The Moon


Hermann Kaulbach, Die Mondfee [The Moon Fairy], 1891 (
By Lawrence Mays, The Australian National University

This is an excerpt from a longer chapter, part of a forthcoming volume on Voyage to the Moon.

The Moon in artistic imagination

The Moon has a particular position among the array of imaginary world settings that have been used in literary and theatrical works from ancient times through to the modern era. Indeed, allegorical Moon settings have been used in such works to reflect social, philosophical and political trends, as well as being influenced by technological developments. The Moon played a prominent role in signifying challenges to ancient worldviews in the early modern era. The discoveries of new worlds with new peoples led to conjecture about the Moon and its possible inhabitants. By the middle of the eighteenth century, as part of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, profound changes had occurred in societal attitudes towards issues such as political structures, the position of women and the power of established religions.

A number of tropes for Moon settings exist in literature and theatre. The first is a distanced viewpoint from which to survey human society in a disinterested manner. Another trope involved exploitation of the long held belief that the Moon would have its own human inhabitants. An author could contrive a lunar society such that an observer from Earth might make favourable or unfavourable comparisons with the terrestrial situation. In Lucian’s second-century story The True History, a ship and its crew are transported to the Moon by a whirlwind. They find not only fantastical creatures such as horsevultures, flea-archers and ostrich-slingers, but also a human society which manifests similar unsavoury traits to that on Earth. The king of the Moon is warring with the Sun king over possession of the territory of the planet Venus, and so on. A third trope occurred when terrestrial characters assumed the guise of lunar inhabitants, in order to parody Earth’s society. This became a ‘play within a play’.

Ludovico Ariosto’s sixteenth-century epic poem Orlando furioso is an example of the second type of Moon setting trope. Canto 34 of the poem – the story on which Michael Gow’s 2016 Voyage to the Moon is drawn – becomes an occasion for a parody of the terrestrial world. Orlando is a Christian knight leading the fight against pagan forces attempting to invade Europe. He loses his sanity as a result of his unrequited love for the pagan princess, Angelica. St John the Evangelist takes the paladin knight Astolfo to the Moon to retrieve Orlando’s lost sanity, which has been transported there. They travel to the Moon in a chariot drawn by Ippogriffi – mythical flying creatures that are half horse and half dragon. On the Moon Ariosto sets up, through a description of the activities of the lunar citizens, an exhibition of human vanities and foibles, which have been harvested from Earth and stored systematically in glass vessels. This process of extraction, it is claimed, was responsible for a loss of brainpower in the major part of humanity. Madness, however, remains with its human hosts.

One glass vessel is labeled: ‘Orlando’s wits’. Astolfo brings this back to Earth and restores Orlando’s wits to him. The implication in verse 81 of canto 34 of the poem is that madness is not plentiful on the Moon because it has remained on Earth, where it is jealously protected.

Opera was one genre, within the broader literary and theatre context, where these issues were explored. Through its musical-rhetorical characteristics, opera was an effective vehicle for the depiction of ‘other’ peoples, the portrayal of emotions and interpersonal relationships, and in particular for the engagement of audiences. Four composers wrote operas using libretti adapted from Ariosto’s poem, evidence of an ongoing fascination with the story of Orlando furioso. Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Roland (1685) had a French libretto by Philippe Quinault. Antonio Vivaldi set two libretti by Grazio Braccioli: Orlando finto pazzo (1714) and Orlando furioso (1727). George Frideric Handel’s Orlando, with a libretto by Carlo Sigismondo Capece, premiered in 1733, and Niccolò Piccinni’s Roland, with a French libretto by Jean-Francois Marmontel, premiered in 1778.

The poem Orlando furioso is very long, consisting of 46 cantos with a total 38,736 lines. Librettists may not have considered the Moon episode as an essential element in their adaptations, as in these operas the Moon visit was substituted by alternative means of restoring Orlando’s wits, involving some form of magic. However, Niccolò Piccinni’s Il Regno della Luna (1770) has an obvious reference to the poem. It uses the plot device whereby human sanity is stored on the Moon by a society with superior attributes to that on Earth.

The cosmos and philosophy

Since antiquity, the predominant understanding of the cosmos had been based on the writings of Plato and Aristotle. According to these, the world consisted of 53 concentric, crystalline, transparent, geometrically perfect spheres rotating on different axes. At the centre of each sphere was the stationary Earth. Stars were fixed on the outer sphere. In Aristotelian cosmology only the sublunar part – between the Moon and the centre of the earth – was prone to change, decay or corruption. The superlunar part was perfect and unchanging. Not only were the superlunar objects situated in a perfect unchanging spatial relationship, but this was also a hierarchical relationship in the sense that the gods dwelt in the superlunar area and were responsible for what happened in the sublunar. The Moon occupied a liminal position between the unchanging constant heavens responsible for events below and the corruptible Earth.

