A ruthless merchant kidnaps a beautiful young woman and takes her on board his ship. But as they make their way toward his home, a freak storm blows them off course. The terrified sailors helplessly fight against the wind and waves as their craft is drawn ever northward to the pole. One by one, the crew succumbs to the icy blasts leaving their captive shivering and alone on the deck of a pilotless vessel. When the heroine recovers a little, she discovers she has crossed through a secret passage and finds herself in another world where animals speak and marvels abound.
The above scenario is the premise of Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 novel, The Blazing World. It is a work that does not fall easily in any neat category. It has been called an early piece of science fiction and presented 17th-century readers with visions of jet-powered ships made of gold scooning brightly across the sea. Other critics characterize it as a Utopian text in which the writer lays out her prescription for healing the social disorders of her day. But whatever label we apply to it, The Blazing World offers a delightful celebration of the power of imagination.
The heroine is rescued by talking bear-men who convey her to their island home. But finding their climate and food are not to her taste, they journey southward toward an island called Paradise, where the emperor of that world resides. The young woman soon learns the speech of the animals transporting her and finds them highly civilized. When they present her to the human emperor, he falls in love with her and makes her empress of the Blazing World.
The newly crowned empress is not slow in asserting control over the domain she now governs. She sets the beast-men under her command to various scientific labors. Here the modern reader may have some difficulty as the story element of the work is subsumed by pages of abstract philosophical discourse. It’s evident that Cavendish was well aware of the scientific debates of her day and often satirizes them in the dialogues between the monarch and her subjects.
For example, she makes her bear-men into astronomers but writes, “these telescopes caused more differences and divisions among them than ever they had before; for some said, that they perceived the sun stood still, and that the earth did move about it; others were of opinion that they both did move; and others again, that the earth stood still and the sun did move; some said the moon was another world like the terrestrial globe, and the spots therein were hills and valleys; others would have the spots to be the terrestrial parts and the smooth and glossy parts, the sea.”
The empress becomes so upset with these disputes that she orders all the telescopes in her kingdom to be broken. However, “the bear men, being exceedingly troubled at her majesties displeasure concerning their telescopes, kneeled down, and in the humblest manner, petitioned that they might not be broken. For, said they, we take more delight in artificial delusion than in natural truths.”
But here, the novel takes a decidedly unusual turn and enters into a delightful metaphysical fantasy. Becoming bored with the reports of the bear men, the bird men, the fly men, and the worm men, the empress engages in a dialogue with the bodiless spirits that inhabit her world. Then, after exploring some philosophical speculations, she desires that they bring her a human soul to act as her amanuensis.
We have assumed up to this point that the world from which the empress was abducted was our own. But as the metaphysical spirits seek a willing human soul to fulfill the empress’ desire, they enter into a third world that turns out to be our own. And the soul that they draw into the Blazing World is none other than that of the novelist herself, Margaret Cavendish, The Duchess of Newcastle. Having become a character in her own story, she tells us, “their meeting did produce such intimate friendship between them that they became Platonic lovers, although they were both females.”
The Duchess and Empress have a number of disembodied adventures together, and the work veers into allegorical satire as they put the god of fortune on trial for his treatment of the Duke of Newcastle. However, toward the end of the novel, Cavendish brings forward and celebrates the very power which has allowed her to create this tale: the power of imagination itself.
As the duchess grows tired of their exploits, she seeks out her friend for advice. The empress calls up the spirits who advise her to create her own world. “What? said the empress, can any mortal be a creator? Yes, answered the spirits; for every human creature can create an immaterial world fully inhabited by immaterial creatures, and populous of immaterial subjects, and all this is within the compass of the head and skull.”
The spirits continue, “why should you desire to be empress of a material world, and be troubled by the cares that attend government? When as by creating a world within yourself, you may enjoy all both in whole and in parts.”
Both the empress and the duchess take this advice to heart and, for a time, busy themselves with creating their own worlds. The duchess first tries to follow the models of various philosophers, from Thales to Plato. Eventually, however, he decides to make her world according to her own perceptions. “Which world, after it was made, appeared so curious and full of variety, so well ordered and wisely governed, that it cannot possibly be expressed by words, nor the delight and pleasure which the duchess took in making this world-of-her-own.”
The writer makes it clear that she is speaking of the power of imagination when she speaks again in her own voice in the epilogue of the “world” she created in the novel. We normally associate this kind of tongue-in-cheek self-referential trope with post-modernism, so it is wonderful to find it in a novel written almost four hundred years ago.
Our modern world rightly celebrates the gifts that science and reason have brought us. But behind every advance our civilization has made has been an imaginative leap toward something that does not yet exist.
The Blazing World presents readers with a unique melange of fantasy and self-referential humor. Its philosophical speculations about scientific matters offer a unique window into a time when much of what we take for granted had not yet been established. But its championship of the creative act by which we may make a realm of our own is a true delight. For each of us has within us the capacity to dream our own Blazing World into existence. And to catch these dreams in a thread of ink and spread them on a page is the gift of literature to the ages.
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The Blazing World of Margaret Cavendish: Copyright Jonathan Golding 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Artwork: Creation by Jheronimus Bosch. Public Domain