Categorized | Sci-Tech

Volcano Watch: The influence of volcanoes on literature

(Volcano Watch is a weekly article written by scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.)

In the previous two weeks, we examined the role that volcanoes have played in both religion and art. Today, we discuss the influence of volcanoes on Western literature.

As early as the first century B.C., volcanoes were imagined as entrances to Hell. In the “Aeneid,” the epic poem by the Italian poet Virgil, the entrance to the underworld is located in the Phlegrean Fields, a volcanic area near Naples, Italy.

In another work about 1,300 years later, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri expanded on the same theme in the “Inferno.” In that work, the author explores the nine levels of Hell, some of which have fiery qualities obviously inspired by volcanoes.

As scientific understanding of the natural world advanced and the science of volcanology became established, volcanoes became more of a backdrop in works of fiction, especially in science fiction and adventure stories.

In Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” Professor Lidenbrock and his companions begin their travels by descending into the crater of Snaefellsjokull volcano in Iceland and end by being erupted out of Stromboli volcano in Italy.

James Fenimore Cooper, author of “Last of the Mohicans,” also wrote “The Crater.” In it, he writes of sailors, shipwrecked on a volcanic island, who establish a utopia later destroyed by an eruption.

Modern adventure writers also make use of volcanoes. Patrick O’Brian, author of the naval adventures of Jack Aubrey (featured in the movie “Master and Commander”), included a south Pacific undersea volcanic eruption in the opening of his book, “The Wine-Dark Sea.”

John Saul’s 1998 novel “The Presence” tells of teenagers with lungs modified to breathe vog (perhaps a useful adaptation for Big Island residents today). Less well-known is the book “Volcano Ogre,” which features a lava monster (in reality an American geologist in a heat-proof suit covered by molten rock) that terrorizes a community and has to be stopped by Prince Zarkon and his Omega Crew (whether or not this qualifies as literature is, perhaps, debatable).

Volcanoes have also provided the setting for romantic dramas. “The Last Days of Pompeii,” an 1834 novel written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (and inspired by a Russian painting of the same name), uses the A.D. 79 eruption of Vesuvius as the climax in an otherwise fictional story centered on a love triangle between three Pompeii residents.

More recently, Susan Sontag’s best-seller, “The Volcano Lover,” describes a real-life love triangle between the beautiful Emma Hamilton, her diplomat husband, Sir William Hamilton, and British naval hero Horatio Nelson. While serving in Italy, Sir William Hamilton spent much of his free time researching volcanoes (providing the title for Sontag’s novel), leading many to view him as the father of volcanology.

Even the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) and its staff have been the subjects of volcano literary efforts. Interviews of two HVO volcanologists were used to develop the volcanologist heroine of the Harlequin romance “Crimson Rivers.”

The last decade has seen an explosion of literature about controversy and heroism surrounding natural disasters. Recent eruptions have led to stories of survival against the odds and responsibility in the face of danger. A pair of books, “Surviving Galeras” and “No Apparent Danger,” recount alternate viewpoints of the 1993 eruption of Galeras volcano, Columbia, which resulted in the deaths of several volcanologists.

Less obvious are the indirect influences of volcanoes on literature. In 1816, Mary Shelley and her poet husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, spent a summer in Switzerland with the poet Lord Byron (who would, in 1825, escort the bodies of King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu back to Hawaii).

The unusually cold and wet weather, caused by the global atmospheric effects of the massive 1815 eruption of Tambora, in Indonesia, caused the vacationers to be confined to their cottages for large periods of time and prompted Lord Byron to propose a ghost story contest. It was then that Mary Shelley conceived the story of Frankenstein.

Volcanoes have been a recurring subject in literary plots over several millennia, and their treatment in books and poems has evolved with human understanding of volcanic processes.

Next week, we conclude our series on volcanoes and society with a look at volcanoes in the movies.

2 Responses to “Volcano Watch: The influence of volcanoes on literature”

  1. Kanaloa Kona says:

    One of classics of modernist fiction is Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano, though the volcano itself does not figure largely. And don’t forget the great Bob Shacochis novel Swimming in the Volcano, set on a (fictional) volcanic island in the Caribbean.

  2. Kim says:

    I’ve often wondered if Mary Shelley would have written the novel if the weather hadn’t been so dreadful that summer. I think she would have eventually, although perhaps it would have happened much later.


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