A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder is a book with a long name. I don't know much about James De Mille, but if his other books have titles such as this one, then he needs to work on imaginatively shortening them. But, to be fair, the title describes what gets the story going. On account of the length of the book's title, I will be referring to the book as A Strange Manuscript throughout.
De Mille is, I think, the first Canadian author I have written a post for on The Marginal Virtues, and the second (after Aristotle; for whom, it must be said, I have not yet written a commentary proper) whose work was written before the twentieth century to be featured on this blog.
The edition I read for this blog is the New Canadian Library edition, published originally by McClelland and Stewart in 1969 (reprinted in 1985). It is the 68th in the series, so it would be worth a look to see what other titles preceded and followed it.
It has frequently been my practice to read the scholarly introduction to works such as this, and then to neglect or only haphazardly read the works themselves; for this commentary I have foregone reading the introduction (I will wait, as with Ender's Game, until after I have finished the book itself).
A Strange Manuscript has been described as a satirical adventure, a cross between A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Jules Verne's classic adventures to a lost land) and Thomas More's Utopia. It can be fairly described, I think, as an utopian satire. It is, of course, likely the case that most utopian fiction, if it is to be any good, must also be satirical; should it be pointed out that there is little that is desirable, from our perspective, about the society described in A Strange Manuscript, I remind the reader that 'utopia' means (as one translator of More's work noted) 'No-place', being the combination of the Greek words 'ou' (not) and 'topos' (place, location), rather than 'Good-place' (which would be an eutopia); this would suggest that the distinction between 'utopian' and 'dystopian' locales is false - but I digress.
Anyway, A Strange Manuscript gets its name from the literary device De Mille uses of having the main narrative discovered by chance as sheets of papyrus wrapped up and sealed in a copper cylinder drifting in the ocean. The device is not, I understand, uncommon in nineteenth-century fiction, nor is it uncommon in utopian fiction (my understanding is that the discussion of the place called Utopia in Thomas More's work occurs at a remove, also).
The parts of the narrative read from the papyrus manuscript (in the story) are, of course, told directly from the perspective of their 'writer', the protagonist, a British sailor by the name of Adam More. The significance of the protagonist's name would have been immediately obvious to most, if not all, of De Mille's original readers, for Adam is the name of the primeval man par excellence, and More the same surname as that of the author of the work featuring the prototypical utopia.
My focus will be on what may be called the 'interludes' from the primary narrative, during which the characters of the secondary narrative comment upon the primary one. It is these characters who discover the cylinder containing its astonishing contents, and it is they who read it for their (and our) benefit.
Before I begin, I want to comment on the satirical nature of the work. A Strange Manuscript is not obviously satirical, in my view, because it does not display obvious dramatic irony. I should say that this is most likely because, as an inhabitant of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, I live in a culture steeped in irony. However, there are passages which evince unintended irony (on the part of the narrator, Adam More; it is undoubtedly intended by De Mille), the which I shall touch upon as I go along.
What is primarily satirical about A Strange Manuscript is in its depiction of a society which loves darkness and despises light; which loves death and abhors life; which elevates poverty and denounces wealth; whose poor are considered the best citizens and whose rich the worst; which distributes death as the highest honour and riches as the lowest punishment; and so on. The people (whose name, the 'Kosekin' we do not learn until we are about halfway through the work) of the society dwell in the region of the South Pole, which De Mille pretends to be a warm region, due to it being depressed (geographically, that is) compared to the rest of the earth's surface and so closer to the fiery interior of the earth. (Polar depression is, I believe, factual, but I could not find confirmation of this.) Because it is a polar region, the sun basically does not set for half the year, nor does it rise for the other half. The Kosekin, who have adapted to live in caves, have excellent night vision but find exposure to bright light painful.
This should be enough to start with. Anyway, the chance discovery of the manuscript should alert us to the possibility of satire:
It happened on that day that the Falcon lay becalmed upon the ocean between the Canaries and the Madeira Islands. This yacht Falcon was the property of Lord Featherstone, who, being weary of life in England, had taken a few congenial friends for a winter's cruise in these southern latitudes. ...
