April 14, 2015

A True Story

        Around the middle of the second century a Greek-speaking Syrian Roman by the name of Lucian of Samosata was the first man on the moon.  (At least, his account of the lunar landing, included in his tale of a much longer journey, is the first surviving account we have of men on the moon.  Antonius Diogenes wrote an account of an earlier second century moon voyage by one Mantinias, but this work has not survived.  Of course, when Lucian arrived on the moon, he found people already there, even including an Earthling, so I guess that makes him the third Earth man on the moon…)  Lucian’s account of his travels, called True History, begins with an introduction in which he states “As I have no truth to put on record, having lived a very humdrum life, I fall back on falsehood… My subject is, then, what I have neither seen, experienced, nor been told, what neither exists nor could conceivably do so. I humbly solicit my readers’ incredulity.”
        Lucian and a ship full of men and provisions set sail for adventure.  At first they encountered the sorts of islands and peoples other Greek and Roman voyagers had discovered before them, but then “a waterspout suddenly came upon us, which swept the ship round and up to a height of some three hundred and fifty miles above the earth. She did not fall back into the sea, but was suspended aloft, and at the same time carried along by a wind which struck and filled the sails.  For a whole week we pursued our airy course, and on the eighth day descried land; it was an island with air for sea, glistening, spherical, and bathed in light. We reached it, cast anchor, and landed.”  One small step for Lucian, one giant leap for fiction.
        And what did Lucian and his crew discover on the moon?  More than dust, I assure you.  First of all, this is a Roman epic, so of course there was an epic battle — between the Moonite army of Horse-vultures, Salad-wings, Millet-throwers, Garlic-men, Flea-archers, and Wind-coursers, all with helmets made of beans, against the armies of the Sun, consisting of Horse-ants, Sky-gnats, Sky-pirouetters who slung monstrous radishes at long range, Stalk-fungi, Dog-acorns, and Cloud-centaurs.  There were even more amazing creatures, but as Lucian scrupulously reported, “I did not actually see them; and a description from hearsay I am not prepared to give, as the marvels related of them put some strain on belief.”  They all fought on a battlefield spun by giant spiders between the Moon and the Morning Star.  Eventually the Sunites built a wall of cloud to eclipse the Moon, which forced the Moonite king to negotiate for peace.
        Lucian included in his report a detailed description of the inhabitants of the Moon.  They ate the smoke of roasted flying moon-frogs, and they had tails which were large, unbreakable cabbages.  They could open and shut their bellies and use them to keep things in, and their eyes were removable.  Lucian asserted, “Any one who doubts the truth of this statement has only to go there himself, to be assured of my veracity.”  Admittedly, these things were not witnessed by later astronauts who did go there themselves, but perhaps they were all around on the far side at the time.  Or, of course, much can change in eighteen centuries.
        After Lucian and his crew returned to Earth, they had a number of further adventures.  They spent quite a while inside a whale 200 miles long, landed on and ate of an island of cheese, spent time on the Isle of Dreams, fought with Pumpkin-pirates, sailed across a water bridge between two seas with an empty chasm dividing them, and much more.  Whether they ever did return home we’ll never know, because the promised sequel appears never to have been written.  But at least Lucian must have arrived somewhere where he could publish what he had written so far.
        Translations of True History are available on-line in several places.  Here are two versions: The True History, translated by Fowler, Oxford, and Oxford 1905; A True Story translated by A.M. Harmon, 1913.  It isn’t long, and it’s a lot of fun, so you can read it yourself easily enough.

[Pictures: Suddenly a waterspout came upon them, drawing by Ruth Cobb from Chatterbox Children’s Annual, 1926 (Image from Lady Meerkat);
Battle between Moon and Sun, woodcut from Dutch edition of The True History, 1647 (Image from Torque Control);
Sea bridge, illustration by A. Payne Garnett from Lucian’s Wonderland, 1899 (Image from Google Books.)]

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