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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754)

The Human Planet and the Griffin

From “Niels Klim’s Underground Journey”

MY downward course having now continued for some time, I began to observe that the rapidity with which I was first precipitated gradually abated as I approached the planet, or celestial globe, which I had perceived soon after the beginning of my descent. As I drew nearer, it appeared visibly to increase in bulk, so that at length I could discern, although through a cloudy atmosphere that surrounded it, seas, hills, and valleys upon the surface.

I now became fully sensible that I was not only suspended and dangling in the celestial air, but that the perpendicular line, in which I had hitherto descended, was now changed into a circle. At this discovery I must acknowledge my hair stood on end, fearing, as I did, that I must be metamorphosed either into a planet or a satellite, to be twirled round in perpetual motion to the world’s end. When I, however, considered within myself that my reputation and honor were in no wise likely to be tarnished through such a circumstance, and that a celestial globe, or at least the satellite of a celestial globe, always proceeding in planetary order, was at any time able to outshine and eclipse a poor, hungry student of philosophy, my spirits again revived; and the more so when I found that the celestial air in which I hung had so strongly fortified me against the cravings of nature that I felt neither hunger nor thirst. I just then remembered that I had a biscuit in my pocket. I took it out, merely to try, out of curiosity, whether in that condition I could relish it; but, on taking the first mouthful, I quickly perceived that all earthly food had become nauseous; I therefore cast it away from me as a useless encumbrance. How great was my amazement on this occasion, when I discovered that the biscuit not only hung dangling in the air, but—wonderful to relate!—began to describe a planetary orbit around me. This gave me a clear perception of the true laws of motion, according to which all bodies placed in equipoise must move in circles.

However much I might have felt dejected but a short time previous, at seeing myself a ball in the hands of mocking Fate, I was now, on the other hand, equally elated on beholding myself exalted not only to a self-subsisting planet, but to such an one even as would always be attended by a moon, and therefore ought to be ranked among stars of the first magnitude, or planets of the first order. In acknowledging the whole of my vain imbecility, I must needs say that I was so immoderately inflated by this good fortune, that had I then met with all the burgomasters and all the senators of Bergen, I would merely have vouchsafed them a single glance, in order to have looked down upon them as insignificant atoms; nor would I have deigned to incline my eyes, much less to bow my head, to them.

In this state I remained three whole days. As I was continually carried round by and with the planet, which was now at no very great distance from me, I could easily distinguish the day from the night, through observing the rising and the setting of the subterranean sun; though after he was gone down I never remarked any such nights as we experience on earth. For when this bright luminary went even far below the horizon, the heavens everywhere still continued light and shining, very similar to the full moon with us. This brightness, I concluded, must be reflected from the internal vault of the hemisphere of this world, which borrowed its light from a sun placed in the center. A superficial knowledge of astronomy assisted me in drawing this inference.

But the most ridiculous part of my conduct, while enjoying my happy state, was, perhaps, that I looked upon myself as coming next after the immortal gods; and, as I considered myself in the quality of a new celestial light, I made account of being speedily introduced, together with my satellite, into the catalogue of stars, by the astronomers of the globe below; when, lo! there appeared a most hideous and terrific winged monster, which first threatened my right side, and then my left, now my front, and afterward my rear, with a deadly attack. In the beginning, as it approached me, I took it to be one of the twelve signs of the zodiac, and secretly wished in my heart, if that really were the case, that it might be the Virgin; for, out of the whole stellar system, no one save her could, in that solitude, show me the smallest particle of motherly care or afford me the least consolation. As this creature, however, drew nearer to me, I perceived that it was neither more nor less than a frightful griffin. I was, in consequence of this discovery, so stupefied and so overtaken with fear, that I nearly forgot myself and my new celestial dignity, and, in my inexpressible anxiety and perplexity of mind, I drew out the testimonials I had received from the university, which, as good luck would have it to be, were then in my pocket, to exhibit to this dreadful menacing enemy, and to prove that I had passed both my theological and philosophical examinations, was a scholar, and, what was more, possessor of the baccalaureate. As soon, however, as the first heat of my passion was over, I gradually recovered my reason, and laughed heartily at the folly of which I was guilty.

I could still not clearly perceive for what purpose the griffin followed me. I knew not whether to look upon him as an enemy or as a friend, or to believe—which was probable—that merely from curiosity he was indulging in a little contemplation of my form. True it is that a human body suspended in the air, with a boat-hook in his hand, and dragging a long rope after him, would be a sufficiently ludicrous sight to attract any one to stop and gaze after it. The extraordinary figure that I then cut, occasioned, as I afterward learned, the inhabitants on my side of the planet to hold diverse controversial colloquies, and to form several hypotheses concerning me. The philosophers and astronomers took me to be a comet, and judged the rope to be the comet’s tail. Many even insisted that so uncommon an appearance in the heavens must portend some unusual calamity, not short of pestilence or famine. Others, again, went much farther—even far beyond the possibility of observation—and with much precision delineated my form; so that, before my arrival on the globe, I was already defined, described, painted, and even engraved on copper.

All this I afterward heard mentioned with inward merriment, and a sort of tickling delight, when I had been for some time upon the planet, and had learned the subterranean language.

But to resume. The griffin had now approached near enough to attack me with his wings, and was even on the point of assaulting me with his foot; so that I could plainly discern with what view he paid me his visit. I therefore commenced a defensive attack against this formidable and warlike enemy; took the boat-hook in both hands, and not only with it parried off his audacious attacks, but sometimes even forced him to retreat in haste; until at length, after many a fruitless blow, while he still continued to tug at me, I succeeded in passing the hook between his wings, and sticking it into the nape of his neck with such force that I was unable to draw it out again. The wounded monster, with a horrid shriek, now flew headlong to the planet beneath; and I, weary already of my new celestial astro-dignity, was glad to change my orbital motion to its former perpendicularity.