A Flight of Fancy

By Jacob Baxter |

At 20.17 (GMT) on 20 July 1969, close to one billion people witnessed something extraordinary. Across the globe, millions of flickering TV screens showed a space capsule touching down on the Sea of Tranquillity, over 250,000 miles away from Earth. After an agonising six and a half hour wait, Neil Armstrong finally stepped out onto the surface of the Moon, and into the history books.

Men and women had long fantasied about going to the Moon before the Space Race. In a charming scene from the 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey offered to ‘tie a lasso’ around the Moon, so that he could deliver it to his sweetheart Mary Hatch. In his ground-breaking silent picture of 1902, Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), Georges Méliès famously fired a rocket right into the eye of the Man in the Moon, who, in a characteristic touch of immodesty, was played by Méliès himself. This film was loosely based on a novel by Jules Verne that was first published in 1865.

Dreams of lunar voyages did not begin when the creations of the Industrial Revolution made the possibility of space travel seem that little bit more likely. At the Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscript Library at Yale University, one of our partners at Preserving the World’s Rarest Books, you will find a book entitled The Man in the Moone that was printed in 1638 (USTC 3019684). This is one of only five known copies of the first edition that have survived today.

By permission of Yale University’s The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Shelfmark: Ih G549 638, USTC 3019684.
Title-page of Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone. By permission of Yale University’s The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Shelfmark: Ih G549 638, USTC 3019684.

At the heart of The Man in the Moone is a literal flight of fancy. It outlines the life of the son of a Spanish nobleman named Domingo Gonsales. After killing a man in a duel, Gonsales flees his hometown of Seville for the East Indies, where he prospers ‘exceedingly well’ by trading jewellery. The Spaniard eventually decides to head home following a number of years in Asia, but on his return voyage, he falls grievously ill, and he is left at the Island of St Helena to recover. St Helena, which would famously serve as a prison for Napoleon in the nineteenth century, is portrayed in The Man in the Moone as a tropical paradise. Amongst its many inhabitants, Gonsales finds a species of bird that can carry notably heavy loads. He calls them ‘gansas’ (Spanish for geese).[1] Impressed by their strength, Gonsales captures over thirty of them to build a flying machine, which ultimately takes him all the way to the Moon and back.

Ih G549 638, USTC 3019684.
Domingo Gonsales and his engine. By permission of Yale University’s The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Shelfmark: Ih G549 638, USTC 3019684.

The Spaniard called his creation the ‘engine’, and it is captured mid-flight in an engraved illustration that appears in the early pages of The Man in the Moone.[2] With a complex set of weights and pullies, Gonsales, complete with a stereotypically Spanish hat, directs his gansas upward towards the heavens. Three ships, an island, and the Atlantic Ocean are left behind far below.

Domingo Gonsales, his ‘engine’, and his cosmic journey were, of course, just figments of the imagination. The very first sentence of The Man in the Moone declares that the work is an ‘essay of fancy’.[3] The book is one of the earliest known works of science fiction in western literature, and it was written by an Anglican clergyman called Francis Godwin, who had become the Bishop of Hereford in 1617, a position that he held until his death in 1633. The Man in the Moone was published posthumously, five years after Godwin had passed away. The exact dating of its composition and the circumstances of its publication remains somewhat unclear.

Whilst it is a work of fiction, certain points of The Man in the Moone are infused with the landmark scientific discoveries of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. On his voyage to the Moon, Gonsales observes, as Copernicus had argued in his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), that the Earth rotates on its axis. Those ‘philosophers and mathematicians’ who still stress that ‘the Earth hath no motion’, Godwin writes, must ‘now confess the wilfulness of their own blindness’.[4] The clergyman, however, stops short of endorsing the most ground-breaking aspect of De revolutionibus with ‘I will not go so far as Copernicus, that maketh the Sun the centre of the Earth, and unmoveable.’[5]

By permission of Yale University’s The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Shelfmark: Ih G549 638, USTC 3019684.
A gansas-eye view. By permission of Yale University’s The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Shelfmark: Ih G549 638, USTC 3019684.

In England, The Man in the Moone was reprinted on at least three more occasions in the seventeenth century. It was also translated into French (1648), Dutch (1651), and German (1659). By 1700, The Man in the Moone had been published in ten different editions, and some augmented Goodwin’s original text with additional adventures and illustrations. Yet, this continued popularity did not guarantee the survival of the original edition of Goodwin’s work. In an article from 1937, Grant McColley even declared that a ‘first edition’ of The Man in the Moone that he had analysed at the British Museum was ‘unique’.[6] Thankfully, the number of known copies of this book has since increased fivefold, but this is still a small proportion of the original 1638 print run.

The issue of loss has not just affected lunar voyages of the imagination. In 2009, NASA admitted that it could not locate some of the tapes that had first recorded the Moon Landing when it was beamed back to Earth from the Sea of Tranquillity in July 1969. These tapes, which were made at ground stations in Australia and California, were primarily created as back up. Moreover, the low-quality footage that they had recorded was then sent, via a satellite, to Houston where it was preserved after it had been converted. Still, these tapes were ‘original’, as NASA themselves state, ‘in the sense that they directly recorded data transmitted from the Moon.’[7]

The first edition of The Man in the Moone at the Beinecke Library brings us tantalisingly close to an early modern Moon Landing, albeit one that was firmly in the mind of an otherwise grounded cleric. Its survival today serves as a reminder that, no matter how powerful they are in capturing the imagination, the passage of time does not always look favourably upon records of remarkable feats of human endeavour, fictional or otherwise.

Jacob Baxter is currently undertaking an MLitt in Book History at the University of St Andrews, having graduated with a first-class degree in History from the same institution. His interests crystallise around Dutch and English print culture during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Jacob attended the USTC summer programme in 2019. You can follow him on Twitter @JE_Baxter.

Further Reading

A digital scan of the first edition of The Man in the Moone can be accessed via ProQuest.

David Cressy, ‘Early Modern Space Travel and the English Man in the Moon’, The American Historical Review, 111 (2006), pp. 961-982.

William Poole, ‘Kepler’s Somnium and Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone: Births of Science-Fiction 1593–1638′ in Chloë Houston (ed.), New Worlds Reflected: Travel and Utopia in the Early Modern Period (Farnham, 2010), pp. 57–70.

Gerard J. DeGroot, Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest (London, 2006).

[1] Francis Godwin, The Man in the Moone (London: John Norton, 1638), p. 25. USTC 3019684.

[2] Ibid., p. 27.

[3] Ibid. A3r.

[4] Ibid., p. 53.

[5] Ibid., p. 60.

[6] Grant McColley, ‘The Date of Godwin’s “Domingo Gonsales”‘, Modern Philology, 35 (1937), p. 47.

[7] Brian Dunbar, ‘Not-Unsolved Mysteries: The “Lost” Apollo 11 Tapes’, NASA, 8 July 2018, < https://www.nasa.gov/feature/not-unsolved-mysteries-the-lost-apollo-11-tapes> [Accessed 22 May 2020].

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