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January 21, 2010

A weekly feature provided by scientists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Something to write about: the influence of volcanoes on literature

Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth
Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth"

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 (whose cousin would, in 1825, escort the bodies of King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu back to Hawai`i). 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.

Kīlauea Activity Update

Surface flows were active above the pali through the first part of the week. One of these flows reached down into the Royal Gardens subdivision before the deflation phase of another deflation/inflation cycle at Kīlauea's summit caused all the surface flows to slow or stop. Surface flows in the same general area above the pali will likely start again when the volcano re-inflates.

At Kīlauea's summit, the lava surface deep within the collapse pit inset within the floor of Halema`uma`u Crater was visible via webcam early in the week. The deflation phase of the deflation/inflation cycle caused the lava to retreat to a deeper level, and, as a result, night-time glow above the vent was relatively weak by mid-week. Lava is expected to rise back into webcam view after the volcano begins to inflate. Volcanic gas emissions remain elevated, resulting in high concentrations of sulfur dioxide downwind.

Three earthquakes beneath Hawai`i Island were reported felt during the past week. A magnitude-3.0 earthquake occurred at 7:34 a.m. on Friday, January 15, 2010, H.s.t., and was located 3 km (2 miles) southwest of Kīlauea summit at a depth of 14 km (9 miles). A magnitude-3.1 earthquake occurred at 12:02 p.m. on Monday, January 18, and was located 7 km (4 miles) southwest of Kawaihae at a depth of 10 km (6 miles). A magnitude-4.3 earthquake occurred at 1:01 p.m. the same day and was located 6 km (4 miles) northwest of Pahala at a depth of 6 km (4 miles).

Visit our Web site ( for detailed Kīlauea and Mauna Loa activity updates, recent volcano photos, recent earthquakes, and more; call (808) 967-8862 for a Kīlauea activity summary; email questions to skip past bottom navigational bar

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Updated: February 10, 2010 (pnf)