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Archive for the ‘monsters’ Category

The Orange Monk with a Fin Whale

Catch of the Day: The Orange Monk pictured with the skeleton of a fin whale

I don’t have the energy for paraphrasing, so I’ll just quote the informational placard at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, where this photo was snapped by that intrepid shutterbug, Hurricane Camile:

Reaching lengths of up to 85 feet and weighing up to 80 tons, the fin whale is the second largest species of whale (the blue whale is the largest, measuring up to 100 feet). Despite their large size, fin whales are surprisingly fast swimmers, earning them the nickname of “greyhounds of the sea.” Fin whales feed on small shrimp-like animals called krill and on small schooling fish, consuming up to one ton of prey per day. Like other large whales, they were hunted for their meat, blubber, and the filtering structure in their mouths called baleen. They are still listed as an Endangered Species, but fin whales have been slowly increasing their number since commercial whaling was suspended in 1986.”

Furthermore, I believe Captain Nemo would classify the fin whale as a “good” whale, and not an “evil” one.

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Admiral Ackbar vs. the Nautilus

Sometimes I just have no words for the pictures. In those cases, The Orange Monk’s Squire comes to the rescue. The Orange Squire is a Tumblr blog I created as a sort of pictorial digest of the considerably wordier things happening here. It was intended to drive additional traffic to this website, but some of you may be coming directly here, and I hate for you to miss out on some of the fun being had at my sidekick blog.

I’ve put a link in the sidebar so you can check things out over there from time to time. If you yourself have a Tumblr blog, I invite you to follow the Squire. He’ll alert you when something is going on here.

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Kraken artwork by TheSeek (theseekproject.wordpress.com)

Courtesy of TheSeek (theseekproject.wordpress.com)

The breath-taking conclusion to a 7-part series of profiles on sea monsters.

(more…)

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Part 6 in a 7-part series of profiles on sea monsters.

Megalodon

An artist's rendering of the extinct Megalodon, which—to judge from those motion lines—is hurtling inexplicably... backward.

If you think Jaws is scary, you’ll break into a cold sweat when you imagine that predator’s prehistoric predecessor, Megalodon (from the Greek meaning “big tooth”). The first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on this behemoth shark reads more like a Marvel comic book than like a scientific encyclopedia entry, tossing around such terms as, “mega-tooth shark” and “super-predator.”

Partially-preserved Carcharodon megalodon remains suggest a creature approximately 66 feet long. Paleontologists have consequently deemed the Megalodon the “largest and most powerful macro-predatory fish in vertebrate history” (from Wikipedia).

When Renaissance folks discovered the large fossilized teeth of the Megalodon, they interpreted them as fossilized dragon tongues. Danish naturalist Nicolaus Steno corrected this misinterpretation in 1667, in his book, The Head of a Shark Dissected.

fossilized Megalodon tooth

A fossilized dragon tongue.

Its bite is estimated to be about 10 times greater than that of its modern-day relative, the great white shark; and over 5 times greater than that of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Megalodon jaws - Bashford Dean 1909

Talk about "Jaws." Bashford Dean's reconstructed Megalodon jaws, 1909.

Megalodon jawsFor all of its impressive monster qualifications, Megalodon is curiously lacking in a definitive fictional presence. It features in a host of tacky gore-fests, the sort of DVD titles you see on the “Hot Picks” shelf of your local Blockbusters (remember those?), but have never heard of anywhere else. Perhaps the most high-profile novel dealing with the Megalodon is Steve Alten’s Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, which I actually read. Apparently the novel is inaccurate in so much as it suggests the Megalodon existed during the time of the dinosaurs, when in fact its fossil record dates it to the late Oligocene epoch and Neogene period. Still, I remember the reading experience as fun and frightening, so if you’re looking for a ripping good “super-predator” yarn, I recommend it. (Best not to hold your breath for the film adaptation, which has apparently been mired in development hell since 1997-ish.)

Mythological/fictional inactivity aside, anything which can gobble up the formidable Jaws like a seal gulping a sardine is worthy of mention among the Orange Monk’s aquarium of deep-sea terrors.

