A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, by James De Mille

Chapter XXVI

Grimm’s Law Again

Dinner was now announced, and Oxenden laid the manuscript aside; whereupon they adjourned to the cabin, where they proceeded to discuss both the repast and the manuscript.

“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 a sensational novel?”

“Partly so,” said Melick; “but it would be nearer the mark to call it a satirical romance.”

“Why not a scientific romance?”

“Because there’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.”

“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. It shows us a world where our evil is made a good, and our good an evil; there all that we consider a blessing is had in abundance — prolonged and perpetual sunlight, riches, power, fame — and yet these things are despised, and the people, turning away from them, imagine that they can find happiness in poverty, darkness, death, and unrequited love. The writer thus mocks at all our dearest passions and strongest desires; and his general aim is to show that the mere search for happiness per se is a vulgar thing, and must always result in utter nothingness. The writer also teaches the great lesson that the happiness of man consists not in external surroundings, but in the internal feelings, and that heaven itself is not a place, but a state. It is the old lesson which Milton extorted from Satan:

“‘What matter where, if I be still the same — ’

“Or again:

“‘The mind is its own place, and of itself

Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven — ’”

“That’s good too,” cried Oxenden. “That reminds me of the German commentators who find in the Agamemnon of AEschylus or the OEdipus of Sophocles or the Hamlet of Shakespeare motives and purposes of which the authors could never have dreamed, and give us a metaphysical, beer-and-tobacco, High–Dutch Clytemnestra or Antigone or Lady Macbeth. No, my boy, More was a simple sailor, and had no idea of satirizing anything.”

“How, then, do you account for the perpetual undercurrent of meaning and innuendo that may be found in every line?”

“I deny that there is anything of the sort,” said Oxenden. “It is a plain narrative of facts; but the facts are themselves such that they give a new coloring to the facts of our own life. They are in such profound antithesis to European ways that we consider them as being written merely to indicate that difference. It is like the Germania of Tacitus, which many critics still hold to be a satire on Roman ways, while as a matter of fact it is simply a narrative of German manners and customs.”

“I hope,” cried Melick, “that you do not mean to compare this awful rot and rubbish to the Germania of Tacitus?”

“By no means,” said Oxenden; “I merely asserted that in one respect they were analogous. You forced on the allusion to the Germania by calling this ‘rot and rubbish’ a satirical romance.”

“Oh, well,” said Melick, “I only referred to the intention of the writer. His plan is one thing and his execution quite another. His plan is not bad, but he fails utterly in his execution. The style is detestable. If he had written in the style of a plain seaman, and told a simple unvarnished tale, it would have been all right. In order to carry out properly such a plan as this the writer should take Defoe as his model, or, still better, Dean Swift. Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe show what can be done in this way, and form a standard by which all other attempts must be judged. But this writer is tawdry; he has the worst vices of the sensational school — he shows everywhere marks of haste, gross carelessness, and universal feebleness. When he gets hold of a good fancy, he lacks the patience that is necessary in order to work it up in an effective way. He is a gross plagiarist, and over and over again violates in the most glaring manner all the ordinary proprieties of style. What can be more absurd, for instance, than the language which he puts into the mouth of Layelah? Not content with making her talk like a sentimental boarding-school, bread-and-butter English miss, he actually forgets himself so far as to put in her mouth a threadbare joke, which everyone has heard since childhood.”

“What is that?”

“Oh, that silly speech about the athaleb swallowing its victuals whole.”

“What’s the matter with that?” asked Oxenden. “It’s merely a chance resemblance. In translating her words into English they fell by accident into that shape. No one but you would find fault with them. Would it have been better if he had translated her words into the scientific phraseology which the doctor made use of with regard to the ichthyosaurus? He might have made it this way: ‘Does it bite?’ ‘No; it swallows its food without mastication.’ Would that have been better? Besides, it’s all very well to talk of imitating Defoe and Swift; but suppose he couldn’t do it?”

“Then he shouldn’t have written the book.”

“In that case how could his father have heard about his adventures?”

“His father!” exclaimed Melick. “Do you mean to say that you still accept all this as bona fide?”

“Do you mean to say,” retorted Oxenden, “that you still have any doubt about the authenticity of this remarkable manuscript?”

At this each looked at the other; Melick elevated his eyebrows, and Oxenden shrugged his shoulders, but each seemed unable to find words to express his amazement at the other’s stupidity, and so they took refuge in silence.

“What do you understand by this athaleb, doctor?” asked Featherstone.

“The athaleb?” said the doctor. “Why, it is clearly the pterodactyl.”

“By-the-bye,” interrupted Oxenden, “do please take notice of that name. It affords another exemplification of ‘Grimm’s Law.’ The Hebrew word is ‘ataleph,’ and means bat. The Kosekin word is ‘athaleb.’ Here you see the thin letter of Hebrew represented by the aspirated letter of the Kosekin language, while the aspirated Hebrew is represented by the Kosekin medial.”