The profound calm, the warm atmosphere, the slow pitching of the yacht, and the dull creaking of the spars all combined to lull into a state of indolent repose the people on board. ... At the stern were Oxenden, the intimate friend of Featherstone ['intimate friend' not having the same meaning in the eighteen-eighties as it would today were two men to be described as such], and Dr. Congreve, who had come in the double capacity of friend and medical attendant. These two... were in a state of dull and languid repose. Suspended between the two masts, in an Indian hammock, lay Featherstone, with a cigar in his mouth and a novel in his hand, which he was pretending to read. [Great line.] The fourth member of the party, Melick, was seated near the mainmast, folding some papers in a peculiar way. His occupation at length attracted the roving eyes of Featherstone, who poked forth his head from his hammock, and said, in a sleepy voice:
"I say, Melick, you're the most energetic fellah [it is possible he means 'fellow', for he has an accent which De Mille renders visually; but it is more likely he is comparing his friend in derogatory fashion to an Egyptian peasant, for they were known as fellahin, or 'fellahs'] I ever saw. By Jove! you're the only one aboard that's busy. What are you doing?"
"Paper boats," said Melick, in a business-like tone.
"Paper boats! By Jove!" said Featherstone. "What for?"
"I'm going to have a regatta," said Melick. "Anything to kill time, you know."
"By Jove!" exclaimed Featherstone again, raising himself higher in his hammock, "that's not a bad idea. A wegatta! By Jove! glowious! glowious! I say, Oxenden, did you hear that?"
"What do you mean by a regatta?" asked Oxenden, lazily.
"Oh, I mean a race with these paper boats. We can bet on them, you know."
At this Featherstone sat upright, with his legs dangling out of the hammock.
"By Jove!"" he exclaimed again. "Betting! So we can. Do you know, Melick, old chap, I think that's a wegular piece of inspiration. A wegatta! and we can bet on the best boat." ...
"I'll put these in the water," said Melick, "and then we can lay our bets on them as we choose. But first let us see if there is anything that can be taken as a point of arrival. ..."
Saying this, he went to the side, followed by the others, and all looked out carefully over the water.
"There's a black speck out there," said Oxenden. ...
The spot thus chosen was a dark, circular object, about a hundred yards away ... . Whatever it was, however, it served well enough for their present purpose, and no one took any further interest in it, except as the point towards which the paper boats should run in their eventful race. ... [The paper boats are loosed, and those which head toward the speck become hard to see.]
It was now necessary to determine the state of the race, so Featherstone ordered out the boat. The four were soon embarked, and the men rowed out towards the point which had been chosen as the end of the race. ... Featherstone's attention was drawn to the dark spot already mentioned as the goal of the race.
"That's a queer-looking thing," said he, suddenly. "Pull up, lads, a little; let's see what it is. It doesn't look to me like a spar."
The others, always on the lookout for some new object of interest [another great line], were attracted by these words, and looked closely at the thing in question. The men pulled. The boat drew nearer. ...
The article in question was made of metal, and was cylindrical in shape. It was soldered tight, and evidently contained something. It was about eighteen inches long and eight wide. The nature of the metal was not easily perceptible, for it was coated with slime, and covered over about half its surface with barnacles and sea-weed. It was not heavy, and would have floated higher out of the water had it not been for these encumbrances. [pp. 19-23] I omitted several paragraphs about the excitement Featherstone and his friends take in betting on a paper boat regatta. As to the cylinder, they discover it is indeed made of copper, and then Featherstone and Oxenden make a bet as to what the contents will be.
