Posts Tagged ‘Lost’

Title Page of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

In which conclusory (if not conclusive) remarks are made regarding the final episodes in M. Verne’s adventure novel, Vingt mille lieues sous les mers; in which there may be spoilers, so if you haven’t read the book, don’t already know the basic story, and intend to read it for yourself one day — proceed with caution!


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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 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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In which the Orange Monk meets the captain of the Nautilus, attempting to scrutinize the inscrutable Captain “No-one.”


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