The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish

The Blazing World (Penguin) coverThe Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish — or, to give both their full titles, The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World, by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle — was first published in 1666 (‘a year of blaze and revelation’ as Alan Moore calls it, as it also saw the Great Fire of London), oddly paired under the same covers as her non-fictional Observations on Experimental Philosophy. But Cavendish regarded the two pieces of writing as complimentary, as though the ‘fantastical’ narrative rounded off the rational one. The two parts, she said ‘were joyned together as Two several Worlds, at their Two Poles’, which is how The Blazing World itself starts, with its protagonist, known at first only as the Lady (later, as the Empress), kidnapped by a merchant who wants to marry her. But the boat in which she’s carried away is somehow drawn to the pole, where, it turns out, two worlds touch. Everyone in the boat is killed by the extreme cold, except the Lady, who survives ‘by the light of her beauty, the heat of her youth, and protection of the gods’. It feels like an allegory of the human brain, divided into the rational and imaginative, joined at a central bridge-point, through which the rational (the men in the boat) can’t pass.

Having travelled to the Blazing World, the Lady meets some bear-men, who decide to take her to their Emperor. On the way, she meets various other fantastical beings: fish-men, bird-men, fox-men, worm-men, geese-men, even lice-men and spider-men. The Emperor’s Imperial City, Paradise, is reached through a winding watery passage between rocks, a little reminiscent of the sea-maze that protects Melniboné in the Elric books. The Emperor is instantly fascinated with the Lady and marries her, whereupon she settles down to improving this already magical world by gathering together its various ‘natural philosophers’ and quizzing them on what they’ve learned. Rather a lot of the book is made up of these inquisitions — which aren’t really interesting, except to throw some light on the scientific speculations of the time, perhaps — but we do at least learn why this world is called the Blazing World:

‘Having thus finished their discourse of the Sun and Moon, the Empress desired to know what Stars there were besides? But they answer’d, that they could perceive in that World none other but Blazing Stars, and from thence it had the name that it was called the Blazing-World; and these Blazing-Stars, said they, were such solid, firm and shining bodies as the Sun and Moon, not of a Globular, but of several sorts of figures: some had tails; and some, other kinds of shapes.’

Soon after this, things get a bit metafictional. The Empress summons the spirit of the Duchess of Newcastle to be her scribe. (It’s only at this point that we learn that the world the Lady originally came from is not our world, as I’d assumed, but another one.) After being told all about the Empress and her story, the Duchess becomes melancholy, as she’d like to be Empress of a world, too. The Empress sends out her spirits to find a world the Duchess can rule, but they come back saying that though there are infinite worlds, they’re all inhabited, and to rule one would mean having to conquer it first, and ‘for the most part, Conquerers seldom enjoy their conquest, for they being more feared than loved, most commonly come to an untimely end’.

The spirits, though, have another suggestion:

‘Yes, answered the Spirits; for every human Creature can create an Immaterial World fully inhabited by Immaterial Creatures, and populous of Immaterial subjects, such as we are, and all this within the compass of the head or scull; nay, not only so, but he may create a World of what fashion and Government he will…’

The Duchess, then, resolves to make her own world in her own head, and be its Empress. She tries out various approaches to world-creation, based on the thinking of various philosophers: Thales, Pythagoras, Plato, Epicurus, Aristotle, Descartes and Hobbs. None work. With the Pythagorean approach, for instance:

‘…she was so puzzled with numbers, how to order and compose the several parts, that she having no skill in Arithmetick, was forced also to desist from the making of that World.’

Or a world based on the ideas of the atomistic Epicurus:

‘…but the infinite Atoms made such a mist, that it quite blinded the perception of her mind; neither was she able to make a Vacuum as a receptacle for those Atoms, or a place which they might retire into…’

Eventually she settles on her own approach:

‘…she was resolved to make a World of her own Invention, and this World was composed of sensitive and rational self-moving Matter; indeed, it was composed only of the Rational, which is the subtlest and purest degree of Matter; for as the Sensitive did move and act both to the perceptions and consistency of the body, so this degree of Matter at the same point of time (for though the degrees are mixt, yet the several parts may move several ways at one time) did move to the Creation of the Imaginary World; which World after it was made, appear’d so curious and full of variety, so well order’d and wisely govern’d, that it cannot possibly be expressed by words, nor the delight and pleasure which the Duchess took in making this World-of-her-own.’

Great results, then, but it makes no sense to me.

The Duchess invites the Empress into her imaginary world, and the two travel there as disembodied spirits. Then, getting homesick, they travel to the Duchess’s home — our world — to visit her husband. As they’re spirits, they can’t talk to him. So, in a potentially awkward move, the Empress and the Duchess pile into the Duke’s body:

‘And then the Duke had three Souls in one Body; and had there been some such Souls more, the Duke would have been like the Grand-Signior in his Seraglio, only it would have been a Platonick Seraglio. But the Duke’s Soul being wise, honest, witty, complaisant and noble, afforded such delight and pleasure to the Empress’s Soul by his conversation, that these two souls became enamoured of each other; which the Duchess’s soul perceiving, grew jealous at first, but then considering that no Adultery could be committed amongst Platonick Lovers, and that Platonism, was Divine, as being derived from Divine Plato, cast forth of her mind that Idea of Jealousie.’

So far, the book has been more about imaginative play and philosophical speculation than any sort of story (the Lady’s initial journey is over with very quickly), but in the final quarter, we do get a story of sorts, as the Empress hears that her original homeland is about to lose a war fought against all the other lands of that world. She decides to help it, using the natural wonders of the Blazing World, including wet-burning fire-stone and light-giving star-stone, and forces of bird-men, fish-men and worm-men. She trounces the opposition at sea, then harries them on land, planting fire-stone bombs under their very towns thanks to the worm-men being able to move through the earth. Then, much praised by everyone, she returns home.

Margaret Cavendish (portrait)Cavendish herself was quite a character, who ‘self-consciously produced herself as a fantastic and singular woman’ (as Kate Lilley writes in the introduction to the Penguin edition), at a time when just to be a woman who wrote was singular enough. The Blazing World is by no means a fantasy as we know it today, nor, really, is it much of a utopia (which is how it’s often classed). With utopias, you expect some sort of blueprint or example of how to change our world for the better, but the Blazing World is wonderful because it’s a place of wonders, not because it has any political or philosophical answers. If it’s selling anything, it’s imagination: the chance that everyone has to make a world for themselves, inside their own heads.

The thing that makes it still readable (though it has its longueurs) is its playful quality, the entirely innocent approach to fantasy world-making, which Cavendish says in her introduction is her main aim and pleasure in writing it:

‘That though I cannot be Henry the Fifth, or Charles the Second; yet, I will endeavour to be, Margaret the First: and, though I have neither Power, Time nor Occasion, to be a great Conqueror, like Alexander, or Cesar; yet, rather than not be Mistress of a World, since Fortune and the Fates would give me none, I have made One of my own.’

And, in a bold move that may well make her the creator of the Restoration equivalent of a multi-user dungeon — or which certainly places her alongside the likes of Tolkien, and MAR Barker, and the Lovecraft circle, as well of course as Gary Gygax & co., as people who don’t just make up fantasy worlds to tell stories, but keep them on as game-worlds and places to bring invented languages to life — she issues an invitation to her readers:

‘…and if any should like the World I have made, and be willing to be my Subjects, they may imagine themselves such, and they are such, I mean in their Minds, Fancies or Imaginations; but if they cannot endure to be Subjects, they may create Worlds of their own, and Govern themselves as they please.’

The Blazing World can be read online here.