Moby Dick, a whale of a book

Illustration by Rockwell Kent
Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Continuing my summer ocean theme, I’d like to discuss one of the great novels of the sea, Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I was never forced to read the book in school, and probably wouldn’t have liked it if I did. This is not a book that one can step into lightly or reluctantly, you have to dive in head first and grapple with it, like the great sea creatures it describes. It was only later that I discovered the quirky qualities of this epic tome.

The book is more famous today for its reputation and symbolism than for the actual text, which is too bad. The writing is unlike any other book I’ve read, rambling and unfocused, yet sharp and perceptive. Everyone knows the storyline, of the manic Captain Ahab who hunts the world over for Moby Dick, the white whale who took off his leg; it’s a gripping allegory with enough symbolism for a dozen dissertations.

But the tragedy of Captain Ahab is, to use another nautical metaphor, just the tip of the iceberg. The book goes far beyond its characters and events to delve into matters of philosophy, culture, science, religion, human nature — in short, it’s a book about everything. I’m sure the kitchen sink is in there too.

book coverI think this is why movie versions can never do the book justice, for the actual scenes in the book are merely hooks for the author to hang his litany of metaphors and observations about life, the real subject of Moby Dick.

As far as the nautical theme of the book, the author spends a great number of pages contemplating whales in excruciating detail, right down to their anatomy and bone structure. There is also detailed description of how the crew hunts, kills, and dismantles a whale on board the ship, scenes that have nothing to do with Ahab or the storyline at all. So then we might ask, why are they in the book? Would this have been a better novel if all of that had been trimmed down, leaving a compact 400-page adventure story?

If this were simply a tale about revenge or a sailor’s journey, something along the lines of Stevenson, then certainly it could have used a good editor. But this is a book where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and all the minute details and melodramatic ponderings contribute mysteriously to its power. Even as it expresses some 19th Century notions that we might find outdated, the scope of its insight far outweighs its datedness.

One of the ironies of the book is that even as the author describes the capture and slaughter of whales, often portraying them as monsters, he also expresses admiration and respect for them, as he does for everything he writes about. Here is a brief excerpt, concluding one of the many chapters describing the power and majesty of whales:

“Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam in the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.”

One of Melville’s famous quotes is, “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” This weighty book might fail a modern writing class, but it certainly is original and amazing.

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Whale Rider revisited

The film Whale Rider won acclaim in 2002 for its moving story of a young Maori girl and her struggles to find her place in a changing society. It brilliantly weaves together themes of tradition, family, gender roles, and indigenous culture.  Based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera, this is one of those rare cases where a film veers away from the book and yet remains true to the book’s spirit.

At the heart of both is an ancient legend of a man who came out of the sea riding on a whale, and who founded the village where the story takes place. The heroine of Whale Rider is his descendant, and must come to terms with her identity against all the pressures of family and society.

The sea is an omnipresent backdrop to the story, and a powerful symbol of the struggles the characters endure. The book and film evoke the magic of the sea in different ways. The film incorporates stunning images of the ocean and landscape, as well as the music and poetry of the ancient culture. The book delves more deeply into the Maori mythology, and incorporates some beautiful writing about the sea. Here is a brief excerpt, telling the ancient legend:

The sun rose and set, rose and set. Then one day, at its noon apex, the first sighting was made. A spume on the horizon. A dark shape rising from the greenstone depths of the ocean, awesome, leviathan, breaching through the surface and hurling itself skyward before falling seaward again. Underwater the muted thunder boomed like a great door opening far away, and both sea and land trembled from the impact of that downward plunging.

The book skillfully intertwines the modern and the mythical stories, provoking questions about how our ancient stories define who we are. And the film is brilliantly directed by Niki Caro. I recommend the book and the film, which both contain universal themes that will inspire teens and adults alike.


A bit of earth


There are few things that hold more promise than a fresh patch of garden, all ready to be planted. An empty garden in springtime is a lot like an empty page on which to write a story, or draw a picture, or pour out your soul. It is full of expectations, hopes and dreams, and can be intimidating too. It is a place where miracles happen, where something emerges that didn’t exist before, something brand new.

In the classic book The Secret Garden, orphaned Mary Lennox asks of her uncle, “Might I have a bit of earth?” She wants a patch of ground to “plant seeds in — to make things grow — to see them come alive.” Gardens have been used in art and literature for thousands of years because they are such powerful symbols, of life and death and creation and the human spirit. Gardens can be beautiful, or wild, or peaceful, or thorny. They can be secret, or showy, or scary, or poetic – just like the creations that come out of a blank piece of paper.

My own garden, seen above, will have zinnias, dahlias, marigolds and aster, and perhaps I will share some pictures when it is in full bloom. (That is, if the fellow below doesn’t eat them all!)


An Ode to Autumn, by Keats


The seasons have inspired poetry in every century, and for good reason. Today I thought I’d share one of the more famous seasonal poems by John Keats (who is also the subject of a new feature film by Jane Campion.)

Keats was an English poet who was born in 1795 and died of tuberculosis at the age of 25. His poetry was not well received by critics during his short life, and he died before winning the praise he deserved. Keats requested that the following words be put on his tombstone, in lieu of his name: “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Keats may have felt that his own life was not worth remembering, but he needn’t have worried — his work will live on forever. You can read more about Keats and his works here.

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To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
    Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
    With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
    And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
        To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
    And still more, later flowers for the bees,
    Until they think warm days will never cease,
        For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
    Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
    Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
    Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
        Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
    Steady thy laden head across a brook;
    Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
        Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring?  Ay, where are they?
    Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
    And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
    Among the river sallows, borne aloft
        Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
    Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
    The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
        And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

— John Keats, 1819

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