Featherstone & Co. discover the manuscript written by Adam More, as well as a letter signed by him; upon reading it, Featherstone exclaims:
"By Jove!... this is really getting to be something tremendous!" [p. 25] Featherstone is the stereotypical English aristocrat: he makes bets on the most trivial of things, he utters 'By Jove!' frequently, and (although De Mille appears to abandon its rendering almost as soon as he introduces it) cannot pronounce his 'r's'; it is in fact surprising that De Mille did not write: ' "this is weally getting to be something twemendous!" ', especially after the earlier exclamation of ' "glowious!" ' In any case, although a work of a more serious nature could begin with so comic a premise (as, indeed, Shades of Grey did), that Featherstone cuts such a ludicrous figure (with his 'wegatta' and 'glowious') suggests that satire is the mood of the piece. The quiet, yet biting, humour of lines such as 'which he was pretending to read' (although in this case, to be fair, many less ridiculous people would be doing the same) and '[t]he others, always on the lookout for some new object of interest' also suggests that high society is going to get a bit of a ribbing.
The four friends decide to take it in turns to read the manuscript, with Melick beginning. The first section is adventuresome enough, with Adam More losing his way from his ship in the Antarctic Ocean, coming upon a desolate island populated by cannibals (whereupon More's companion, one Agnew, is taken), then being swept into an underground river which is home to fabulous sea-monsters, and at last awakening in the bright sunlight of the lands of the South Pole (pp. 27-69). Indeed, one would be hard put to describe the work as satirical after the first section, although there are two things of note.
The first is that the encounter which More and Agnew have with the cannibals (pp. 43-52), which results in Agnew being captured by the tribe (we do not see him meet his grisly fate; instead, he cries out to More to warn him to 'fly', before which More is alerted to the true nature of their hosts when they dump the corpse of a tribesman by the fire and cut him up to cook him). The encounter with the cannibals is, as it were, a dumb show of More's subsequent adventures among the Kosekin. In both cases, the natives appear at first to be friendly and welcoming, although ugly in aspect. (More, as De Mille writes it, frequently describes his hosts as hideous, or ugly, or even demonic, although he usually uses the most vituperative description once one or the other party engages in repulsive activity.) Likewise, in both cases, More is baffled by a society whose mores and customs are alien and even somewhat repulsive. In both cases the natives are polite and do not refuse More anything. In both cases More attempts escape (he succeeds in escaping the cannibals, but not the Kosekin). And in both cases, the people are cannibals.
What is satirical about this, I think, is that the whole correlation between the tribe of cannibals on the desolate island and the more civilised Kosekin (a correlation which More explicitly makes) is meant to puncture the view of the Kosekin as civilised, despite their social, religious, and technological development. This, in turn, is meant to put the civilisation of our world in question. My take on it would be to say that De Mille wants us to ask whether we really are so different from those we denigrate as 'savage', and that the answer to that question, ultimately, is 'no'. In any case this satirical element is not evident until after More spends some time among the Kosekin, learns their customs, and observes their ritual cannibalism.
The other satirical element is probably De Mille's treatment of hope, for it is poor Agnew who is hopeful; I do not think De Mille meant to undercut hopefulness entirely, but it is clear, at least to me, that he wishes to strike a blow against foolish optimism. On the one hand, it is Agnew who urges More on to try to return to their ship when they lose track of time and become trapped in a storm in the Antarctic Ocean - something which, in the event, they fail to do. And it is Agnew who convinces More to accept the hospitality of the primitive cannibals and it is he who goes with them and is subsequently entrapped by them. And in these cases, Agnew is motivated by his hope for the best. On the other hand, however, without Agnew's hopefulness and encouragement (let alone his presence), Adam More would have never made it to the lands of the Kosekin to begin with, and that the expectation that there is a way out of seemingly the most hopeless of situations (a view Agnew held) indeed helps him during his time with the Kosekin.
I am, however, getting away from my purpose, which was to investigate the satire in the secondary narrative. What I have done, I hope, is shown that there are satirical elements in the primary narrative, even where they are not obvious.
As for the secondary narrative, it is also not obviously satirical. The satire in the secondary narrative is to be found, at least after the first chapter, in the whole rather than in the parts, in my view.
