Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Blazing World [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Margaret Cavendish, illo Rebekka Dunlap, introduction by Brooke Bolander.
This peculiar story was written in the mid-seventeenth century by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. It features an unnamed female protagonist who is abducted and then escapes and is transported from her own “Philosophical World” to the “Blazing World” of the title, where she is hospitably received and becomes Empress.
The Blazing World is populated something like the planet Mongo, with bear-men, fox-men, fish-men, bird-men, spider-men, lice-men, and others besides. The Empress consults all of these according to their specialties, regarding natural history, physics, logic, and other “philosophical” topics, and this section of the book gets rather slow–especially with the small type of the Dover Thrift Edition I read. One highlight of this section, on the other hand, is Cavendish’s detailed set of character identifications for Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist as a drame à clef regarding John Dee and Edward Kelly (35). This passage is connected with the Empress’ further ambition “to make a Cabbala” (46).
Turning from her various animal-men subjects to the world of incorporeal spirits, the Empress is next introduced to … the Duchess of Newcastle–that is, her author, with whom she develops a “platonic love.” The Duchess pleads for intervention with Fortune on behalf of her maligned husband the Duke, and this motive accounts for much of the remainder of the first and longer of the story’s two parts.
The second part is livelier on the whole, and involves the Empress receiving news that her home country in the Philosophical World is under threat. So she confers with the Duchess, and they develop and execute an intervention, by which they effect the military and political supremacy of the “King of EFSI,” the Empress’ former sovereign.
An epilogue in Cavendish’s own voice touts her accomplishment in world-creation, and boasts herself superior in that respect to the mere conquerors of great empires such as Alexander and Caesar. She also sets herself above Homer, in giving her characters grounds to resolve their conflicts without fatal violence. She generously extends to her readers the option of becoming her subjects in the Philosophical World, but allows that if they prefer to create their own worlds, they can and should do so.
While the style of The Blazing World is dated, its freedom from later literary conventions often lends it a great deal of charm. Persevering through some of the denser bits is genuinely worthwhile, as the whole text is not that long. It was originally published as a “work of fancy” bound together with her “serious” Observations upon Experimental Philosophy (ix). Her philosophical biases are decidedly modern, and while The Blazing World has been instanced as a forerunner of science fiction, it does hold up as an unusual source of instruction in the magick of cosmopoeia.