From Ted Hughes to HG Wells: Jeanette Winterson picks the best books about the moon
There she is, 239,000 miles from Earth. A lover’s moon, a poet’s moon, a painted moon, made of green cheese, home to the Man in the Moon, visible above the lights of Moscow and Manhattan, Tokyo and London. Hanging as the silent guardian of rivers and woods. Symbol of the mystery of the universe.
None of this has changed since Apollo 11 landed on that broken silent surface 50 years ago. The moon is just as familiar and just as remote. The mythical and magical moon, the lunatic moon that drives men mad, Earth’s moon, lifting tides and raising sap.
Ted Hughes’s poem “Full Moon and Little Frieda” is one of my favourite moon poems – everyone knows the moment of amazement and delight when we see the moon rise. I live in the countryside, and go to watch the moon come up over the wood behind my house. I know what it is, and why it is, but still it moves me and calms me.
Alice Oswald’s A Sleepwalk on the Severn is perfect in its mooniness. The moon in this poem is changeable – even to herself – and dreamy as she wanders asleep among the mudflats. She is Shakespeare’s inconstant moon that lights the lovers on the balcony in Romeo and Juliet. This is the moon as part of our nightly imagination.
Poets have always loved the moon, and it was Sappho who first called the moon silver. The moon is Earth’s satellite – which is why she can’t be a planet, and as she doesn’t generate her own light, she isn’t a star. But there is nothing passive about her. She stops the Earth wobbling too much as we spin. It’s called obliquity. The moon steadies us. Literally. And if you plant your vegetables using a moon calendar (yes I do) the results are surprising.
Earth and the moon work as a pair; an Earth-moon system. If you were standing on Mars, it would look as though they were twins, side by side, one blue, one white. This cosmic closeness was picked up by Italo Calvino in his wonderful story “The Distance of the Moon”. He imagines a time when Earth and moon were so close that their inhabitants had relationships with one another, until gradually distance began to separate us, and now we gaze forlornly at our far-away loves.
There is some science behind this beautiful sad idea – it may be that the moon is a huge chunk of Earth that broke off, as the space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock explains in The Sky at Night: The Book of the Moon. It’s a book for children and adults alike, the kind of thing that makes you marvel about both our solar system and our nearest neighbour.
Ronald Hutton tells a different story in his history of modern pagan witchcraft, The Triumph of the Moon. This is the moon of women, wild things, the night, the triple goddess. It is a scholarly book, and fascinating if you seek to understand the moon as magical, as symbolic, as more than a satellite in space, as a living emblem in the vast space of our imaginations.
And everyone everywhere should read HG Wells’s The First Men in the Moon and Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. Take them on holiday this summer of the moon.