Consider the chapter which takes us back to the secondary narrative after the first (pp. 70-9). Melick has finished reading a section of More's manuscript, but stops when the announcement is made that dinner is ready (p. 70).
De Mille reintroduces the party of friends at dinnertime.
Let us pause here for a moment to take a minuter survey of these four friends. In the first place there was Lord Featherstone himself, young, handsome, languid, good-natured to a fault, with plenty of muscle if he chose to exert it and plenty of brain if he chose to make use of it - a man who had become weary of the monotony of high life, and like many of his order, was fond of seeking relief from the ennui of prosperity amid the excitements of the sea. Next to him was Dr. Congreve, a middle-aged man, with iron-gray hair, short beard and mustache, short nose, gray eyes, with spectacles, and stoutish body. Next came Noel Oxenden, late of Trinity College, Cambridge, a college friend of Featherstone's - a tall man with a refined and intellectual face and reserved manner. Finally, there was Otto Melick, littérateur from London, about thirty years of age, with a wiry and muscular frame, and the restless manner of one who lives in a perpetual fidget. [p. 70] We have seen to what use Featherstone puts his muscle and brain; as for Congreve and Oxenden, De Mille establishes them as intelligent and educated men, which will shortly become important for the progress of the story and for the satirical purpose of the work. Melick, as a littérateur, is an author and literary critic.
Straightaway discussion begins as to the provenance of the manuscript.
Featherstone was the first to speak.
"A deuced queer sort of thing this, too," said he, "this manuscript. I can't quite make it out. ... [I]t seems deuced odd, too, that we should pick up this copper cylinder with the manuscript. I hardly know what to think of it."
Melick smiled. "Why, it isn't much to see through," said he.
"See through what?" said the doctor, hastily, pricking up his ears at this, and peering keenly at Melick through his spectacles.
"Why, the manuscript, of course."
"Well," said the doctor, "what is it that you see? What do you make out of it?"
"Why, any one can see," said Melick, "that it's a transparent hoax, that's all. You don't mean to say, I hope, that you really regard it in any other light?"
"A transparent hoax!" repeated the doctor. "Will you please state why you regard it in this light?" [pp. 70-1] De Mille is here, I think, subtly satirical. He emphasises Congreve's education by referring to him here (and throughout the chapter) as 'the doctor', but notice that 'the doctor' is in the habit of, more or less, repeating back to Melick what he says. In my mind this makes Congreve out to be a bit of a prat, as it is a rather irritating habit.
Most of the rest of the chapter consists of Congreve meeting Melick's objections or else answering the queries of Featherstone or Oxenden with learned discourses, replete with reference to noted scientists of the nineteenth century. The whole affair is quietly comic, and I think the following example should show what I mean:
"The fact is," said Melick, "it's not a sailor's yarn at all. No sailor would ever express himself in that way. That's what struck me from the first. It has the ring of a confounded sensation-monger all through."
The doctor elevated his eyebrows, but took no notice of this.
"You see," he continued, addressing himself to the others, "Desolation Island is in 50º south latitude and 70º east longitude. As I make out, More's course led him over about ten degrees of longitude in a southwest course. That course depended altogether upon the ocean currents. Now there is a great antarctic drift current which flows round the Cape of Good Hope and divides there, one half flowing past the east coast of Africa and the other setting across the Indian Ocean. Then it unites with a current which flows round the south of Van Dieman's Land, which also divides, and the southernmost current is supposed to cross the Pacific until it strikes Cape Horn, around which it flows, dividing as before. Now my theory is, that south of Desolation Island - I don't know how far - there is a great current setting towards the South Pole, and running southwest through degrees of longitude 60º, 50º, 40º, 30º, 20º, 10º, east of Greenwich; and finally sweeping on, it would reach More's volcanoes at a point which I should judge to be about 80º south latitude and 10º west longitude. There it passes between the volcanoes and bursts through the vast mountain barrier by a subterranean way, which has been formed for it in past ages by some primeval convulsion of nature. After this it probably sweeps around the great South Polar ocean, and emerges at the opposite side, not far from the volcanoes Erebus and Terror."