“Too true,” exclaimed Melick, in a tone of deep conviction; “and now, Oxenden, won’t you sing us a song?”

“Nonsense,” said Featherstone; “let the doctor tell us about the athaleb.”

“Well,” resumed the doctor, “as I was saying, it must be undoubtedly the pterodactyl. It is a most extraordinary animal, and is a species of flying lizard, although differing from the lizard in many respects. It has the head and neck of a bird, the trunk and tail of an ordinary mammal, the jaws and teeth of a reptile, and the wings of a bat. Owen describes one whose sweep of wings exceeded twenty feet, and many have been found of every gradation of size down to that of a bat. There is no reason why they should not be as large as More says; and I for my part do not suspect him of exaggeration. Some have supposed that a late, lingering individual may have suggested the idea of the fabulous dragon — an idea which seems to be in the minds of nearly all the human race, for in the early records of many nations we find the destruction of dragons assigned to their gods and heroes. The figure of the pterodactyl represents pretty closely that which is given to the dragons. It is not impossible that they may have existed into the period which we call prehistoric, and that monsters far larger than any which we have yet discovered may have lingered until the time when man began to increase upon the earth, to spread over its surface, and to carve upon wood and stone representations of the most striking objects around him. When the living pterodactyls had disappeared the memory of them was preserved; some new features were added, and the imagination went so far as to endow them with the power of belching forth smoke and flames. Thus the dragon idea pervaded the minds of men, and instead of a natural animal it became a fabulous one.

“The fingers of the forelegs were of the ordinary dimensions, and terminated with crooked nails, and these were probably used to suspend themselves from trees. When in repose it rested on its hind legs like a bird, and held its neck curving behind, so that its enormous head should not disturb its equilibrium. The size and form of the feet, of the leg, and of the thigh prove that they could hold themselves erect with firmness, their wings folded, and move about in this way like birds, just as More describes them as doing. Like birds they could also perch on trees, and could crawl like bats and lizards along the rocks and cliffs.

“Some think that they were covered with scales, but I am of the opinion that they had a horny hide, with a ridge of hair running down their backs — in which opinion I am sustained by More’s account. The smaller kinds were undoubtedly insectivorous, but the larger ones must have been carnivorous, and probably fed largely on fish.”

“Well, at any rate,” said Melick, gravely, “this athaleb solves the difficult question as to how the Troglodytes emigrated to the South Pole.”

“How?” asked the doctor.

“Why, they must have gone there on athalebs! Your friends the pterodactyls probably lingered longest among the Troglodytes, who, seeing that they were rapidly dying out, concluded to depart to another and a better world. One beauty of this theory is that it cannot possibly be disproved; another is that it satisfies all the requirements of the case; a third is that it accounts for the disappearance of the pterodactyls in our world, and their appearance at the South Pole; and there are forty or fifty other facts, all included in this theory, which I have not time just now to enumerate, but will try to do so after we have finished reading the manuscript. I will only add that the athaleb must be regarded as another link which binds the Kosekin to the Semitic race.”

“Another link?” said Oxenden. “That I already have; and it is one that carries conviction with it.”

“All your arguments invariably do, my dear fellow.”

“What is it?” asked the doctor.

“The Kosekin alphabet,” said Oxenden.

“I can’t see how you can make anything out of that,” said the doctor.

“Very well, I can easily explain,” replied Oxenden. “In the first place we must take the old Hebrew alphabet. I will write down the letters in their order first.”

Saying this he hastily jotted down some letters on a piece of paper, and showed to the doctor the following:

           Labials.      Palatals.    Linguals.
    A         B         C (or G)          D
    E         F         Ch (or H)     Dh (or Th)
    I     Liquids, L        M             N
    O         P             K             T

“That,” said he, “is substantially the order of the old Hebrew alphabet.”

“But,” said the doctor, “the Kosekin alphabet differs in its order altogether from that.”

“That very difference can be shown to be all the stronger proof of a connection between them,” said Oxenden.

“I should like to know how.”

“The fact is,” said Oxenden, “these letters are represented differently in the two languages in exact accordance with Grimm’s Law.”

“By Jove!” cried Featherstone, “Grimm’s Law again!”

“According to that law,” continued Oxenden, “the letters of the alphabet ought to change their order. Now let us leave out the vowels and linguals, and deal only with the mutes. First, we have in the Hebrew alphabet the medials B, G, and D. Very well; in the Kosekin we have standing first the thin letters, or tenues, according to Grimm’s Law, namely, P, K, T. Next we have in the Hebrew the aspirates F, Ch, Dh. In the Kosekin alphabet we have corresponding to them the medials B, G, D. Next we have in the Hebrew the tenues, or thin letters P, K, T. In the Kosekin we have the corresponding aspirates F, Ch, Th. The vowels, liquids, and sibilants need not be regarded just here, for the proof from the mutes is sufficient to satisfy any reasonable man.”

“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.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37