A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Astronomy, Boleslaw Prus, Dolores Claiborne, Eclipse, Eclipse of the Sun, Elizabeth Fais, Fiction, Gerald's Game, Isaac Asimov, John Banville, King Lear, Mark Twain, Nightfall, Peter Weir, Pharaoh, Phil Whitaker, Robert Silverberg, SAO, Shakespeare, Shroud, Smithsonian, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, solar eclipse, Stephen King, total solar eclipse, Witness
The primal fear effect
A total solar eclipse is when the moon passes between the sun and earth, and blocks all or part of the sun for up to about three hours from a given location.
Today, a total solar eclipse is an astronomical rarity, an event to be recorded and studied. That was not always the case. It wasn’t all that long ago (in the grand scheme of things) that the sun and sky going dark caused mass hysteria. Which is not a totally irrational response. It triggers a primal fear, because we depend on the sun’s energy for life. Without it, our world would be uninhabitable.
It’s no surprise that a total solar eclipse continues to have a strong effect on us even now, as is evident in fiction: books, film, and television. Stories that resonate most deeply with the human psyche are primal, and survival is about as primal as it gets.
Fictional total eclipses
The earliest known fictional solar eclipse is in Homer‘s Odyssey, which scholars believe was composed near the end of the 8th century BC. There’s probably lesser known fictional references to solar eclipses between the 8th century BC and 1608, when Shakespeare’s tragic play, King Lear was first published, but let’s jump to King Lear’s famous quote:
O insupportable! O heavy hour! / Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse / Of sun and moon; and that the affrighted globe / Should yawn at alteration…
Following Shakespeare, the better known fictional works that feature solar eclipses were published in the late 19th century:
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain (1889), where the protagonist predicts a solar eclipse in 528 AD.
- Pharaoh, by Bolesław Prus (1895), a historical novel that culminated in a solar eclipse at the fall of Egypt’s 20th Dynasty, (1085 BC).
You might think that the paranormal intrigue surrounding a total solar eclipse would wane as we entered the 20th century, but no. In fiction, film, and television, it increased. The following are just a few of the works by the more prominent authors:
- Two Stephen King novels have a murder committed during an eclipse: Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game.
- Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg (1990 novel based on Asimov’s 1941 short story of the same name).
- Eclipse of the Sun, by Phil Whitaker (1997), is set in India and centered around a public viewing of the Solar eclipse of October 24, 1995.
- Eclipse (2000) and Shroud (2002), by John Banville, two interlinked novels that are both set against the backdrop of a solar eclipse.
The list of film and television shows that include solar eclipses in their story is more extensive than in books. For a complete list of title for both fiction, film, and television, go here.
1984 eclipse in Witness
It’s interesting that while filming Witness (1985) in Pennsylvania’s Amish region, a partial solar eclipse occurred on May 30, 1984 (at his location). Director Peter Weir filmed the actors in costume, responding to the eclipse. However, these scenes never made it into the publicly released version of the film.
August 21, 2017 ~ total solar eclipse
August 21, 2017 will be the first total solar eclipse that can be seen in the United States in 38 years, the last one being in 1979. For the 2017 solar eclipse, the longest period the moon completely blocks the sun—from any given location along the path—will be about two minutes and 40 seconds.
If you’re interested in following the solar eclipse as it happens, even if you won’t be in the direct viewing path, check out the Smithsonian Solar Eclipse app from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). The app allows you to watch a live NASA stream of the eclipse as it travels across the continental United States. You can calculate your view with their interactive eclipse map, and get a virtual view in our eclipse simulator. Super cool!