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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Journey of Niels Klim
to the World Underground

Ludvig Holberg

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To purchase The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground

Title: The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground
Author: Ludvig Holberg
Genre: Novel
Written: 1741 (Eng. 1960)
Length: 270 pages
Original in: Latin
Availability: The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground - US
The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground - UK
The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground - Canada
Le voyage souterrain de Niels Klim - France
Niels Klims unterirdische Reise - Deutschland
Il viaggio sotterraneo di Niels Klim - Italia
  • Latin title: Nicolai Klimii iter subterraneum
  • Translated and with an Introduction by James I. McNelis Jr.
  • Preface by Peter Fitting
  • The Journey of Niels Klim has been translated into English three times previously, beginning with an anonymous translation published in 1742, another in 1828, and as Niels Klim's Journey under the Ground in John Gierlow's translation (from the Danish translation) in 1845

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Our Assessment:

B+ : lively and, though a bit rough and simple, still quite sharp and enjoyable

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Athenæum* . 25/6/1828 .
The Literary Gazette* . 2/8/1828 .
The Gentleman's Magazine* . 12/1828 .

* refers to a previous translation

  From the Reviews:
  • "This remarkable book its now more known and admired by the lovers of the marvellous than by those who are qualified to relish its serious and witty attacks on certain principles and parties. (...) (A) most curious and entertaining story" - The Athenæum

  • "The translation before us is very poorly executed; and is indeed so indifferently done, as to lose much of the wit and satirical humour of the original. We wonder at the great popularity of the writer in the north of Europe, while we contemplate him through so uncertain a medium" - The Literary Gazette

  • "There are numerous passages of very felicitous extravagance, and good moral instruction." - The Gentleman's Magazine

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground begins with young Niels Klim returning to Norway in 1664 after graduating from the University of Copenhagen -- and finding his academic training and fine degree not much help in embarking on any specific career. A student of "natural philosophy" -- science, essentially --, he continues his explorations, traveling all about and eagerly venturing even: "into the very bowels of our mountains". A major attraction is the mountain Floïen, on top of which there is a large, deep cave (sounds like a volcano ...), and he sets out on an expedition there. At the summit Klim lets himself be lowered down into the "fatal cave", but he's barely in -- a mere "ten or twelve cubits" -- when the rope snaps and he plummets down. And down and down: it's a long fall.
       Eventually he finds himself on the surface of the planet Nazar, a subterranean world merely six hundred miles in circumference. One of the first things that happens to him is that a bull charges at him and he tries to escape by climbing up a tree: not a good idea as it turns out, as he has landed in a world populated by sentient (and mobile -- he wasn't seeing things when they seemed to move) trees, and his attempt to mount one of them is seen as ... well, an attempt on: "the chastity of an honorable matron, and one of prime quality". He's taken prisoner and put on trial, which teaches him his first few lessons about the local society.
       The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground includes most of the usual stranger-in-a-strange-world motifs and features, from the protagonist learning about and adapting to his new environment to him exploring more of this world to him even settling down in it and becoming part of it -- before being spit out, and finding himself back home again. Much is also a critique of contemporary society -- European, rather than just Scandinavian -- and Holberg goes about this quite cleverly; written in Latin and first published in Germany, Holberg's intended audience clearly extended beyond the confines of his homeland.
       Klim's encounters with how different this society is are an amusing study of contrasts. How he is seen and where he might fit in after he has studied and tried to prove himself is typical of how different expectations are, as he is judged to be

of competent docility, and extremely quick of apprehension, but of so weak and uneven a judgment that he hardly merits to be considered as a rational creature, much less to be admitted to any important office in the government.
       Indeed, his only truly admirable attribute is the speed with which he can get around: the trees, while not rooted to the ground, are nevertheless very slow-moving. So Klim is appointed messenger to the king -- which at least gives him an opportunity to see more of this world.
       From the fact that it is prohibited to publicly dispute: "about the qualities and essence of the Supreme Being" (i.e. engage in any sort of theological debate -- unimaginable in the terrestrial world, where little else was done at universities and the like at the time) to the fact that no one could publish a book until they had reached thirty years of age (and was: "deemed by his judges ripe and fit for such an undertaking"), Holberg gets amusing jabs in throughout his story. The system of justice and the general attitudes at first often seem peculiar, but Holberg quite cleverly uses them to spotlight real-world inadequacies (and inanities), from academia to politics.
       Among the inspired incidental pieces is a longer excerpt from a book Klim comes across, Tanian's Journey to the Superterranean World which, like Montesquieu's Persian Letters, purports to look at Europe through foreign eyes, allowing Holberg more specific critiques of individual nations and local customs (right down to the "literati of Europe", who he finds are: "very fond of buying books, but in this point they do not much regard the matter they contain as they do the form and neatness of them" (i.e. they care more what the books look like than the content)).
       In traveling around, Klim is exposed to other worlds and systems: in one animals each have specific roles -- goats are philosophers, horses civil magistrates, wolves run the treasury (with hawks and vultures as their deputies ...) -- while eventually shipwrecked in Quama he finds himself among (dull) humans again, and is able to stand out despite only having a: "slender share of knowledge and with ordinary abilities". He helps conquer the neighboring Tanachites and is even made emperor, but though initially hailed enthusiasm in his rule and his actions quickly diminishes -- but at least that eventually leads him back to the real world, twelve years after he fell out of it.
       The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground is more inventive than many similar novels that have a protagonist travel to a strange world, and much of it is very cleverly and entertainingly presented. As is often the case with such texts offering contemporary social critiques, Holberg can get carried away with how many directions he (and his Klim) go in, making for a novel that begins to feel a bit ragged and strained after a certain point. Without the specificity modern novels demand -- the mobile trees, for example, are simply a given, and their biology and anatomy left almost entirely unaddressed -- Holberg nevertheless presents a largely satisfying picture of these worlds, the vagueness entirely appropriate (though strict realists may well be annoyed by it).
       Aspects of the novel do feel dated, and the translation doesn't feel entirely fresh, but The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground continues to hold up well, and is well worth revisiting

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 February 2011

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The Journey of Niels Klim to the World Underground: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian/Danish author Ludvig Holberg lived 1684 to 1754 and is best known for his comic plays.

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