focus, and the overall character arc.
Niels Klim is the main character in a little-known classic called Journey to the World Underground by Ludvig Holberg. Holberg wrote Journey in 1741 and was, like his character, a Norwegian student educated in the University of Copenhagen. Originally written in Latin, Journey to the World Underground is one of the foundational works of both Danish and Norwegian Literature.
The best way of solving your problems is by going on a dangerous adventure. Or is it?
Niels Klim has problems. He has just graduated from the University of Copenhagen and he is, as most graduates are, broke. He’s living off friends and relatives when we meet him in the first chapter.
Instead of finding useful employment, even employment not in his area of interest, he goes down a hole in a mountain, much like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. He expects a successful exploration will solve his problems. A grand discovery will win him prestige and respect as a natural philosopher.
Then he wouldn’t have to sponge off his friends and relations.
Instead, he finds another planet—Nazar and drops into orbit around the planet. When he gets to the surface, he lands in a country called Pontu. The citizens immediately arrest him for assaulting the sheriff’s wife. He scrambled up a tree in his haste to get away from a charging bull.
Only the sheriff and his wife are trees to all appearances, so Niels didn’t know the tree he was climbing was a person and not a regular tree. You get the drift.
Niels hopes to find useful employment and social advancement on Nazar. But that doesn’t work out. In Pontu, he’s considered unfit for any employment other than a humble messenger. When he finds success as the Emperor of Quama, it’s through conquest and domination.
Now how’s that for social commentary? A man who prides himself on being rational is only gifted at crude conquest. Not at governing or making a positive difference in the world.
Before long, the citizens of Quama rebel against him, overthrow his rule, and send him fleeing through a tunnel which spits him out into his own world. The only problem that gets solved is regarding his employment. He ends up being the sexton for a local church, Christ-church.
So, no brilliant career as a “natural philosopher” is in the cards for Niels Klim.
Dante seeks spiritual enlightenment, but Niels Klim seeks social advancement.
Dante and Niels are both lost. But how they deal with being lost is like night and day.
Dante’s solution to his problems originates from within. He undertakes the journey because he is spiritually adrift and longs to find his way again. He doesn’t undertake the journey because he lacks fame or advancement. Nor does he expect the journey to solve all his problems. That power lies within himself.
For Niels, the solutions to all his problems originate outside himself. He undertakes the journey to gain enough distinction to advance in natural philosophy (the original name of science) and thinks it will solve all his problems. He’ll be all right once he has a job and money, he thinks.
Except, when he has those things, he’s met with more problems.
So, whose journey was more successful? Dante’s or Niels’? Dante goes all the way into the Empyrean, where God himself dwells. Niels resigns himself to a limited and strict life after being driven back into his own world.
It makes you reconsider your priorities a bit, doesn’t it? We’re told to seek social advancement and to keep up with the trends both in business and in our personal lives. We should strive to be more like Dante and less like Niels.
Jules Verne’s love of the adventure contrasts with Niels’ love of conquest.
If you aren’t careful in specifying titles, it would be easy enough to mistake Journey to the World Underground for Journey to the Center of the Earth. The two are nearly identical not only in title, but in the basic premise.
But the focus is different. Jules Verne’s classic focuses on the love of adventure and discovery for its own sake. Ludvig Holberg is more concerned with Niels Klim’s love of conquest.
The goal in Verne’s book is to prove travel through the center of the earth can indeed be done. And it is done. The love of the adventure and wonder of the things they find is the main point. Even when they quietly observe a giant herding a flock of mastodons, they move on and don’t draw attention to themselves.
For Niels, the goal is to prove himself as a rational, modern man. Well, modern for his day and age. He’s trying to prove himself not only to his fellow creatures, but to the people he meets on Nazar as well. The adventure itself matters very little, so long as he gets power and influence.
The difference? Jules Verne’s characters arrive back to great acclaim and live the proverbial happily ever after. Niels Klim does not. He has to leave the wife and child he had on Quama behind and he loses any hope he had of ever being a well-respected natural philosopher.
Adventure, it would seem, wins over blind ambition. At least in the literary world.
What would happen if the Goblin King, played by David Bowie, sent Niels Klim through the Labyrinth?
Ok, so confession time. David Bowie’s song “Underground” was constantly playing in my head while writing this post.
Sarah, like Niels, cares only about her own problems at the outset. She prefers living in her imaginary world, acting out plays in the park and imagining what she would do if she were part of a great fairy tale. Only she doesn’t realize what that means until she wishes away her baby brother and finds herself in one.
The Goblin King, whatever your opinion of him (evil nemesis or erstwhile would-be lover) is instrumental in her becoming a better version of herself because he not only goads her, but he raises hard questions for her to answer such as her basis of comparison when she, yet again, proclaims that something is “not fair.”
She does, of course, rescue her baby broth and gain a host of friends in the bargain.
To Niels Klim, life also isn’t fair. It’s not fair because he spent a considerable amount of money to gain knowledge and cannot find employment. It’s not fair on the planet Nazar because his learning doesn’t impress anyone and he’s overthrown from the position he receives.
When he returns home, it isn’t fair that he cannot tell everyone of his exploits or that he has to leave behind any hope of returning to the planet.
Does he learn like Sarah does? Well, he learns to resign himself to his lot in life, but he becomes so rigidly pious that people avoid him, and the priest of the church where he’s sexton often rebukes him for being prideful.
Niels cannot understand, for instance, why in Pontu he cannot hold any post higher than that of a messenger until he’s shown the results of an evaluation they gave him.
We found him very tractable and read at learning; but of so wry and pitiful a penetration, that he, by reason of his too hasty conception, can hardly be classes among rational creatures; much less entrusted with any important employment.Journey to the World Underground
The analysis offends Niels. Understandably so. This was the Age of Reason and he, a graduate of the University of Copenhagen, isn’t a rational creature? That would be tantamount to calling someone a psychopath.
But, he proves the tree people correct at every turn and even proves that he himself is not fit for anything like governance. What does he do when he gets power? He tried to conquer other nations for the sake of spreading his own influence.
It makes you wonder what would have happened had Niels run the labyrinth like Sarah did. Would he have learned under the Goblin King’s goading? Would he have succumbed? Or would he have dismissed everything as fantasy and overthrown the King to rule the goblins himself?
That thought is intriguing. What do you think?
Transitioning from utopian fiction to science fiction begins with recognizing our own limitations.
Looking at other literary corollaries to Journey to the World Underground helps us better understand the transition from utopian fiction to science fiction. Utopian fiction tries to solve the world’s problems through ideal societies. Science fiction often shows us that we are the problem in the first place.
Dante shows us the medieval European obsession with the soul’s destination in the afterlife. The poet goes on a spiritual journey to discover his own end and finds his way back to the proverbial straight and narrow by stepping outside of his own limiting beliefs.
Jules Verne shows us the drive to explore and discover new worlds and new possibilities to better our understanding as a species and tries to excite our curiosity for every aspect of our universe.
David Bowie’s Goblin King challenges us to expand our field of comparison but leaving behind the attitudes and fantasies that do not serve us when we have real challenges to face.
Niels Klim shows us the perils of neither learning our own limitations nor expanding our worldview. He goes from narrow viewpoint to narrow viewpoint and ends up losing all his dreams.
Do we become like Niels and harden our own opinions to the point where we make everything in the image of what we think the world should be? .
Or do we take the road through Hell and discover what we’re capable of accomplishing if we leave our own pettiness behind?
Those are questions which inevitably come up in science fiction.
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