Here the doctor paused, and looked around with with self-complaceny.
"Oh," said Melick. "If you take that tone, you have us all at your mercy. I know no more about the geography of the antarctic circle than I do of the moon. I simply criticise from a literary point of view, and I don't like his underground cavern with the stream running through it. It sounds like one of the voyages of Sindbad the Sailor. Nor do I like his description; he is evidently writing for effect. Besides, his style is vicious; it is too stilted. Finally, he has recourse to the stale device of a sea-serpent."
"A sea-serpent!" repeated the doctor. [He does it again.] "Well, for my part, I feel by no means inclined to sneer at a sea-serpent. Its existence cannot be proved, yet it cannot be pooh-poohed. Every schoolboy knows that the waters of the sea were once filled with monsters more tremendous than the greatest sea-serpent that has ever been imagined. ... Some of these so-called fossil animals may have their representatives still living in the remoter parts of the world. Think of the recently discovered ornithorhynchus of Australia!"
"If you please, I'd really much rather not," said Melick, with a gesture of despair. "I haven't the honor of the gentleman's acquaintance."
"Well, what do you think of his notice of the sun, and the long light, and his low position on the horizon?"
"Oh, that's all right," said Melick. "Any one who chose to get up this thing would of course read up about the polar day, and all that. Every one knows that at the poles there is a six-months day, followed by a six-months light."
"You are a determined sceptic," said the doctor. ...
Upon this [Congreve has just finished another learned speech about the polar day] Melick filled the doctor's wine-glass, with a great deal of ceremony.
"After all those statistics," he said, "you must feel rather dry. You should take a drink before venturing any further."
The doctor made no reply, but raised the glass to his lips and swallowed the wine in an abstracted way.
"The thing that struck me most," said Oxenden, "in all that has been read thus far, is the flatness of the South Pole, and the peculiar effect which this produces on the landscape."
"I must say," added Melick, "that the writer has got hold of a very good idea there, and has taken care to put it forward in a very prominent fashion."
"What is the difference," Oxenden asked, "between the two diameters of the earth, the polar and the equitorial? Is it known?"
"By Jove!" said Featherstone, "that's the very question I was going to ask. I've always heard that the earth is flattened at the poles, but never knew how much. Is there any way by which people can find out?"
The doctor drew a long breath, and beamed upon the company with a benevolent smile.
"Oh, yes," said he; "I can answer that question, if you care to know, and won't feel bored." ...
"Well," said Melick, "there is no theory, however wild and fantastic, which some man of science will not be ready to support and to fortify by endless arguments, all of the most plausible kind. For my own part, I still believe More and his south polar world to be no more authentic than Sindbad the Sailor."
But the others evidently sympathized with the doctor's view, and regarded Melick as carrying his scepticism to an absurd excess. [pp. 75-9] Quite a few targets come under fire here. De Mille, through Melick, pokes fun at his own pretensions and his own work. A Strange Manuscript really is 'no more authentic than Sindbad the Sailor', and Melick's comment about the use to which De Mille puts the compression of the earth at the poles is right on. Meanwhile, Melick's comment about men of science supporting 'wild and fantastic' theories takes a shot at the excesses of scientists who endlessly back their pet theories, however wrong. Melick's own profession takes a shot, for, even though Melick is, ironically, quite right (at least if one applies what he says not to the story of Adam More as such, but to the work in which Melick is a character) about the manuscript, he does come across as an idiot: 'I simply criticise from a literary point of view,' he says, but his literary criticism is, if anything, more stale and trite than the things he finds stale about the work. One rather feels that in the character of Melick, De Mille is taking a shot at the kind of small-minded views always fashionable in literary criticism. Melick himself comes across as a bit of an idiot, with his flippant dismissal of fossil animals and his happy claim to ignorance; I suspect De Mille means for many other literary critics to be found guilty by association. On the other hand, 'the doctor' discourses at length upon the 'science' of A Strange Manuscript, and although he is always able to counter Melick's skeptical comments, one cannot help but laugh at his earnestness and his academically-induced myopia (figurative). He even drinks wine 'in an abstracted way', and upon re-reading it I couldn't help but guffaw as he takes a deep breath to begin another long-winded speech and hopes he won't bore the company. Oxenden's time will come; Featherstone, meanwhile, is spared for the most part (except for what we saw earlier at his reintroduction), but his comment of 'that's the very question I was going to ask,' sounds like the kind of thing someone who is completely out of his depth and casting about for something to say would say. De Mille, who was a university professor at Dalhousie, undoubtedly encountered people like these all the time at parties and other gatherings.
