The Ecstasy of Saint Paul, by Nicolas Poussin
This is so ironic. When I first conceived of this entire series of postings, drawing parallels between The Skylark Trilogy and Homer, what I am now about to discuss was the primary motivation for doing so. But now that it comes to it, I find myself in no way up to the task. I am humbled by the audacity of the conception, and fear that I will fail utterly to convey the unalloyed awe that overcomes me when I catch even a glimpse of what moved Homer, Virgil, Dante, St. Paul, the unknown author of Gilgamesh, and (yes) E.E. “Doc” Smith to plunge their hero into the depths of the Underworld at the supreme moment of crisis in their lives.
Apollo and the Muses, by John Singer Sergeant
Perhaps it is time for me to imitate my tutors here, and invoke the Muses for aid in completing my task.
Oh, Holy Nine.
Descend, I beseech you, from Mount Parnassus most blessed,
And fill my feeble spirit and quaking heart with your genius.
Despise not my unworthiness, and call upon your divine father Apollo.
Beg for just one drop of his skill in all the Arts,
And lend, each of you, the peculiar talent for which you are held in so high esteem
To my pitiful efforts.
I pledge to lay whatever stray leaves of laurel that may chance my way upon your altar
And give all credit where it is due.
For I know all too well that it is beyond my power to express the Truths
Revealed to me in these writings, penned by the Great Doctor,
As he himself was blissfully unaware of your guidance, as he sang the tale of
And The Skylark of Space!
Gilgamesh journeys to the realm of Utnapishtim
I’d wager that there isn’t anybody who has formally studied literature who is unaware of the universal, repeating themes that we find in every time and all countries, such as the quest, the homecoming, and the coming of age, to name just a few. But the motif I’m interested in right now is the journey to the Underworld. In the world’s oldest known story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, our hero is brought to the brink of supreme crisis with the death of his best friend Enkidu. To retain his sanity, Gilgamesh must undertake a journey of surpassing difficulty beyond the circles of this world to the realm of Utnapishtim, who along with his wife is the only human being immune to death. In The Odyssey, the witch Circe tells Odysseus that he has no hope of ever returning home unless he first voyages beyond the encircling Ocean to the land of the dead, there to learn from the prophet Tiresias how to find his way back to Ithaca. When Aeneas lands on the Italian peninsula, he is compelled to make his way to Hades, there to see the unborn shades of his descendants who are fated to found Rome and lead her to greatness. In The New Testament, Saint Paul is carried up to the Third Heaven (quite possibly the Sphere of Venus) as a necessary step in the preparation for his missionary journeys. In the opening lines of The Divine Comedy, Dante finds himself stymied at the foot of the Mountain of Bliss, unable to get past three guardian beasts that prevent his ascent. Dante is then met by the shade of the poet Virgil, who informs him that unless he first descend to the bottom of Hell and climb the Mountain of Purgatory, it will not be possible for him to ascend to Paradise. In The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn learns by gazing into the Palantir that his only hope of saving Minas Tirith in an imminent decisive battle is to take a roundabout route via The Paths of the Dead, and fall upon the enemy from the rear.
Dante and Virgil at the entrance to Hell
The common thread to all these stories is that, at a moment of ultimate tension, our hero is stopped dead in his tracks with no hope of obtaining his goal, and discovers that the one and only way forward is to seemingly go in the opposite direction, through the underworld, into the realm of the dead.
Aeneas and the Cumaen Sybil, by Turner
I’m not at all sure why this must be so. Charles Williams would no doubt tell us that all these tales are pale mythological reflections of the true story of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell in the time between His Crucifixion and Resurrection – the archetype of all such journeys. But for whatever reason such forays into the Kingdom of the Dead are baked into our collective subconscious, we can (as I stated way back on August 8th) expect great artists to deal with these matters. It is, after all, part of their job to know about such things. But what is this? Here in Chapter 6 of Skylark of Valeron we see Doc Smith (most definitely not a great writer!) doing something that looks suspiciously like the same thing, apparently in blissful ignorance of what he has done.
Christ's Descent into Hell
Skylark Three ends with the annihilation of the last of the Fenachrone, but with Seaton and company still hurtling away from the Milky Way at an unthinkable speed. It will take many months for them to slow down, reverse course, and return home. And it is there in the next volume (Skylark of Valeron) in the unimaginable vastness that separates the galaxies, where our heroes encounter for the second time the creatures of pure intellect who very nearly did them in, way back in the first volume of the trilogy (see the posting “Monsters” from August 24th). Smith of course takes the reader through every detail of that meeting, which all too quickly turns threatening, then hostile, and finally settling into open warfare.