Megalodon scale

Join me next time for the conclusion of this series, in which we examine the chief dread in the minds of sailors across the Seven Seas, and arguably the king of all sea monsters…

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Part 5 in a series of profiles on sea monsters.

Jaws poster

Hopefully no one will be confused by the transition from Moby-Dick to Jaws. To me, it certainly feels like one of the most natural progressions imaginable. Both are about huge, white, underwater monsters. Central to the plots of both is an obsessive search-and-destroy mission undertaken by men to rid the deep of the titular terrors. In both, said search is met with mixed results.

When Steven Spielberg’s Jaws opened in 1975, it transformed cinema. What we now take for granted as the Hollywood business of “blockbusters” was actually a concept birthed that summer. A lot of cinephiles hold a grudge against Spielberg for unleashing his great white monstrosity on the public for just that reason: the summer that Jaws opened is sometimes pointed to as the beginning of the end for patient, intellectual, “serious” filmmaking. It’s easy even for fans of Jaws to dismiss it as an exercise in expertly timed “jump” scares and over-amped tension. If in fact it turns out that Jaws is nothing more than a “popcorn” movie, let’s at least give it its due credit for being one of the best ever. The formula has been reproduced over and over again (“Okay, instead of a shark in the ocean, what if it’s an alligator in a lake? What if, okay, it’s snakes… on a plane?”) even by Spielberg himself (“Ok, what if it’s — track with me here — dinosaurs in a park?”), but rarely with near as much success. (In fact, of the examples I’ve just alluded to, Spielberg’s own knock-off, Jurassic Park, is arguably the best.) In short, to dismiss Jaws as nothing more than the genre of film it inspired is as criminal as dismissing Psycho as nothing more than the host of anemic imitations it has inspired.

Great White Shark

I'm so disturbed by these creatures that I could hardly bring myself to do the Google image search that netted this charming picture. It's from the first page of results... Gulp.

After all, I just compared it to one of our country’s finest literary achievements, and I’m guessing there wasn’t too much surprised blinking.

So, then, bringing our high-minded approach to inquiry to our low-brow penchant for amusement (as is the Monk’s raison d’être), the question seems to be this: Is the shark an instrument of God’s retribution on a corrupt seaside town masquerading as the perfect summer getaway spot? When it tugs Chrissie beneath the ocean’s dark surface in the film’s chilling opener, is it divine punishment for the campfire promiscuity that led her into the ocean that night? When it bites Sam Quint in half, is it a higher power finally claiming a soul it missed when the battleship Indianapolis went down, and most of its crew were devoured by sharks? Is it a mythical man-eating monster deserving of its own special epithet, “Jaws,” to set it apart from its fellow great whites?

Or, is it just a shark? Unusually large, sure. Maybe a little more ravenous than most, but that’s like accusing one certain snail of being slower than its peers. It’s simply one of those variations in a pattern which happens in Nature. The shark isn’t picking on anyone, it’s simply found a source of food, and it will feed until sated. It’s a shark, after all. What is a shark if not an eating machine? To give it an individual name is preposterous. It’s simply a Great White. Carcaradon carcharias.

Yeah. Tell it to Captain Quint.

Jaws from Moonraker

Not the Jaws I'm talking about, but given the theme of this blog, we may get to him one day...

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Moby Dick

MOBY DICK, by Mark Weaver

Okay, okay, this blog was never intended to be an art gallery. But I could use a break from all the verbiage, and I’m sure you could, too! So sit back and enjoy Mark Weaver‘s* take on Herman Melville’s classic, posted at Society6.

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*Mark Weaver is the first person I saw doing the Make Something Cool Every Day project, where he makes a piece of artwork every day. Or almost every day, anyway. Whether he was truly the first person to start doing this or not I can’t say, but there are plenty of people out there undertaking similar initiatives, including Lukes Beard’s Tumblr blog, A Lyric a Day. My hat’s off to both of these guys, and anyone out there managing to do this. I have tried it a couple times, without much success.

