Prime Edition

AISHWARYA  SUBRAMANIAN
LEFT OF COOL

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

European wise guys eclipse native wisdom

n the power of a primitive and barbaric ruler Allan Quatermain and his companions need some way of getting the other inhabitants of the kingdom onto their side, escaping execution and putting the rightful heir on the throne. One of Quatermain's companions, John Good, carries an almanac which lists important celestial activity — including a conveniently timed (lunar, in this case) eclipse.

I can no longer remember whether H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines was the first time I encountered the story of the educated Europeans who use their superior knowledge of astronomy to their advantage in this way. I also have no way of knowing whether it is the earliest iteration of this trope — one of the things that makes the book so enduringly entertaining is the fact that it is the perfect storm of entertaining adventure story clichés so that only the most unsullied reader could come to it without the sense that she had seen a lot of this before. There's a hidden kingdom in Africa with an unknowably ancient past, a corrupt usurper, a prince with a birthmark that proves his royal status, a beautiful native girl who must be saved from becoming a human sacrifice (and who will fall in love with a white man because if nineteenth century fiction teaches us anything it is that white Europeans are irresistible). But most important are the credulous natives for whom the ability to recognise an eclipse is proof of supernatural power.

n Enid Blyton's The Secret Mountain a family is kidnapped by the sun-worshipping inhabitants of a hollowed out mountain, also in an unidentified part of Africa. Once again a diary containing information about an eclipse saves the day (another life lesson from this genre seems to be that of always carrying a diary of some sort on one's adventures); the father hurls a well-timed knife at the sun and the world gradually goes dark. Then there's Herge's Tintin adventure, The Prisoners of the Sun, which sets a version of this story in Peru and has its main characters captured by the worshipers of an Inca sun god (the comic's research fidelity to Inca mythology is dubious to say the least). Tintin has NOT had the good sense to bring some form of celestial calendar with him, and it's only owing to the merest coincidence that he happens to find a scrap of newspaper that happens to mention the eclipse that is soon to take place. Once again the sky is darkened and everyone panics except the smug Europeans who alone know what's happening.

If it seems a bit unlikely that all these native cultures should have spent thousands of years worshipping celestial bodies without figuring out that occasionally eclipses happen, that's because it is. European adventure fiction oscillates wildly between the conviction that the natives are primitive and ignorant and the worry that they've been around a while and might know stuff. As ever it's that man of science, Professor Calculus, who knows that something is amiss. As his companions look smugly upon the terrified crowd he (under the misapprehension that this is all a play) praises their acting. Even Calculus has seen or read this story too many times to think it's really real.

A couple of weeks ago I stood with a crowd of people in the middle of a city watching the sun disappear. You wouldn't think this would be an unusual sight in the north of England, but it was quite an Event, with a screen set up by a local observatory in case the clouds should, er, obscure the sun. Fists were shaken heavenwards at any passing clouds that dared. Eventually the skies darkened even by local standards; there was something eerie about the quality of the light. Perhaps the gods were angry.

And then it passed, and the light was normal again, and the natives cheered.

 
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