The ancient philosophical school that contrasted with Aristotle’s world view was atomism. Atomism had far fewer supporters than Aristotelian cosmology, perhaps as a result of its denial of theocracy. They included Democritus (460–370 bc) and Epicurus (341–270 bc). Adherents to atomism eschewed any divine plan or hierarchical structure for the universe, holding that it was composed of indivisible bodies – atoms – interacting with each other in an infinite void. The rise in scepticism in the early modern period contributed to a change in cosmology from Aristotle’s closed world to an infinite universe; the mathematical approach to nature and atomism taken by Galileo (1564–1642), Robert Boyle (1627–1691) and Isaac Newton (1642–1726) subsequently made atomism a scientifically valid concept. The Moon, with its liminal position in traditional cosmology, could be expected to have a prominent role in propagation of issues related to the new concept of the infinite universe.


moon drawings.png
‘The phases of the Moon’, drawing by Galileo Galilei, 1616, courtesy of

Commentaries about new and imaginary worlds were prominent in European society from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and the Moon was one such imaginary world. This period of European history was characterised by the growth of colonial territories and their administration by powerful European nations. The ‘New Worlds’ such as in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania and their inhabitants were known, at least in part, but their societies were often poorly understood. This lack of reliable information led to fascination, but also fear of the unknown among Europeans. It helped to create and shape notions of the ‘other’ in European culture, which Edward Said would later coin ‘Orientalism.’ [1]

Conjecture on the social structures and histories of these ‘others’ was commonplace, and imaginative speculation about as yet unknown landmasses was also rife. Travel, whether to known destinations within the continent or exploratory ventures to new worlds, was a prominent feature of eighteenth-century European life. Popular literature included numerous factual reports and guidebooks for prospective journeys. On arrival in a new location, travellers inevitably make judgments based on a comparison of their own society to that being visited, heightening one’s awareness of the self and of others.

While the typical earlier response of Europeans to the new worlds was to characterise the inhabitants in negative terms, there developed an increasingly a tendency to compare them favourably with European society. This comparison was a way of critiquing one’s own society by illustration of the positive aspects of a supposedly ‘primitive’ one. Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) was a seminal work of this type. More quotes Hythloday’s comments on the laws and customs of the society on the fictional antipodean island of Utopia: ‘these, our cities, nations, countries and kingdoms may take example to amend their faults, enormities and errors’. [2]

Ambrosius Holbein, The Island of Utopia, woodcut from the 1518 edition of Thomas More’s Utopia. Reproduced with permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection.

Some subsequent writers painted new world societies as utopian. Jonathan Swift’s 1726 book commonly referred to as Gulliver’s Travels makes an incisive comment on contemporary society by comparing it with the equine rulers of the Country of the Houyhnhnms: ‘For who can read of the virtues I have mentioned in the glorious HOUYHNHNMS, without being ashamed of his own vices, when he considers himself as the reasoning, governing animal of his country?’ [3]

James Cook, in an entry in the journal from his first voyage around the world in 1768–71, suggests that the natives of New Holland, although appearing to be ‘the most wretched People on Earth’, were in reality far happier than Europeans. A similar example is Denis Diderot’s Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville, a criticism of European colonialism seen through the eyes of an elderly Tahitian man. The inhabitants of these real and fictional new worlds were content to live simply, ignorant of the excess production and coveting of possessions that created inequality and disharmony in European society. This eighteenth-century practice of travellers making comparisons between their own societies and those being visited was exploited in the Moon operas.

For opera librettists and composers, the conflict between attempts to rationalise the New World societies’ values and cultures in the light of European norms, and the observed ‘alterity’ of their peoples, set the scene for the exploitation of fantastic or fictional non-European worlds in a theatrical setting. Since historical texts for fictional worlds did not exist, librettists could invent them. Being unreachable and outside normal human experience, fantastic and fictional worlds were safe places for challenging the established order.

Opera, with its power derived from the synergetic combination of music and text, was an effective vehicle for the depiction of ‘other’ peoples, representation of differences, and portrayal of emotions and interpersonal relationships. Added to this, the ability to engage audiences through its musical-rhetorical characteristics meant that it could be seen as a forum for critiquing contemporary human society using the device of imaginary world settings. The Moon is not the only imagined locale exploited in literature, theatre and opera, with others being, for example, fictitious antipodean islands, planets and fantastical realms based on Amazon mythology. But the Moon stands out because of its unique place in relation to the history of philosophy, culture and science.

Lawrence Mays is a PhD candidate at The Australian National University, and recipient of the 2015 Prize for a Student Delegate at the National Conference of the Musicological Society of Australia.

[1] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978).

[2] Thomas More, Utopia ([n.d.]), 23.

[3] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (London, 1726).


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