12thC SciFi

12th Century Science Fiction:

I was reading The History of the Holy Grail tonight, which is the first part of the Prose Lancelot -- that massive 12th-century story that was Sir Thomas Malory's major source for the Arthurian legends. I've spent a bit of time with the Prose Lancelot before, but I skipped the early parts because the Holy Grail bits of the legend are frankly a bit tedious for modern readers (being chiefly allegory). I've mostly read the later parts of the story, which pertain to the king and his knights.

Reading tonight, though, I came across a chapter on something called "the Turning Isle." This is a remarkable piece of what is literally science fiction: that is, it's an attempt to take a theory of physics and construct an interesting setting.

The physics are, of course, Aristotelian. The story starts with the creation of the world, wherein God separates heaven from earth and so forth. Now, anyone who has studied Aristotle's physics knows that there are four elements (five, in his later accounts -- the celestial fifth element does not enter this story). These are earth, air, fire and water.

One thing the author also knew about physics was that if you mix earth with fire, at least the iron will smelt. And if you mix iron with water, it will rust. When God was done separating the fire and earth and water, he would have some rusty iron, and some smelted iron -- stuff that couldn't be purified, in other words. It wouldn't be proper to put this in heaven, which is pure; and, yet, because it partook partially of heaven's fiery nature, it was too good to subsume into the earth.

So, he put it all together in a ball and let it find its natural place. 'Natural place' is another core concept of Aristotle's physics. We all know that fire goes up, while rain and rivers go down. Earth also goes down, so what happens if you drop a rock in a river? It sinks to the bottom. Thus, all the elements have a natural place they will go to if they are not constrained by some external force.

Well, this big ball of stuff was heavier than the heavens, so it couldn't fly away. But it was lighter than the water or the earth, because it was mixed with the stuff of the heavens (again, fire). So what would it do? It would float!

So it floats around the oceans until it comes to this particular place near the Port of the Tigers, where there are large deposits of lodestone. Well, the author already told you that the stuff was mostly iron, so of course it comes to stay there. It is floating, so it's an island; but because it is partially of the heavenly element, it also turns about, because the heavens turn every night.

What that gives us is a floating iron island that bobs on the surface of the water, while slowly rotating about every day.

This isn't a fairy tale. A fairy tale would simply have said, "On the sea near the Port of the Tigers, there was an island of iron that bobbed on the waves. It was made of iron that fell from the stars, and turned in place every night as the stars do."

Rather, this is pure science fiction: an attempt not simply to offer a fantastic space for an adventure, but to account for it according to the laws of nature. It's entirely preposterous, of course, but it's completely plausible if one assumes the correctness of the physics of the day.

Mostly I thought you'd be amused by the story, but it does make me wonder what other parts of our own science fiction will seem equally preposterous to the readers of the future.

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