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The subject of thunderbolts is a very fascinating one, and all the more so because there are no such things in existence at all as thunderbolts of any sort. Like the snakes of Iceland, their whole history might, from the positive point of view at least, be summed up in the simple statement of their utter nonentity. But does that do away in the least, I should like to know, with their intrinsic interest and importance? Not a bit of it. It only adds to the mystery and charm of the whole subject. Does anyone feel as keenly interested in any real living cobra or anaconda as in the non-existent great sea-serpent? Are ghosts and vampires less attractive objects of popular study than cats and donkeys? Can the present King of Abyssinia, interviewed by our own correspondent, equal the romantic charm of Prester John, or the butcher in the next street rival the personality of Sir Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne, Baronet? No, the real fact is this: if there were thunderbolts, the question of their nature and action would be a wholly dull, scientific, and priggish one; it is their unreality alone that invests them with all the mysterious weirdness of pure fiction. Lightning, now, is a common thing that one reads about wearily in the books on electricity, a mere ordinary matter of positive and negative, density and potential, to be measured in ohms (whatever they may be), and partially imitated with Leyden jars and red sealing-wax apparatus. Why, did not Benjamin Franklin, a fat old gentleman in ill-fitting small clothes, bring it down from the clouds with a simple door-key, somewhere near Philadelphia? and does not Mr. Robert Scott (of the Meteorological Office) calmly predict its probable occurrence within the next twenty-four hours in his daily report, as published regularly in the morning papers? This is lightning, mere vulgar lightning, a simple result of electrical conditions in the upper atmosphere, inconveniently connected with algebraical formulas in x, y, z, with horrid symbols interspersed in Greek letters. But the real thunderbolts of Jove, the weapons that the angry Zeus, or Thor, or Indra hurls down upon the head of the trembling malefactor–how infinitely grander, more fearsome, and more mysterious!

And yet even nowadays, I believe, there are a large number of well-informed people, who have passed the sixth standard, taken prizes at the Oxford Local, and attended the dullest lectures of the Society for University Extension, but who nevertheless in some vague and dim corner of their consciousness retain somehow a lingering faith in the existence of thunderbolts. They have not yet grasped in its entirety the simple truth that lightning is the reality of which thunderbolts are the mythical, or fanciful, or verbal representation. We all of us know now that lightning is a mere flash of electric light and heat; that it has no solid existence or core of any sort; in short, that it is dynamical rather than material, a state or movement rather than a body or thing. To be sure, local newspapers still talk with much show of learning about ‘the electric fluid’ which did such remarkable damage last week upon the slated steeple of Peddlington Torpida Church; but the well-crammed schoolboy of the present day has long since learned that the electric fluid is an exploded fallacy, and that the lightning which pulled the ten slates off the steeple in question was nothing more in its real nature than a very big immaterial spark. However, the word thunderbolt has survived to us from the days when people still believed that the thing which did the damage during a thunderstorm was really and truly a gigantic white-hot bolt or arrow; and, as there is a natural tendency in human nature to fit an existence to every word, people even now continue to imagine that there must be actually something or other somewhere called a thunderbolt. They don’t figure this thing to themselves as being identical with the lightning; on the contrary, they seem to regard it as something infinitely rarer, more terrible, and more mystic; but they firmly hold that thunderbolts do exist in real life, and even sometimes assert that they themselves have positively seen them.