Spaceship Skylark Three battles the Intellectuals
(Pyramid Books paperback cover illustration)
But as exciting and definitive as that first-hand account is, Smith outdoes himself in the retelling from distant Norlamin’s point of view, where the super scientists of that world strained to follow the events taking place at the extreme limit of their instruments:
At the tantalizing limit of visibility, something began to happen … The immense bulk of the Skylark disappeared behind zone after impenetrable zone of force, and it became increasingly evident that from behind those supposedly impervious and impregnable shields Seaton was waging a terrific battle against some unknown opponent, some foe invisible even to fifth-order vision.
For nothing was visible - nothing, that is, save the released energies which, leaping through level after level, reached at last even to the visible spectrum. Yet forces of such unthinkable magnitude were warring there that space itself was being deformed visibly, moment by moment. For a long time the space strains grew more and more intense, then they disappeared instantly. Simultaneously the Skylark's screens of force went down and she was for an instant starkly visible before she exploded into a vast ball of appallingly radiant, flaming vapor.
In that instant of clear visibility, however, Rovol's stupendous mind had photographed every salient visible feature of the great cruiser of the void. Being almost at the limit of range of the projector, details were of course none too plain; but certain things were evident. The human beings were no longer aboard; the little lifeboat that was Skylark Two was no longer in her spherical berth; and there were unmistakable signs of a purposeful and deliberate departure.
"And," Rovol spoke aloud … "although we searched minutely and most carefully all the surrounding space we could find nothing tangible. From these observations it is all too plain that Seaton was attacked by some intelligence wielding dirigible forces of the sixth order; that he was able to set up a defensive pattern; that his supply of power uranium was insufficient to cope with the attacking forces; and that he took the last desperate means of escaping from his foes by rotating Skylark Two into the unknown region of the fourth dimension."
So far, Seaton had proven himself more than a match for any purely physical opponent, be it a dead sun, non-sentient beasts, the ultra-extreme conditions at the heart of a white dwarf star, or combat against enemy weaponry. But when confronted with an actively malevolent will, he is compelled – just like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Aeneas, St. Paul, and Dante – to take a seemingly roundabout path. In this case, into the Fourth Dimension, a world of utter bizarreness raised to the Nth Power, a universe of surpassingly strange inhabitants to whom our supposedly solid bodies are thinner than any imaginable tissue paper, an environment that strains our 3-dimensional intellects to the breaking point.
Now I am in no way proposing that Smith’s Fourth Dimension is some sort of Kingdom of the Dead. This is, after all, a Super Science Epic, a “Space Opera” if you will, and we have to tease our profundities out of a more prosaic raw material. And as I must insist over and over again, it is my contention that Smith had no inkling of the significance of what he has written here. And it is that very unawareness that makes what Smith is doing here so fascinating. For he did not set out to create myth, or to shed light on our deepest yearnings as human beings, but was simply telling a cracking good yard, using what was then cutting edge science as his framework. But like it or not, even if he were totally indifferent to such things, Smith was inexorably pulled into our collective mythos like iron filings aligning themselves with the poles of a magnet. The fact that it was done (to all appearances) unconsciously only proves that such ideas are deeply imbedded in our psyche. To repeat what I wrote three months ago:
“Homer was right because E.E. Smith said the same things by accident.”
Dante at the Gates of Dis
But what exactly do all these adventures in the Underworld mean? Why do they so often crop up in our collective mythos, and always at the same time? I believe they occur when we realize that our main battle is not with some external enemy, but within ourselves. In the first 8 cantos of The Divine Comedy, Dante had encountered the sins of the appetite (lust, gluttony, avarice, anger). Here in these upper circles of Hell, the intellect is not so much engaged as it is suppressed. (Dante illustrates this by having his pilgrim swoon in very nearly every circle.) But traveling deeper, he comes to the iron Walls of Dis, the infernal city. Within these walls lie the sins where the intellect is actively engaged (heresy, violence, fraud, and treachery). Hitherto the passages between Hell's concentric circles had been guarded by brainless monsters - Minos, Cerberus, Pluto. But now the ramparts are manned by the demons themselves, pure intellect totally depraved. Dante can progress no further, and even his guide Virgil is no help. Virgil is the allegorical representation of art, culture, and civilization itself. But unaided, these prove helpless in the face of Pure Evil. Virgil must call upon divine assistance to proceed, which arrives in the form of a heavenly angel who rebukes the demons and scatters them before our pilgrim.
The literary device of a voyage to the Underworld serves the purpose of indicating that the story's protagonist has come to the realization that victory or defeat is a matter of internal struggle.
“The battleline between good and evil runs through the heart of every man.” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn)
“For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)