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NICOLAI KLIMII ITER SUBTERRANEUM

Anno 1664, postquam in Academia Hafniensi utroque examine defunctus eram et Characterem, qui dicitur Laudabilis, suffragiis Tribunalium tam Philosophorum quam Theologorum emerueram, reditui in patriam me accingo, navemque Bergas Norvegiae ituram conscendo, niveis utriusque Facultatis calculis monstrabilis, at aeris inops. Commune mihi fatum cum caeteris Norvegiae Studiosis erat, qui a bonarum artium mercatura deplumes in patriam redire solent. Ferentibus ventis usi, post prosperam sextidui navigationem portum Bergensem intravimus.

(In the year 1664, having passed both examinations at the Academy in Copenhagen, and having received the grade laudabilis, both in Theology and Philosophy, I prepared to return to my native country, and boarded a ship bound for Bergen, in Norway. I was well-equipped with testimonials from both faculties, but destitute of money, a fate that I shared with all other Norwegian students, who commonly returned penniless from the Temple of the Muses. We had a following wind, and arrived after six days' fortunate sailing to my native city of Bergen.)

So begins the amazing tale of Niels Klim, as told by Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754) and published (in Latin) in 1741.

Equipped with a sumptuous (and entirely fictive) preface, purporting to be affidavits by various notables verifying the truthfulness of the story told within, Niels Klims Subterranean Journey tells the tale of young Niels, a newly-minted academic of good prospects, whose fate takes a turn for the weird. While spelunking near Bergen, he falls down a deep hole in a cave:

...et tanquam alter Pluto, nisi quod harpago mihi pro sceptro esset, Labor, et icta viam tellus ad tartara fecit.1

Circiter horae quadrantem, quantum in ista animi perturbatione coniicere licuit, in spissa caligine et perpetua nocte versatus eram, cum tandem tenue quoddam lumen, crepusculi instar, emicuerit, et mox lucidum et serenum coelum apparuerit. Stulte igitur credebam, aut a repercussione aëris subterranei aut vi contrarii venti me reiectum, cavernamque istam spiritus sui reciprocatione in terram me revomuisse. At neque sol, quem tunc conspicabar, nec coelum nec reliqua sidera nota mihi erant phaenomena, cum coeli nostri sideribus ista, quae iam videbam, essent minora. Credebam igitur, aut totam novi istius coeli machinam in sola cerebri imaginatione, e capitis vertigine excitata, consistere, aut fingebam me mortuum ad sedes beatorum ferri.

(...and like another Pluto, saving only that I had no scepter but a boat-hook, "fell into the maw of the Abyss, through the yawning Earth".

I had fallen through thick darkness and unremitting night for close upon fifteen minutes, so far as I in my confusion could count it, when I finally noticed a glimmer of light, as of twilight, and straight thereafter beheld a clean and shining sky. I thought, in my simplemindedness, that I had, either repelled by the subterranean airs or by some other counterblast of wind, been blown back up again, and that the cavern, by giving up its breath to me, had given me back to the Earth. However, as both the Sun and the sky and the stars that I saw were much smaller than those we generally see, I could not recognise them at all. I concluded, therefore, that this new construction of the heavens must be the result of mental confusion, my rattled brain's imagination, or that I must be dead, and transported to the blessed abodes.)

As young Niels is soon to find, neither is the case. He has fallen through into the inside of our hollow earth. Here, he finds himself embroiled in a number of adventures. By his cleverness and otherness, he perseveres, amidst the strange world of the subterranean Quamites.

This utopian tale, reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac and Jonathan Swift alike, by one of the great Nordic exponents of the Enlightenment, the "Molière of the North", Ludvig Holberg, ranks as both an early science fiction story as well as a great moralistic tale.

Like Swift's Lemuel Gulliver, Niels Klim travels through several diverse parts of the subterranean world, each structured to provide a moral point. Among these is Potu (or Utopia), inhabited by slow-moving, deep-thinking trees2.

Any further details of Niels' adventures would rank as spoilers, but I can strongly recommend reading it. If you don't have the Latin, there are several excellent translations into Danish, the earliest being from 1789, by Jens Baggesen (1764-1826), as well as into English (the earliest being from 1745, but a recent one from 1960 being well spoken of).

The Danish Royal Library has published the Latin original and Baggesen's translation as a polyglot text, at http://www.kb.dk/elib/lit/dan/holberg/klim/. Somebody called Dennis List has published a partial translation into English, at http://www.dennislist.net/klim.html, but his translation project appears to have stalled in late 2000. E-mail him and tell him you want more!


1 Ovid, Metamorphoses, 5

2 Some have seen the Potuans as the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien's ents.

All translations by myself, based in part on Baggesen, and I don't care who copies them, so there.

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