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Control - Ryan Snook

CONTROL by Ryan Snook

Urban Outfitters has teamed with Society6 to bring you Print Shop, a place on the web where you can order quirky artwork like the above, by Ryan Snook, as a print or as a skin for your laptop, iPhone, or iPod.
As far as the Orange Monk is concerned, it has synthesized all this “belly of the beast”/ Nemo-in-the-Nautilus/great-white-whale stuff going on in his head right now, and brought a beatific, Buddha-like smile to his face. And so he shares.

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Part 4 in a series of profiles on sea monsters.

Moby-Dick

A big book about a big whale

Moby-Dick“Call me Ishmael.”

So opens Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece. Some consider Moby-Dick to be the Great American Novel (although perhaps more consider that to be The Great Gatsby). This country’s greatest novel or not, one thing’s certain: it is the American Beowulf: a tome equal in length to the proportions of its monster, dense, feared by college students, a national treasure.

Take it from someone who’s never read it.

See, I was one of those college students who tried to dodge Moby-Dick. But sooner or later, that great white whale found me. Fortunately, I had a great professor for it, who probably realized he was dealing with a roomful of kids who simply weren’t going to read Melville’s 600-page tome. He must have felt it was nonetheless vital that we leave his class with some kind of understanding of the work, because he would give us reading assignments, and then summarize the reading and explain it for us during the next class. By the professor’s own admission, much of Moby-Dick strays from the well-known conflict between the monomaniacal Captain Ahab, and the great white whale that robbed him of his leg. Often, it devolves into a whaling manual, or a seven-page description of a painting. Its meandering structure seems to be something of an open secret among literary enthusiasts, and for those to whom Moby-Dick especially appeals (such as another English professor of mine, in high school, whose claimed Moby-Dick as his favorite book), I think its flaws are a significant part of the novel’s appeal. I can appreciate this, and when the inevitable day comes when I finally break down and attempt to read Moby-Dick cover to cover, I will do so with my mind set on appreciating its digressions and oddities.

Herman Melville

Herman Melville

This portion of a letter from Melville to his contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, written days before Moby-Dick‘s publication, indicates that the great novel’s tragic flaws were evident from its inception:

You [Hawthorne] did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book—and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul.”

(Incidentally, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” is one of my favorite short stories. But I use the word “short” liberally.)

But enough backstory! Cut to the chase! Here’s something I took away from my college course on Moby-Dick. The novel has two titles: Moby-Dick, or The Whale. Is this just another artifact of what might be viewed by some cynics as a literary pig-sty? Or is there something deeper going on here? Assuming there’s a reason to have two titles, so radically different, what might it be?

Moby-Dick title page

Two Titles: Literary Indecisiveness, or Thematic Significance?

Moby-Dick vs. Captain Ahab

Vengeful Ahab tangles with a vengeful God. Or does he?

One of the questions at the heart of Moby-Dick is this: is the titular beast an instrument of God’s wrath for Ahab? “The Hand-puppet of God” is a phrase that sticks in my head, but I regret to say I don’t know if this was a term actually used in the text, or a phrase coined by my college professor. When Moby-Dick chomps Ahab’s leg off, is it a wrathful God rising from the sea, wearing a sperm whale as a mask? Ahab believes it is, and assigns it a proper name, Moby-Dick, to specify this whale from any other whale, to imbue it with a mythical status equal to his rage.

On the other hand, is it just a whale? Is the world in fact a random, God-forsaken place, without deeper significance? Is Ahab’s peg-leg simply the result of… chance? Does Ahab’s stalked whale have any awareness of its role in the mad captain’s revenge play?

sperm whale

Sometimes a whale is just a whale

Join me for the next installment of sea monster profiles: Jaws, or The Shark.

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Part 3 in a series of profiles on sea monsters.

Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell, notable American mythologist and author of "The Hero With a Thousand Faces"

In a series of important works, the most famous of which is probably The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell set forth a theory that the stories told by cultures across the globe are linked in a compelling manner. The folk tales and legends of ancient groups of people who would probably not have had any means of communicating with another group, nonetheless bear striking commonalities in terms of their characters, plot points, and overall themes. Drawing from a Jungian framework, Campbell determined that these stories can in fact be broken down into a handful of types, and that they are built from a fixed cast of archetypal characters (such as the Hero, the Sage, the Mother, etc.) who engage in a series of somewhat predictable story developments, such as “the call to action,” “the crossing of the first threshold,” and so on. The assertion here is that, since these primitive cultures presumably did not communicate with other cultures, the similarities in their mythologies reveal a sort of collective human consciousness.

