Herefordshire People: Seventeenth-Century Bishop of Hereford, Francis Godwin: Inventor of Sci Fi
PUBLISHED: 16:23 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:13 20 February 2013
Who invented science fiction? Not Isaac Asimov, but a seventeenth-century Bishop of Hereford, Francis Godwin. Jonathan Keates tells the story of a book written by a local author nearly 400 years ago - and still in print.
Hereford's bishops are a colourful crowd. There was Richard Swinfield, a Chaucerian figure whose household accounts read like some medieval version of 'Masterchef', and his sinister successor Adam Orleton, an 'accessory before the fact' in the grisly murder of King Edward II. Contrast these with worthier figures such as music-loving Philip Bisse, founder in 1724, with his brother Thomas, of the Three Choirs Festival, or the learned and charitable Thomas Cantilupe, Hereford's most important saint.
What do bishops do, however, when not busy murdering monarchs, starting festivals or getting themselves a place in the church calendar? Herefordshire has the answer in one of its most dedicated spiritual leaders, who, when he wasn't disciplining his parish clergy for drunkenness and playing football in the churchyard, found time to write a book which started what is nowadays probably the world's most popular and profitable literary genre. For our county of hops and cider and fat cattle is also the birthplace of science fiction.
Born in 1562, Francis Godwin was not a native Herefordian - he came from Northamptonshire - and was made a bishop as a reward from Queen Elizabeth I for writing a catalogue of movers and shakers in English church history. She gave him the Welsh diocese of Llandaff, miserably poor after one of his predecessors had sold off its valuable estates and pocketed the money. Godwin, 'sharpe against the vices most abounding in our tyme, Sacriledge, contempt of God in his ministers and want of Charitie', was such an effective pastor that in 1617 Elizabeth's successor James I transferred him to Hereford, where he stayed until his death in 1633.
In those days of slow travel along bad roads Godwin made his diocesan visits from various episcopal manor houses. A favourite with his family (he and his wife had three sons who all followed him into the church) was the moated court at Whitbourne on the county's northeastern border. In this quiet place above the Teme valley, with the Malvern Hills on the horizon, Godwin could employ his 'vertuous mind, unfatigable industrie and infinite reading' on following up an absorbing interest in contemporary science, exploration and technology, which resulted in his novel The Man in the Moone, written around 1627.
The hero is Domingo Gonzalez, a Spaniard whom Godwin's publisher, in a preface to the book, calls 'the little eye-witnesse, our great discoverer'. While living on the island of St Helena, Domingo trains a flock of geese to lift him into the air on a flying machine built of wood, with a little sail attached. 'Like so many horses that had gotten the bitt betweene their teeth', the gansas, as he calls the birds, succeed in carrying Domingo so high above the earth that he can see the planet turning round ' upon her owne Axe every 24 howers from the West unto the Easte'. Godwin imagines him looking down on the globe, with Africa ' like unto a Peare that had a morsell bitten out upon the one side of him', the Atlantic ocean as ' a great shining brightnesse' and the stars whizzing to and fro ' as so many nayles in a Cart Wheel'.
As the gansas leave the earth's gravitational field, their flight time speeds up. After eleven days they reach the moon, covered with 'a huge and mighty Sea, besprinckled here and there with Islands'. Little Domingo, exclaiming 'O Vanities, fansies, Dreames!', soon establishes contact with the Lunars, a remarkable race whose survival depends solely on the amount of moral virtue each one possesses. They mate for life - 'by a secret disposition of nature, a man, having once known a woman, never desireth another' - and instead of dying, go to special rooms which keep them perfectly preserved. Because, according to Godwin, the moon lacks magnetism, the Lunars move around by jumping in the air and propelling themselves with the help of feather fans.
Visiting the royal palace, Domingo meets the emperor Irdonozur, whose dynasty has reigned for 3077 years, and learns something of the Lunar language, hard to master 'because it consisteth not so much of words and letters, as of tunes and uncouth soundes that no letters can express'. Godwin, who got this idea from reading about the tonal accents of Chinese, prints musical staves in the text with appropriate notes for singing Lunar discourse.
Eventually Domingo, whose gansas are 'beginning to droope, for want of their wonted migration', returns to earth, ready to 'Inrich my Country with the knowledge of hidden mysteries'. One of Bishop Godwin's technological obsessions was with telegraphic communication (he published a little pamphlet on it) and Domingo looks forward to an age when 'you shall see men to flie from place to place in the ayre; you shall be able (without moving or travailing of any creature) to send messages in an instant many Miles off, and receive answer again immediately'.
Air travel, the internet, spaceships, aliens, earth science - Godwin's enchanting little book foresees them all. Isaac Newton has The Man in the Moone to thank, as much as that famous apple falling on his head, for the theory of gravity, and Jonathan Swift took more than a few hints from its pages for his Gulliver's Travels.
It used to be thought that Francis Godwin began his novel while still at Oxford, but experts now believe it was a recreation from the cares of looking after Hereford diocese. My guess is that he wrote it amid the beauty and tranquillity of Whitbourne,
'of a long time the retiring place & much used seate of the Bps of Hereford, who here had a very faire house'. At least part of the old mansion survives and Godwin himself lies buried in the nave of the parish church. Fans of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark, not to mention 'Trekkies', should make a pilgrimage to the resting place of the 'right reverend father in god' who was also the father of sci fi.
The Man in the Moone was reissued by Logaston Press in 1996, price 8.95. Logaston Press, Little Logaston, Woonton, Herefordshire HR3 6QH, 01544 327344.
(images supplied: Francis Godwin - photo and credit details to follow
Frontispiece of the original edition of The Man in the Moone.
Whitbourne Court as it is today. Photo by Paul Lack.
Whitbourne church, where Francis Godwin is buried. Photo by Paul Lack.)