Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is one of the most influential works in world literature. Remarkably, it was written by an eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley, with assistance from her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley. Its origins lie indirectly in the last solar minimum we experienced, the Dalton Minimum of the early 1800s. In April 1815 Indonesia’s Mount Tambora started erupting. It went on for several months and ejected so much matter into the stratosphere that skies turned yellow in England.
J.M.W. Turner, Chichester Canal
In June of 1816 (the ‘year without a summer’), snow fell in New England, while at Lake Geneva, ensconced amid gloomy constant storms, young Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, with young Mary Godwin and her stepsister, read gothic horror stories around the fire. Byron proposed they each try to invent one; after days of thinking, one night Mary had a dream.
Villa Diodati, site of Mary Shelley's dream
Mary wrote of her dream:
Percy Shelley later wrote his own Prometheus Unbound; perhaps the theme stuck when he was expelled from Oxford for writing The Necessity of Atheism. The plot of Frankenstein also resembles the Greek story of Daedalus, the scientist and inventor who created the half-man half-bull Minotaur, so fierce only the Labyrinth could contain him, and only Theseus could kill him. Later Daedalus fashioned wings for his son, Icarus, who flew too high and fell from heaven. Francis Bacon used the fable of Daedalus to illustrate the dangers of science in Wisdom of the Ancients:
The ancients have left us a description of mechanical skill, industry, and curious arts converted to ill uses, in the person of Dædalus, a most ingenious but execrable artist. This Dædalus was banished for the murder of his brother artist and rival, yet found a kind reception in his banishment from the kings and states where he came. He raised many incomparable edifices to the honour of the gods, and invented many new contrivances for the beautifying and ennobling of cities and public places, but still he was most famous for wicked inventions. Among the rest, by his abominable industry and destructive genius, he assisted in the fatal and infamous production of the monster Minotaur, that devourer of promising youths. And then, to cover one mischief with another, and provide for the security of this monster, he invented and built a labyrinth; a work infamous for it’s end and design, but admirable and prodigious for art and workmanship. After this, that he might not only be celebrated for wicked inventions, but be sought after, as well for prevention, as for instruments of mischief, he formed that ingenious device of his clue, which led directly through all the windings of the labyrinth. This Dædalus was persecuted by Minos with the utmost severity, diligence, and inquiry; but he always found refuge and means of escaping. Lastly, endeavouring to teach his son Icarus the art of flying, the novice, trusting too much to his wings, fell from his towering flight, and was drowned in the sea.
EXPLANATION. - The sense of the fable runs thus. It first denotes envy, which is continually upon the watch, and strangely prevails among excellent artificers; for no kind of people are observed to be more implacably and destructively envious to one another than these.
In the next place, it observes an impolitic and improvident kind of of punishment inflicted upon Dædalus, that of banishment; for good workmen are gladly received everywhere, so that banishment to an excellent artificer is scarce any punishment at all; whereas other conditions of life cannot easily flourish from home. For the admiration of artists is propagated and increased among foreigners and strangers; it being a principle in the minds of men to slight and despise the mechanical operators of their own nation.
The succeeding part of the fable is plain, concerning the use of mechanic arts, whereto human life stands greatly indebted, as receiving from this treasury numerous particulars for the service of religion, the ornament of civil society, and the whole provision and apparatus of life; but then the same magazine supplies instruments of lust, cruelty, and death: For, not to mention the arts of luxury and debauchery, we plainly see how far the business of exquisite poisons, guns, engines of war, and such kind of destructive inventions, exceeds the cruelty and barbarity of the Minotaur himself.
The addition of the labyrinth contains a beautiful allegory, representing the nature of mechanic arts in general; for all ingenious and accurate mechanical inventions, may be conceived as a labyrinth, which, by reason of their subtilty, intricacy, crossing, and interfering with one another, and the apparent resemblances they have among themselves, scarce any power of the judgment can unravel and distinguish; so that they are only to be understood and traced by the clue of experience.
It is no less prudently added, that he who invented the windings of the labyrinth, should also show the use and management of the clue; for mechanical arts have an ambiguous or double use, and serve as well to produce as to prevent mischief and destruction; so that their virtue almost destroys or unwinds itself.
Unlawful arts, and indeed frequently arts themselves, are persecuted by Minos, that is, by laws, which prohibit and forbid their use among the people; but notwithstanding this, they are hid, concealed, retained, and everywhere find reception and sculking-places; a thing well observed by Tacitus of the astrologers and fortune-tellers of his time. "These," says he, "are a kind of men that will always be prohibited, and yet will always be retained in our city."
But lastly, all unlawful and vain arts, of what kind soever, lose their reputation in tract of time; grow contemptible and perish, through their over-confidence, like Icarus; being commonly unable to perform what they boasted. And to say the truth, such arts are better suppressed by their own vain pretensions, than checked or restrained by the bridle of laws.