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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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20,000 Leagues Around the World in 80 Tons

I wanted to draw your attention to my “sidekick blog” over on Tumblr, The Orange Monk’s Squire. It’s basically a pictorial digest of the articles posted here. I originally set it up as a way to generate more traffic here, but Tumblr’s easy-to-use “reblog” feature means that the Squire has been collecting some adventure-themed images that aren’t necessarily being posted here.

If you’re a Tumblr user, I invite you to follow me. If you’re not, feel free to stop by whenever you want. You can use it as an alert system to let you know about new articles being posted here. Of course, you can also navigate to the Orange Squire from this blog, using the link I’ve added in the sidebar under “Allies.” Either way, I certainly hope that you’ll continue to visit AOM and participate in the conversation about adventure literature.

Happy exploring!

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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.

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TO: Whomever is making the next 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea film adaptation

RE: The action center-piece of your movie

I know that if I ask you what is the most memorable action sequence from 20,000 Leagues, you’ll instantly say, “The attack of the giant squid!” Yeah, if your cast includes Kirk Douglas and James Mason, maybe. That is so 1954, though.

Listen, forget about the squid. I’ve got something — that is, Jules Verne has something — that will make that giant squid look like a plate of so much calamari.

Before that famous battle with the squid the novel takes us into the frigid waters of the South Pole, where the Nautilus submerges to bask in the few hours of sun afforded by an arctic afternoon. Professor Aronnax and his fellow travelers sight a herd of baleen whales in the distance, and the harpooner, Ned Land, being a hunter, is struck with blood-lust. He begs Capt. Nemo for permission to direct the submarine closer to the baleen whales so he can throw a few harpoons at them.

This may strike modern ears as somewhat ruthless, and the interesting thing is that, through Captain Nemo’s response, Jules Verne here anticipates the green-conscious mentality that so defines our present age. Because the submarine doesn’t use whale oil, and because the pantry is stocked with food, Nemo answers Ned thusly: “Now it would be killing for the sake of killing. I know very well that’s a privilege reserved for humanity, but I don’t allow such murderous pastimes.” He goes on to admonish the harpooner and lecture the reader about the consequences of hunting for sport and fortune:

In killing decent, inoffensive creatures like the southern right whale or the bowhead whale, people like you, Mr. Land, commit a reprehensible crime. Thus, your colleagues have already depopulated all of Baffin Bay, and they’ll wipe out a whole class of useful animals. So just leave those poor cetaceans alone.”

Ah, Nemo! The unexpected voice of modern reason, of geologic awareness. Perhaps we could cast Al Gore as the famous submarine captain (don’t laugh, he wasn’t too bad in that one episode of 30 Rock!). We can co-market the film with World Wildlife Fund, or Green Peace.

Baleen Whale

The innocent baleen whale

But where, you might ask, is the dreaded Captain Nemo we love to fear? Where is that inscrutable personage of obscure intent, that radical freedom-fighter, that monomaniacal terrorist of the Seven Seas? Just wait! This episode is not so cut-and-dried as it seems:

A moment after Nemo has tendered his inflexible verdict on Ned Land’s hunting proposal, the submarine captain studies a second herd of whales approaching the baleen whales, and speaks again: “Those are sperm whales — terrible beasts. I’ve sometimes met them in herds of 200 or 300! As for them, they’re cruel, destructive animals, and people are right to kill them.” Further down the page he says, “We’ll take no pity on those ferocious cetaceans. They’re nothing but mouth and teeth!”

Making use of the ram on the prow of the Nautilus, Captain Nemo proceeds to mercilessly tear through the herd of sperm whales in a scene of carnage to rival those presented in the Odyssey and the Iliad. Verne even describes the scene as “this Homeric massacre”:

What carnage! What a noise over the waves! What sharp hisses and snorts, peculiar to their species, issued from these terrified sperm whales… The sea was covered with mutilated corpses. A powerful explosion could not have cut up, torn, or shredded those masses of flesh with greater violence… The waves were tinted red over an area of several miles—we were floating in a sea of blood.”

The reason I suggest this is the pièce de résistance in any ambitious film adaptation of Verne’s science-fiction masterwork is that not only would Industrial Light and Magic impressively render the battle between those giant whales and that marvel of the Victorian age, Nemo’s submarine (but is it a battle? or is it unabashed slaughter?); but the sequence has moral drama in addition to physical. Our modern interpretation of animal preservationism includes protecting the natural predators of certain animals as a population control, with overbreeding the result of over-sheltering. Certainly we wish to guard against trophy-hunters, but typically we try to maintain the natural perils to which a species has long been subjected, and in spite of which it has developed a way to survive and propagate in the natural world. Does Captain Nemo have any right to interfere with this delicate balance, even under the guise of altruism? Are certain species like the sperm whale naturally “mean-spirited,” or more “evil” than other species? And if so, is Man permitted to slay these creatures for that reason? Sharks, for example, have often been characterized as little more than eating machines, but the thought of systematically destroying them because of this — or even of characterizing them as hateful because of it — seems a bit overboard. Surely all animals just do what it’s in their nature to do to survive, and blackness of heart doesn’t enter into the equation.

Sperm Whale

The villainous sperm whale. (OK, I admit, it does look kind of scary.)

In the moral ambiguity of this sequence, Captain Nemo’s ambiguous character is brought into sharp relief. Almost in the same breath he has expressed a bleeding-heart liberal’s concern for the effects of senseless hunting, and simultaneously advocated vigilante justice being meted out to more “ill-tempered” beasts. This is, in fact, the same schizophrenic approach to justice that motivates everything Nemo does. On one hand, he’ll donate a fabulous pearl to an impoverished nation; on the same day, he may plunge the ram of the Nautilus into the hull of a ship, sinking it and drowning its entire crew. At times he is a compelling symbol of independence. Other times, he is a chilling terrorist.

Friend or foe? Hero or villain? Such is the puzzle of Captain Nemo. Verne has left us numerous classic works of speculative fiction, but he hasn’t left us a wealth of memorable characters. Captain Nemo is clearly an exception, and has endured as a fascinating character precisely because of his enigmatic take on right and wrong, exemplified in the titanic clash between his fearsome Nautilus and those wicked sperm whales.

That’s why my money is on the sperm whale sequence to replace the old “giant squid” routine as the most memorable thing to come out of a new adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: audiences won’t know whether to cheer for the savage defeat of the baleen whales’ enemies, or whether to be appalled at such unflinching devastation wreaked upon innocent animals. Likely, they will feel a troubling mixture of gratification and horror. Caught in a moral dead-zone, one thing is certain: their jaws will be hanging open in amazement at the spectacle, as mine was reading this passage in the novel.

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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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