So much for that chapter. The doctor reads the following section (when asked by Featherstone whether he would like a turn at reading the manuscript, he replies, with comically unwarranted enthusiasm, 'with all my heart,' [p. 79] as if he were marrying the thing), and in it More meets a woman from another south-polar tribe by the name of Almah, is given a new name (he is called 'Atam-or' by Almah and the Kosekin), learns the customs and ways of the Kosekin, and discovers that they are cannibals, too (pp. 80-142). The sixteenth chapter (pp. 136-42), entitled 'The Kosekin', reads like an entry in the encyclopedia, rather than following More's usual style.
Following that lengthy section, we return to reality (as it were), with Featherstone interrupting the doctor because it is eleven o'clock and time for supper and bed (p. 143). This affords another opportunity for De Mille to gently savage the company once more.
The foci of their attention, for the most part, are the beasts which More encounters; these Congreve lectures about for much of the chapter, in much the same way as he lectured about geography previously (see above). The doctor 'gravely' remarks upon a facetious suggestion of Melick's that a particular bird-of-burden which More encounters (called by the Kosekin the 'opkuk') is a 'magnified' dodo (p. 144). Melick himself (described by Featherstone in this chapter as a 'volatile youth', a 'professional cynic, sceptic, and scoffer'; p. 145) is in fine form. He begins the discussion of the previous section by quoting a passage from Milton [italics original]:
'Gorgons and hydras and chimeras dire?' [p. 143]The line is from Paradise Lost, Book II, line 628; De Mille does not note this, of course, for he expected that most of his readers would be familiar with the poem. (I had to look it up, for the record.) In its original context, the line is the last clause in a description of Milton's Hell; Melick employs it to mock the monsters in More's manuscript.
In my view, one of the things De Mille does in this chapter is to use Melick to make fun of the literary education of his day and the results the system of education produces. For Melick, by quoting Milton, is clearly shown to be an educated man, but he has been reduced to cynicism. Immediately before Featherstone's description of him as a 'professional cynic', in fact, he obstinately clings to his idea that More simply 'magnified' the now-extinct dodo into a larger bird, and defends it with, of all things, a drinking song (one which professes a merry nonchalance at the extinction of the bird, no less) and a song mocking the dodo [italics original]:
Oh, the dodo once lived, but he doesn't live now;
Yet why should a cloud overshadow our brow?
The loss of that bird ne'er should trouble our brains,
For though he is gone, still our claret remains.
Sing do-do - jolly do-do!
Hurrah! in his name let our cups overflow. [p. 145]
' 'Twas a mighty bird; those strong short legs were never known to fail,
And he felt a glow of pride while thinking of that little tail,
And his beak was marked with vigor, curving like a wondrous hook;
Thick and ugly was his body - such a form as made one look!' [ibid.]
I should have to find an annotated edition of A Strange Manuscript to discover the provenance of these quotes (the latter particularly, for De Mille includes internal quotation marks to indicate that it is from another poem or song).
After another lengthy lecture by the good doctor, a debate begins between he and Oxenden about the origins of the Kosekin:
"All these stories of strange animals," said Oxenden, "may be very interesting, doctor, but I must say that I am far more struck by the account of the people themselves. I wonder whether they are an aboriginal race, or descendants of the same stock from which we came?"
