Recalling “Epoch-Eclipse & Apocalypse” & Anticipating August 21 Eclipse

Editor’s Note: David Ketterer is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Liverpool and an Emeritus Professor of English at Concordia University. He has an extensive record of scholarship on American Literature and Science Fiction, notably New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, & American Literature (1974) and The Science Fiction of Mark Twain (1984)His most recent book, a literary biography of John Wyndham, is scheduled for publication in 2018. He has also edited several editions of Wyndham’s works. In anticipation of the August 21 eclipse, we asked Dr. Ketterer to return to one of his earliest articles, originally published in PMLA and later collected in the Norton Critical Edition of Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  

When I wrote “Epoch-Eclipse and Apocalypse: Special ‘Effects’ in A Connecticut Yankee” (PMLA 88 [October 1973]: 1104-14), I was not able to google <solar eclipses in fiction> and learn, within minutes, that, to date, there have been at least 21 published novels or stories and 37 films (all listed chronologically) that include a solar eclipse which is of plot significance. I am excluding from these totals the first fictional work listed—Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885)—and the 1937 film based on that novel. The eclipse involved in Haggard’s novel is (as indeed the relevant Wikipedia “Solar eclipses in fiction” partly annotated list makes clear) not solar but lunar. Nevertheless, in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), the second fiction title listed in the Wikipedia entry, knowledge of the precise date of a solar eclipse turns out very much to be power as it does with regard to the lunar eclipse in Haggard’s work.

This is my abstract for the PMLA article: “Hank Morgan’s most notable ‘effect,’ the solar eclipse corresponds to the transposition of epochs experienced by himself and, subsequently, by the inhabitants of sixth-century Britain. The continuing ‘apocalyptic’ import of this hypothetical ‘transformation’ finds expression in the episodes and images involving qualities of the sun (fieriness, circularity, illumination, color), culminating in the battle of the solar-significant sand-belt. Just as Hank’s magic powers are more apparent than real, the differences between nineteenth-century America and sixth-century Britain are illusory. The recognition that pre-Civil War America is a mirror image of Arthur’s England and that all men [human beings!] are essentially the same finds its ultimate metaphoric statement in the implied equivalence between the human condition and the perambulating slave band. Given that to Sandy’s perception swine are princesses, a further analogy between the slaves and swine provides an extreme instance of the realization that the line between reality and unreality is narrow. Hank’s burlesque narration reflects on the similarly subjective and ‘unrealistic’ nature of his understanding; his ignorance about the nature of reality is on a par with his blindness to the significance of imagery and symbolism. Thus the reader is well prepared for the truly apocalyptic revelation which the eclipse and its related imagery signify: the sixth-century world and the nineteenth-century world are identical and possibly, identically unreal or equally only a dream reality.”

In my 1973 article (which was reprinted as Chapter 9 of my 1974 book New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction, and American Literature, and in the 1982 Norton Critical Edition of A Connecticut Yankee), I do not specifically discuss that novel as science fiction and its influence on subsequent science fiction. That would await the publication of my Shoe String Press edition of The Science Fiction of Mark Twain (1984), a work re-published as the University of Nebraska Press edition of Mark Twain’s Tales of Wonder (2003). A Connecticut Yankee is a major contribution to the history of the time travel theme in science fiction but its more tenuous contribution to the not-very-frequent depiction of solar eclipses in science fiction (my focus here given the total eclipse of August 21, 2017) deserves notice.

Twain himself, of course, may well have been indebted to the use made of the knowledge of a lunar eclipse in King Solomon’s Mines. There does not, however, appear to be any hard evidence of his reading that adventure fantasy before 1889 or, indeed, before 1907 when the 1907 edition of King Solomon’s Mines became part of his personal library. In total, Mark Twain’s library finally included 47 Haggard titles. This of course does imply that Mark Twain probably would have read King Solomon’s Mines shortly after its first publication and well before embarking on A Connecticut Yankee. In that event, he would definitely have been indebted to Haggard for Hank’s solar eclipse ploy.

The Wikipedia “Solar eclipses in fiction” books and stories list includes two works of science fiction that would have been written with some awareness of the total solar eclipse in A Connecticut Yankee. Isaac Asimov’s 1941 modern classic “Nightfall” (which involves the implications of the total eclipse of an alien planet’s sixth sun) is the better known title. He and Robert Silverberg wrote a 1990 novel version of the same title. The other listed title is Robert J. Sawyer’s Illegal Alien (1997). This summary is provided: “Aliens visit Earth and observe a total solar eclipse [the historical eclipse of August 11, 1999]. Their scientist host speculates that Earth may be the only planet in the entire universe whose mass covers its sun perfectly (with only transits and occultations occurring in other planets).” Missing from Wikapedia’s “Solar eclipses in fiction” is H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895). For symbolic purposes that might reasonably be compared with Mark Twain’s, Wells’s narrator in the dying Earth’s far future observes an apparently total eclipse of the sun by the Moon or more probably Mercury. (See Chapter XI of the British Heinemann text or Chapter XIII of the American Holt text.)

In my 1973 article I do not explain how the total solar eclipse in A Connecticut Yankee relates to that novel being a classic of time travel fiction. Mark Twain’s astronomical interest in the mechanics and mathematics of our miniscule fraction of the Milky Way galaxy would have been sparked very early in his life by the coincidence of his birth date with a re-appearance of Halley’s Comet. And, as he came to longingly anticipate, he died in the year (75 years later) that that comet next appeared. (I had proposed in vain that the front jacket cover of The Science Fiction of Mark Twain include a portrait of Mark Twain as his Connecticut Yankee with Halley’s Comet in the background!)

Finally, it is because the sun is directly associated with our conception of time—the process of the seasons and the succession of Earth’s orbital years—that the appearance of a total solar eclipse is so relevant and central to the time travel core of A Connecticut Yankee. As it happens, thanks to 44 successive orbits since 1973, I am no longer the 31-year-old author of “Epoch-Eclipse and Apocalypse”; I am now Mark Twain’s age when he died.