Christopher Booker claims that there are really only seven stories that get told over and over again, with different variations. They are:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. The Quest
  3. Journey and Return
  4. Comedy
  5. Tragedy
  6. Rebirth
  7. Rags to Riches

It’s a bold claim. But the categories are so flexible that you can probably wedge your favorite movie — regardless of what it is — into at least one of them, if not several. (If you can think of a story which seems to resist the above categorization, I’d very much like to know what it is!)

The reason for all of this preamble is that every now and then, I think I detect a new story type, or at the very least a distinct sub-category of one of the above which seems worthy of mention. For instance, having recently been converted as a Lost fan, I’ve been thinking a lot about desert island stories. Certainly Lost counts, and other examples come readily to mind: Robinson Crusoe, Swiss Family Robinson (not to mention its sci-fi derivative, Lost in Space), and Castaway. It sounds as if Verne’s sequel to 20,000 Leagues, The Mysterious Island, may also fit the bill. When you think about these stories, aren’t they really the same story over and over again? Is this a notable subcategory to the “Journey and Return” category above? Or is there something more primitive at stake in this sort of a story worthy of an 8th category? Central to these stories is a sort of horror of isolation, of being divided from society. In a way, Tarzan takes the form of a desert island story, because “Tarzan” is in fact John Clayton, an Englishman, the son of a lord and lady who are marooned on the west coast of Africa. When they die, John is left — at least socially speaking — on a desert island, without peers, raised by apes. Then, too, Kipling’s Jungle Book might be read as a desert island narrative, with Mowgli as the archetypal Crusoe figure.

But I digress.

Jonah and the Whale

Jonah in the Whale; detail of the Verdun altar

The real reason I started this conversation about story types is because I think I detect still another, perhaps a sub-category under “Overcoming the Monster.” Let’s call it, “In the Belly of the Beast,” borrowing a bit from Campbell’s own name for one of the classic stages in the hero’s journey, “In the Belly of the Whale.”

And whales are, in fact, the very crux of this entry. At first, I had plans to profile Monstro, the whale that swallows Pinocchio; and plans for a separate profile on the Biblical Jonah and the Whale. But I soon realized that these were really one and the same profile. Of course the stories differ, but their central theme is oddly the same.

Basking Shark

I already hate sharks, but the "basking shark" truly gives me chills!

While investigating online, I found that there has never been a confirmed case of a person being swallowed by any kind of sea creature and living to tell about it. (Around 1860, James Bartley claims to have been on a whaling vessel called The Star of the East when it was attacked by a whale and he supposedly fell into its mouth, surviving long enough to be cut free of its belly when his peers began skinning the whale, and being well enough to return to work three weeks later! The veracity of the story is shaky, to say the least, and it is regarded as an urban legend.) Though whales are often times quite enormous, they feed largely on plankton and other small prey, and their throats are generally not very large; certainly not large enough to swallow a man whole, with the exceptions of a Sperm Whale and a basking shark (according to various articles on Wikipedia).

Monstro

Monstro the Whale, according to Disney

spiny dogfish

the spiny dogfish

In the classic animated Disney version of Pinocchio, Monstro seems to be some kind of enormous blue whale, or sperm whale (a marine biologist I am not). Interestingly enough, in Carlo Collodi’s book, Monstro is referred to as “the terrible dogfish,” which is a shark, and not one which looks as if it could swallow a man whole.

