Rereading Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus recently, I noted something odd about one of the magical feats performed by the title character which had never struck me before. It’s not one of the major sequences, but it caught my attention: the scene in which Faustus conjures up luscious grapes in the middle of winter. (Act IV, Scene vii in the Penguin edition.) It made me pause because for a moment Marlowe’s magical tragedy seems to lurch into science fiction. Or does it?
Faustus has just conjured an enchanted castle in the air for the Duke of Vanholt, and offers to do something equally entertaining for the pregnant Duchess:
Faustus:…But, gracious lady, it may be that you have taken no pleasure in those sights. Therefore, I pray you tell me, what is the thing you most desire to have. Be it in the world, it shall be yours. I have heard that great-bellied women do long for things are rare and dainty.
DUCHESS: True, Master Doctor, and since I find you so kind, I will make known unto you what my heart desires to have; and were it now summer, as it is January, a dead time of the winter, I would request no better meat than a dish of ripe grapes.
FAUSTUS: This is but a small matter. Go, Mephostopholis, away.
Madame, I will do more than this for your content.
Enter M again with the grapes.
Here now, taste ye these. They should be good, for they come from a far country, I can tell you.
Whilst the Duchess is enjoying the unseasonal fruit, the Duke asks for an explanation, and Faustus obliges:
DUKE: This makes me wonder more than all the rest, that at this time of the year, when every tree is barren of his fruit, from whence you had these ripe grapes.
FAUSTUS: Please it your grace, the year is divided into two circles over the whole world, so that when it is winter with us, in the contrary circle it is likewise summer with them, as in India, Saba and such countries that lie far East, where they have fruit twice a year. From whence, by means of a swift spirit that I have, I had these grapes brought as you see.
DUCHESS: And trust me, they are the sweetest grapes that e’er I tasted.
In fact, I slightly over-interpreted the Duke’s comment. On second reading, he doesn’t ask for an explanation so much as express wonder and amazement at the magic. This, he says, is the best trick yet; for him the grapes outrank the enchanted castle floating in mid-air. Perhaps that’s because in an economy like early modern England, agricultural land was still a major source of power for individuals (though sheep farming was a more profitable activity.)
The link between magic and food – such as the record of a Scottish witch trial in which the accused explained she sold her soul to the Devil because he promised she would never go hungry – remind us of the more immediate link between money and food for audiences in the early modern theatre. When theatre-going is a luxury and a status symbol (as it is today), some of this resonance can be muted. Though the food which Faustus conjures up is a dainty, luxurious dish, after all.
For whatever reason, the Duke is mightily impressed by these grapes. In the face of this wonder, Faustus takes the unusual step of explaining how the trick worked. This is the passage which made me think of science fiction, since the magician goes off into an explanation of geography, time and speed. It’s not the usual mode in which magic is presented in either early modern literature or modern fantasy novels. Magic is magic, and part of what makes it magic is that you can’t explain how it works. (You can explain how you carried out the spell, and maybe write down the words and show the ritual, but not what processes are going on within the magic itself.)
This is one of the definitions which Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James use in distinguishing fantasy from science fiction in their A Short History of Fantasy
The most obvious construction of fantasy in literature is the presence of the impossible and unexplainable. This helps to cut out most science fiction (sf) which, while it may deal with the impossible, regards everything as explicable… (3.)
From this point of view, Faustus steps calmly into the world of science fiction during his speech: in the face of wonder and magic, he sets about explaining the technical aspects, and relating them to natural facts. There’s an air of the scientific about his account, with its progress from general principles to their effects, and the account of his intervention by means of a fast spirit. It sounds repeatable, as if anyone with something sufficiently speedy (like a spare Puck, for example) could carry out the same action. It is different in degree from the Duke’s experiences (he has no horses that fast) but not in its essential quality.
A friend offered a possible account of the anomaly here which possibly illuminates the grapes’ place within the sphere of the fantastical: she suggested Faustus felt the need to explain in case anyone thought the grapes were fairy food. The risks of eating fairy provisions appear throughout folklore, and a single quotation will serve, provided by Katharine Briggs in The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, in a tale of a man who stumbled across a fairy banquet and recognised one of the serving girls as his dead sweetheart:
He would have kissed her, but she warned him anxiously against touching her, and against eating a fruit or plucking a flower if he wished ever to reach his home again.
“For eating a tempting plum in this enchanted orchard was my undoing,” she said
The prohibition runs through the story (also related by Briggs) of the young man who refused to eat with the fairy king until a priest had said grace over the meal, but drank a glass of wine which led to his death. There are obvious echoes with the story of Persephone and her eating of the pomegranate in Hades. Perhaps impossible and luxurious fruit which arrives courtesy of a magician needs careful explanation because a pregnant woman eating fairy grapes would be a very bad idea indeed.
It might also be that space and time didn’t equal “science” in the minds of the audience in the same way that they do for ours. We mentally inhabit a Newtonian universe in which space and time are flat and regular, in which twenty miles an hour is double ten miles an hour and half forty miles an hour, in which distances are susceptible to measurement and parcelling up logically. Despite the modern-sounding explanation of summer and winter Faustus gives (which is much less sophisticated than that provided by Ovid at the beginning of the Metamorphoses in the first century), we can’t assume that the two circles and the fast spirit sounded as mathematical, regular and scientific to contemporary audiences as they might to us.
In a world where (for some) the moon marked the boundary between the sub-lunary world of air and the super-lunary realm of aether, where planets possessed particular “virtues” and influences, and where Newton himself carried out alchemical experiments, a far-away country might occupy a different mental category to a closer one. Ronald Hutton exemplifies the idea in Blood and Misteltoe, during his discussion of whether or not Pliny’s account of the British and Gaullish druids can be taken seriously:
In general, the value of Pliny’s information as a scholar spans a spectrum between two extremes. When discussing the Mediterranean world, which we knew himself, in which he was primarily interested and on which he had the best information from others, he was sometimes an accurate writer. At the other extreme are the fables that he reports concerning peoples in lands with which the Romans had no direct contact. He populated the middle of the Sahara desert with the Atlantes, who did not have personal names and never dreamed when asleep, the Trogodytae, who ate only snakes and lacked the power of speech, the Blemmyis, who had no heads and whose eyes and mouth were in the centre of their chests…And so on, and so on.
The problem for our present concerns is that Britain and Gaul lie in the hazy area between these two extremes. Britain was half conquered and half known.
In this account, Pliny not only has less reliable information about the “Indies”, he uses them for an entirely different kind of discourse. He doesn’t give the impression of thinking that the Atlantes and the Blemmyis exist in the same way as the citizens of the Mediterranean world. Obviously Marlowe is a very different writer, but Hutton’s example alerted me to the potential problem with thinking of “space” as a flat, regular, explicable category in the thought of pre-modern writers. Certainly the “voyages” of Sir John Mandeville are full of grotesque and untrue elements, and though more contemporary authors like Hakluyt and Donne wrote in a more “realistic” mode about far-flung countries, they still had powerful metaphorical and symbolic associations.
So perhaps Faustus’ explanation is, in fact, nothing of the sort. Maybe he’s distinguishing between different modes of the fabulous, and not accidentally wandering between the fantasy and science-fictional modes. I’m still intrigued by the sort of magical feat imagined here, which blends the sensuous pleasure and dangers of food with a (pseudo-)geographical account of the spirit-flown air miles which were involved in its production.
 Much more sophisticated people than me inhabit an Einsteinian one, but I gather from scientific writers that we live our everyday lives on basically Newtonian principles.