Ludvig Holberg - Fantastic adventures at the center of the earth await a penniless Norwegian student after he plunges into a bottomless hole in a cave. Niels Klim discovers worlds within our own—exotic civilizations and fabulous creatures scattered across the underside of the earth's crust and, at the earth's center, a small, inhabited planet orbiting around a miniature sun


Ludvig Holberg, The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground. Bison Books, 2004. [1741.]

Fantastic adventures at the center of the earth await a penniless Norwegian student after he plunges into a bottomless hole in a cave. Niels Klim discovers worlds within our own—exotic civilizations and fabulous creatures scattered across the underside of the earth's crust and, at the earth's center, a small, inhabited planet orbiting around a miniature sun. In an epic journey, Klim visits countries led by sentient and contemplative trees, a kingdom of intelligent apes preoccupied with fashion and change, a land whose inhabitants don’t speak out of their mouths, neighboring countries of birds locked in an eternal war, and a land where string basses talk musically to one another. Brave, inquisitive, and greedy, Klim faces many challenges, the greatest of which are his own temptations.
The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground is a classic in speculative fiction and was the first fully realized novel set underground in a hollow earth. First published in 1741, it has earned comparisons to Jonathan Swift’s contemporaneous fantasy, Gulliver’s Travels
The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground begins with young Niels Klim returning to Norway in 1664 after graduating from the University of Copenhagen -- and finding his academic training and fine degree not much help in embarking on any specific career. A student of "natural philosophy" -- science, essentially --, he continues his explorations, traveling all about and eagerly venturing even: "into the very bowels of our mountains". A major attraction is the mountain Floïen, on top of which there is a large, deep cave (sounds like a volcano ...), and he sets out on an expedition there. At the summit Klim lets himself be lowered down into the "fatal cave", but he's barely in -- a mere "ten or twelve cubits" -- when the rope snaps and he plummets down. And down and down: it's a long fall.
       Eventually he finds himself on the surface of the planet Nazar, a subterranean world merely six hundred miles in circumference. One of the first things that happens to him is that a bull charges at him and he tries to escape by climbing up a tree: not a good idea as it turns out, as he has landed in a world populated by sentient (and mobile -- he wasn't seeing things when they seemed to move) trees, and his attempt to mount one of them is seen as ... well, an attempt on: "the chastity of an honorable matron, and one of prime quality". He's taken prisoner and put on trial, which teaches him his first few lessons about the local society.
       The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground includes most of the usual stranger-in-a-strange-world motifs and features, from the protagonist learning about and adapting to his new environment to him exploring more of this world to him even settling down in it and becoming part of it -- before being spit out, and finding himself back home again. Much is also a critique of contemporary society -- European, rather than just Scandinavian -- and Holberg goes about this quite cleverly; written in Latin and first published in Germany, Holberg's intended audience clearly extended beyond the confines of his homeland.
       Klim's encounters with how different this society is are an amusing study of contrasts. How he is seen and where he might fit in after he has studied and tried to prove himself is typical of how different expectations are, as he is judged to be
of competent docility, and extremely quick of apprehension, but of so weak and uneven a judgment that he hardly merits to be considered as a rational creature, much less to be admitted to any important office in the government.
       Indeed, his only truly admirable attribute is the speed with which he can get around: the trees, while not rooted to the ground, are nevertheless very slow-moving. So Klim is appointed messenger to the king -- which at least gives him an opportunity to see more of this world.
       From the fact that it is prohibited to publicly dispute: "about the qualities and essence of the Supreme Being" (i.e. engage in any sort of theological debate -- unimaginable in the terrestrial world, where little else was done at universities and the like at the time) to the fact that no one could publish a book until they had reached thirty years of age (and was: "deemed by his judges ripe and fit for such an undertaking"), Holberg gets amusing jabs in throughout his story. The system of justice and the general attitudes at first often seem peculiar, but Holberg quite cleverly uses them to spotlight real-world inadequacies (and inanities), from academia to politics.
       Among the inspired incidental pieces is a longer excerpt from a book Klim comes across, Tanian's Journey to the Superterranean World which, like Montesquieu's Persian Letters, purports to look at Europe through foreign eyes, allowing Holberg more specific critiques of individual nations and local customs (right down to the "literati of Europe", who he finds are: "very fond of buying books, but in this point they do not much regard the matter they contain as they do the form and neatness of them" (i.e. they care more what the books look like than the content)).
       In traveling around, Klim is exposed to other worlds and systems: in one animals each have specific roles -- goats are philosophers, horses civil magistrates, wolves run the treasury (with hawks and vultures as their deputies ...) -- while eventually shipwrecked in Quama he finds himself among (dull) humans again, and is able to stand out despite only having a: "slender share of knowledge and with ordinary abilities". He helps conquer the neighboring Tanachites and is even made emperor, but though initially hailed enthusiasm in his rule and his actions quickly diminishes -- but at least that eventually leads him back to the real world, twelve years after he fell out of it.
       The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground is more inventive than many similar novels that have a protagonist travel to a strange world, and much of it is very cleverly and entertainingly presented. As is often the case with such texts offering contemporary social critiques, Holberg can get carried away with how many directions he (and his Klim) go in, making for a novel that begins to feel a bit ragged and strained after a certain point. Without the specificity modern novels demand -- the mobile trees, for example, are simply a given, and their biology and anatomy left almost entirely unaddressed -- Holberg nevertheless presents a largely satisfying picture of these worlds, the vagueness entirely appropriate (though strict realists may well be annoyed by it).
       Aspects of the novel do feel dated, and the translation doesn't feel entirely fresh, but The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground continues to hold up well, and is well worth revisiting
- M.A.Orthofer
Niels Klims underjordiske reise (The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground)
Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), Niels Klims underjordiske reise, oversat efter den latinske original af Jens Baggesen (Kiöbenhavn [Copenhagen]: Johan Frederik Schultz, 1789). Graphic Arts Collection (GAX) 2004-3316N.
First published in Latin as Nicolai Klimii iter subterraneum (1741) by the Norwegian-Danish author Baron Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754), this deluxe edition has a Danish translation by the poet Jens Baggesen (1764-1826). The volume is illustrated with etchings by the Danish Royal engraver Johan Frederik Clemens (1749-1831) after drawing by Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard (1743-1809).
Originally, Holberg went to Germany to have the book published, fearing religious objections in Denmark. The satirical nature of the novel pushes the eighteenth-century boundaries of sexual equality and social morality. The book was, in the end, a tremendous success—“the Danish Gulliver’s Travels”—and Holberg named the “Molière of the North.”
Holberg’s novel describes a utopian society discovered by Niels Klim when he accidentally fell into a hole in the earth’s crust. He finds an underworld where trees are alive and the rules are different. Nicknamed “overhasty” because he moved so much faster than the trees, he becames the King’s messenger and visited twenty-seven different provinces, not unlike Swift’s Gulliver.