"I should say," remarked the doctor confidently, "that they are, beyond a doubt, an aboriginal and autochtonous race."
"I differ from you altogether," said Oxenden, calmly. ...
"Their peculiar eyes," said Oxenden, "are no doubt produced by dwelling in caves for many generations."
"On the contrary," said the doctor, "it is their peculiarity of eye that makes them dwell in caves."
"You are mistaking the cause for the effect, doctor."
"Not at all; it is you who are making that mistake."
"It's the old debate," said Melick - as the poet has it, [I believe this to be an editorial error, for surely it is Melick and not the narrator, who would say this last line?]
" 'Which was first, the egg or the hen?
Tell me, I pray, ye learned men!' " [pp. 148-9]
Oxenden (a Cambridge man, if you recall) goes on to show how the Kosekin tongue is derived from Hebrew, using the process of change observed in Grimm's Law (pp. 149-50; he describes the process in much more detail on pp. 220-1).
Melick, of course, seizes upon this at once to mockingly suggest that the Kosekin must be the 'lost Ten Tribes [pp. 150-1]' (of ancient Israel) and then, rather that they are the descendants of Shem, who
"landed there from Noah's ark, and left some of his children to colonize the whole country. That's as plain as a pikestaff. ... At any rate they [Melick's jests about how the Kosekin came to be at the South Pole] are both mine, and I warn all present to keep their hands off them, for on my return I intend to take out a copyright." [p. 151]
But perhaps the most effective satire of the chapter comes at its end, when De Mille has Oxenden, speaking 'with impressive solemnity [p. 152]', make the hypothesis that the Kosekin are related to the cave-dwelling Semitic peoples known as the 'Troglodytes'.
Both Melick and the doctor, by their words and disposition, continue to get a good ribbing from De Mille. Melick is also used by De Mille to make fun of his own enterprise in writing the book, as we have seen. In this chapter, Oxenden comes under fire, with his appeal to Grimm's Law (however correct its application may be) and his speculations about the origins of the Kosekin. One rather feels that De Mille is mocking philology (what would today, if I remember a passage from one of T. R. Shippey's books on Tolkien correctly, would be called comparative linguistics) and the flights of fantasy which that branch of the study of language sometimes led its practitioners.
Nor does Featherstone get off the hook; after Oxenden gives forth his idea that the Kosekin are a Semitic people (followed by Melick's mocking suggestion that they are lost Ten Tribes), he makes a casual anti-Jewish slur, to the effect that he finds it hard to believe the Kosekin are related to Jews because they want to get rid of their riches (p. 151). It also marks the return of Featherstone's ridiculous accent, when he says, ' "Too much money's a howwid baw, by Jove! [ibid.]" '
I won't go into as much detail about the last two chapters in which the secondary narrative is featured, save to note a few highlights.
First, De Mille uses Melick to great effect to make fun of his own work, for Melick describes the manuscript thus:
"Well," said Featherstone, "More's story seems to be approaching a crisis. What do you think of it now, Melick? Do you still think it is a sensational novel?"
"Partly so," said Melick; "but it would nearer the mark to call it a satirical romance. ... [T]here's precious little science in it, but a good deal of quiet satire."
"Satire on what?" asked Featherstone. "I'll be hanged if I can see it." [The which allows De Mille both to make fun of Featherstone for being imperceptive but also take the opportunity to gently explain what the work is about to readers who are such.]
"Oh, well," said Melick, "on things in general. The satire is directed against the restlessness of humanity; its impulses, feelings, hopes, and fears - all that men do and feel and suffer. It mocks us by exhibiting a new race of men, animated by passions and impulses which are directly the opposite of ours, and yet no nearer happiness than we are. ..." [p. 215; Melick gets his chance to give a lecture on pp. 215-7] On the other hand, we should be careful how far we take Melick's interpretation as how De Mille wanted the work to be interpreted, for De Mille has made the effort to make Melick out to be a bit vapid, however educated and literate.