So, with no animal existing that seems capable of swallowing a man alive, it seems the more compelling that there should be a Bible story and an Italian fairy tale featuring just such an incident. Two examples can easily enough be dismissed as coincidence, but I have this feeling there are lots of other similar stories out there. Right away, I can think of the “space slug” sequence in The Empire Strikes Back, in which Han Solo takes refuge in what he believes is a cave on an asteroid, but what turns out to actually be the belly of a giant space slug, from out of whose jaws he only narrowly manages to pilot the Millennium Falcon to safety. Then again, in Return of the Jedi, there is the instance of the Sarlacc pit, an unpleasant-looking hole in the middle of the Tatooinian desert where Jabba the Hutt likes to consign his enemies, where they will be painfully digested over a course of a thousand years. (How painful that could actually be is not clear to me, since the process must be very delicate in order to take so long, and anyone would die of natural causes before they had endured even a fraction of that digestion period — but never mind.)

space slug

"Sir, it's quite possible this asteroid is not entirely stable..." — C-3PO

A quick search for the Sarlacc pit on the internet reveals that it has been interpreted by some film scholars as an incarnation of the vagina dentata anxiety, and that’s an interesting aspect of this whole “belly of the beast” story type which I hadn’t considered. (If you don’t know what vagina dentata is, well… I’m not prepared to go into it. Maybe when you’re older.)

I feel like there is a Greek myth in which Zeus ingests dismembered pieces of someone, only to have them burst out of his head whole again. I can’t put my finger on the exact story or its details. But it points to the inverse of “Belly of the Beast” story type: the fear not of living in the belly of some creature, but to have some creature living inside your belly — witness the dreaded “stomach bursters” in Alien.

Sarlacc pit

Sometimes, a Sarlacc pit is just a Sarlacc pit...

And finally, to get back on topic, aren’t Professor Aronnax, Conseil, and Ned Land also Jonahs in the belly of a mechanical Monstro, in this case the Nautilus? They have been swallowed whole by an enormous sea creature (remember, a great deal of the first part of the novel dealt with Aronnax and company pursuing what was assumed to be a gigantic narwhal).

It certainly seems to me that there is something here worth investigating. And maybe it’s essentially the same story type as the desert island, since in both cases the heroes are cut off from society, either by being removed to a remote and uninhabited place, or by being swallowed by a creature of some sort. I’m sure I’m not the first to be curious about these recurring story lines, but at the moment I feel like a bit of a Crusoe, alone on the beach of what feels like some great, undiscovered concept. If anyone out there knows of an examination into these themes which has already been done, please let me know where I can look. You would be pointing out to me Friday’s footstep in the sand.

Engine room of the Nautilus

Prof. Aronnax examines the bowels of the Nautilus

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Part 2 of a series of profiles on sea monsters.

Destruction of the Leviathan

Gustave Doré's engraving, "The Destruction of the Leviathan."

The Leviathan is a Biblical beastie of the deep. The word itself has come to describe any large animal. In modern Hebrew, it means “whale,” but in old Hebrew the word meant “twisted, coiled.” Descriptions of the beast fall into two camps: one, which portrays a giant, fire-breathing sea-dragon (some people suppose the Leviathan might actually be some sort of large crocodile); and the other, which comes nearer to describing large whales.

  • Herman Melville references the Leviathan several times in Moby-Dick, to describe the titular giant sperm whale.
  • In the Book of Job, the Leviathan and the Behemoth are listed alongside common animals, leading some to speculate that these words may refer to actual animals. The Leviathan could be a Nile crocodile, which, like the Leviathan, has scaly skin, is aquatic, and has threatening teeth.
Nile crocodile

The Nile crocodile

  • Some Young Earth Creationists suppose the Leviathan may actually describe a giant prehistoric precursor to the crocodile, the Sarcosuchus. But that’s probably a crock.
crocodile scales

The Sarcosuchus is the one in red; I really admire the man's courageous wave in the face of imminent ingestion.

  • While I don’t think it’s likely, the Young Earth Creationists postulate another interesting candidate for the Leviathan: the Kronosaurus. And I must confess that when I picture the mythical monster, this is more along the lines of what I imagine:
Kronosaurus

The Kronosaurus: part crocodile, part whale — all extinct. (We hope.)

  • One account says the Leviathan eats a whale a day, and that the “fish” that swallowed Jonah was itself nearly swallowed by the Leviathan.
  • Still another account of the Leviathan describes it as a sea serpent that encircles the world, bringing it into alignment with other cultural myths, such as the Greek Ouroboros and the Norse Midgard Serpent.

That concludes this episode of “Sea Monsters.” Until next time, happy sailing, and keep all extremities inside the boat!

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