2 : Cyrano’s First Flight

“How strange,” I said to myself, “I have spent the day talking about something; a book that may be the only one in the world that deals with the same thing flies from my bookshelves to my table and becomes so capable of reason that it opens right to the account of a miraculous adventure and provides thoughts to my imagination and plans to my intention! Very likely,” I continued, “the two old men who appeared to that great man are the same ones who opened my book to this page in order to save themselves the trouble of going through the same long explanations they made to Cardano.”

“But,” I added, “how can I be sure unless I go there?

“And why not?” I answered myself immediately. “Prometheus once went to heaven to steal fire.”

These feverish remarks were followed by the hope of succeeding in such a fine voyage. To accomplish it, I established myself in a fairly remote country house and entertained my imagination with various means of transport. Here is how I betook myself to heaven.

I attached to myself a number of bottles of dew, and the heat of the sun, which attracted it, drew me so high that I finally emerged above the highest clouds. But the sun’s attraction of the dew drew me upwards so rapidly that instead of approaching the Moon, as I intended, I seemed to be farther from it than when I started. I broke open some of the bottles and felt my weight overcome the attraction and bring me back towards the earth.

My impression was not incorrect, because I touched down again some time later. Judging by the time I left, it should have been midnight. However, I saw that the sun was at its highest point in the sky, and that it was noon. You may imagine how surprised I was; in fact, I was so surprised that, not knowing how to account for this miracle, I had the insolence to imagine that God had rewarded my boldness by once again stopping the sun in the sky in recognition of such a noble undertaking.

My astonishment was increased by my failure to recognize the country I was in. Since I had flown straight up, it seemed to me that I should have come down at the same place I started from. With my equipment, I walked toward a thatched cottage from which I saw smoke emerging. I was scarcely within pistol-shot range when I was surrounded by a large number of savages. They were very surprised to meet me, because I think I was the first they had seen dressed in bottles. And, to confound even more all the interpretations they might have given to this attire, I walked almost without touching the ground. They could not know that any jostling of my body raised me off the ground because the dew was heated by the noonday sun and that more bottles of dew might have taken me upwards into the air.

I wanted to talk to them; but, as though fright had changed them into birds, they took off into the nearby forest. Even so, I did catch one of them, whose legs had no doubt betrayed his courage. I asked him with great difficulty (because I was out of breath), how far it was to Paris, since when people went around naked in France, and why everybody had fled me in such terror. The man I was talking to was a brown-skinned old man; he immediately threw himself at my knees. Joining his hands up behind his head, he opened his mouth and closed his eyes. He muttered for a long time, but I could not tell whether he was saying anything and took his speech for the hoarse babbling of a mute.

A while later, I saw a company of soldiers approaching, marching to the cadence of a drum. I noticed two of them split off from the main body of troops to reconnoitre me. When they came close enough to hear, I asked them where I was.

“You are in France,” they answered. “But how the hell did you come to look like that? How come we don’t know you? Have the ships arrived? Are you coming to report to the governor? And why have you put your liquor into so many different bottles?”

To all that I answered that hell had not put me in my present condition; they did not know me because they could not possibly know everybody; I was unaware that the Seine river carried ships; I had no report to give to Monsieur de Montbazon; and I was not carrying liquor.

“Ho ho,” they said, taking me by the arm, “a wiseguy are you? The governor will find out who you are, for sure.”

They led me toward their company as they spoke, and I learned from them that I was in France but not in Europe, because I was in New France. I was presented to Monsieur de Montmagny, the viceroy. He asked my nationality, name, and rank. When I had satisfied him by recounting the success of my voyage, which he either believed or pretended to, he kindly lent me a room in his apartment. I was happy to meet a man capable of enlightened opinions, one who was not surprised when I told him that the earth must have turned beneath me while I was aloft. Having begun my ascent two leagues from Paris, I had come down in almost a straight line to Canada.

Thus begins the best-known episode in Cyrano’s novel. He invents the equivalent of the hot-air balloon and describes what amounts to a sub-orbital flight. Cyrano correctly expects to come down where he started from. Here we see Cyrano’s sly wit in action: he is taking advantage of a mistake in Aristotelian physics by disregarding the momentum imparted to him by the earth’s rotation at lift-off and the fact that the atmosphere rotates along with the earth.

Like any other author, Cyrano uses travel as a literary device: the things he has to do necessarily take him to distant places. And yet, like modern-day science-fiction authors he is not content with dreams, magic or miracles but is genuinely interested in how such voyages might be accomplished.

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