De Mille then uses Melick in his more traditional way:
"Well," said Melick, "I for one am thoroughly satisfied, and don't need another single word. The fact is, I never knew before the all-sufficient nature of Grimm's Law. Why, it can unlock any mystery! When I get home I must buy one - a tame one, if possible, and keep him with me always. It is more useful to a literary man than to any other. It is said that with a knowledge of Grimm's Law a man may wander through the world from Iceland to Ceylon, and converse pleasantly in all the Indo-European languages. More must have had Grimm's Law stowed away somewhere about him; and that's the reason why he escaped the icebergs, the volcanoes, the cannibals, the subterranean channel monster, and arrived at last safe and sound in the land of the Kosekin. What I want is Grimm's Law - a nice tidy one, well-trained, in good working order, and kind in harness; and the moment I get one I intend to go to the land of the Kosekin myself." [p. 221] With this, De Mille thoroughly savages the excesses to which Grimm's Law had undoubtedly been put in his time.
The last and best of all of Melick's dramatically ironic utterances ends the secondary narrative:
"What a pity it is," continued Melick, "that the writer of this manuscript had not the philological, theological, sociological, geological, palæological, ornithological, and all the other logical attainments of yourself and the doctor! He could then have given us a complete view of the nature of the Kosekin, morally and physically; he could have treated of the geology of the soil, the ethnology of the people, and could have unfolded before us a full and comprehensive view of their philosophy and religion, and could have crammed his manuscript with statistics. I wonder why he didn't do it even as it was. It must have been a strong temptation."
"More," said Oxenden, with deep impressiveness [De Mille invariably prefaces the most ridiculous comments by the doctor and Oxenden with a description of how grave, impressive, serious, or solemn their words are], "was a simple-minded though somewhat emotional sailor, and merely wrote in the hope that his story might one day meet the eyes of his father. I certainly should like to find some more accurate statements about the science, philosophy, and religion of the Kosekin; yet, after all, such things could not be expected."
"Why not?" asked Melick; "it was easy enough for him."
"How?" asked Oxenden.
"Why, he had only to step into the British Museum, and in a couple of hours, he could have crammed up on all those points in science, philosophy, ethnology, and theology, about which you are so anxious to know." [pp. 225-6] De Mille, via Melick, seems to be jokingly suggesting that this, in fact, is what he did, although no doubt he had to do much more research than that.
My last word and, in my view, the best passage of satire in the work, belongs to More's tale in the manuscript. He and his new-found love, a maiden named Almah (she is of a south polar tribe which more closely resembles the greater part of humankind than the Kosekin) have been sent to the greatest city of the Kosekin, where they are to wait to be sacrificed as part of a ceremony during the rising of the polar sun, the which is the highest honour the Kosekin can bestow. More and Almah obviously feel less than honoured, and so wish to escape. Here are More's words (on p. 163):
After her [Almah's] departure, there came to visit me the lowest man in all the land, though, according to our view, he would be esteemed the highest. This was the Kohen Gadol [italics original]. His history had already been told me. I had learned that through lack of Kosekin virtue he had gradually sunk to this position, and now was compelled to hold in his hands more wealth, power, and display than any other man in the nation.
He was a man of singular appearance. The light was not so troublesome to him as to the others - he merely kept his eyes shaded; but he regarded me with a keen look of inquiry that was suggestive of shrewdness and cunning. I confess it was with a feeling of relief that I made this discovery; for I longed to find some one among this singular people who was selfish, who feared death, who loved life, who loved riches, and had something in common with me. This I thought I perceived in the shrewd, cunning face of the Kohen Gadol, and I was glad; for I saw that while he could not possibly be more dangerous to me than those self-sacrificing, self-denying cannibals whom I had thus far known, he might prove of some assistance, and might help me devise some means of escape. If I could only find some one who was a coward, and selfish and avaricious - if this Kohen Gadol could but be he - how much brighter my life would be! And so there happened to me an incredible thing, that my highest wish was now to find in the Kohen Gadol cowardice, avarice, and selfishness.