02 June 2014

Review: The Water-Babies by Charles Kingsley

Trade paperback, 198 pages
Published 2008 (originally 1863)

Previously read July 2009
Acquired and reread November 2012
The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby
by Charles Kingsley

Kingsley was an interesting fellow-- a proponent of "muscular Christianity" but also a believer in the potential of science. Before reading the Origin, he wrote Darwin to say he would go in unbiased: "From two common superstitions, at least, I shall be free, while judging of your book. 1) I have long since [...] learnt to disbelieve the dogma of the permanence of species. 2). I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore & pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of inter-vention to supply the lacunas wh he himself had made" (Darwin Correspondence Database, Entry 2534). On the other hand, he also wrote Darwin to say that he had found "species intermediate between man & the ape. It has come home to me with much force, that while we deny the existence of any such, the legends of most nations are full of them. Fauns, Satyrs, Inui, Elves, Dwarfs—we call them one minute mythological personages, the next conquered inferior races" (DCD 3426).

So it's probably not surprising to learn that The Water-Babies merges scientific fact with fantastic whimsy, usually favoring the whimsy. Perhaps best, it contains a passage where Kingsley explains that dragons do exist, scientists just call them a different name so they can feel more dignified: "Did not learned men, too, hold, till within the last twenty-five years, that a flying dragon was an impossible monster? And do we not now know that there are hundreds of them found fossil up and down the world? People call them Pterodactyles: but that is only because they are ashamed to call them flying dragons, after denying so long that flying dragons could exist" (40).

My primary reason for (re)reading the book was, of course, its scientist character, the delightfully named Professor Ptthmallnsprts (Richard Beards, who edited the edition I am reading, suggests he is possibly based on Huxley). Ptthmallnsprts is a Professor of Necrobioneopalæonthydrochthonanthropopithekology at a university in the Cannibal Islands, and he is obsessed with being the first to discover worms (and, if you tell him he's not, he'll tell you it's not a worm, so he can still be right about something). Furthermore, he knows, because he once heard a paper on it, that there are no mythological creatures; therefore, he refuses to believe in water-babies even when he has one right in his hands. Oh, those scientists and their limited worldviews and lack of imagination!

But it's all in good fun, and our little water-baby Tom, upon becoming human again, even becomes "a great man of science, and can plan railroads, and steam-engines, and electric telegraphs, and rifled guns, and so forth; and knows everything about everything, except why a hen's egg don't turn into a crocodile, and two or three other little things" (188). The moral of the story is, of course, be nice to efts.

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