The Man in the Moone

by Francis Godwin
Release date: 1638
Type: speculative fiction
Genres: science fiction

The Man in the Moone, or A Discourse of a Voyage Thither by Domingo Gonsales, the Speedy Messenger.

The story of a 17th century traveller to the moon!

A science fiction story that predates Jules Verne by some two centuries and, despite Godwin's appreciation of gravitational theory, the birth of Newton by at least ten years. A Spaniard, set ashore on St Helena to recuperate, trains the tame wildlife to lift loads with a series of pulleys. He uses a white signal to encourage the birds to rise and, after a few adventures en route, he is whisked off to the ultimate white signal – the Moon.

A modern introduction sets Godwin's scientific views against the knowledge of the age, and also considers the wider implications of the book which may have been both a cover for scientific debate as well as a political call for greater seaborne exploration. It might also have inspired Swift as the two families were related.

This is one of the earliest science fiction stories written, yet has very advanced views on gravity and the Solar System and is also entangled with the Geographer Richard Hakluytt and his campaign for greater (terrestrial!) English exploration in the late 1500's. An intriguing mix.

It was written by Francis Godwin, Bishop of Hereford from 1617 to 1633, probably when he was bishop, and tells of a journey made to the Moon in a machine powered by large birds each attached to a pulley. One of the bishop's daughters appears to have married into the Swift family of Goodrich, some 15 miles from Hereford, and a Godwin Swift was the uncle of the author and satirist Jonathan Swift. It is therefore quite likely that the young Jonathan's reading included The Man in the Moone and one wonders how this stimulated Gulliver's Travels. It is certainly believed that other writers were influenced by Godwin's book, notably Cyrano de Bergerac and John Wilkins, one of the founders of the Royal Society.

Clearly Godwin had advanced views of the Solar System and the effect of gravity. His theory of the stars relates to those of Copernicus and Tycho Brahe even if he was confused over the size of the stars; his theories on gravity show a comprehension of the weightlessness that would occur between the Earth and the Moon, of the different force of gravity on the Moon and of the problems of re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. His writing of the terrestrial part of the story appears to indicate close connections with Richard Hakluytt (who came from a family from near Leominster, north of Hereford), and with whom he joined in advocating greater English exploration. Whilst Hakluytt said so directly, Godwin makes his point by focussing on St Helena, an island then only recently used by English ships but which would clearly act as a useful base in the Atlantic. Cavendish, the first Englishman after Drake to circumnavigate the Globe, landed at St Helena on his way home, becoming the very first Englishman so to do. It appears that some of his crew came from Herefordshire, yet others subsequently settled in Herefordshire and presumably this is how the bishop came to know so much about the island.

(updated 2010-09-07)

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