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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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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.

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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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The Scavengers

One of the destinations Professor Aronnax gets to tour whilst aboard the Nautilus, is the mythical city of Atlantis. The other day, I sat down to write an entry on Atlantis, but I paused when I found myself navigating to Wikipedia. Sure, I could do a quick search and regurgitate my findings for you, dearest readers—and there will be times when I will still have to resort to that tactic! But on this topic, at least, I realized I knew two more knowledgeable souls than myself. So I concluded it was time the Orange Monk ended his solitary life of adventure, and began a brotherhood. Professor Trace Rhodes and Doctor A.D. Hawke are the latest members of this brand new league of extraordinary gentlepeople, and the Orange Monk looks forward to increasing his flock.

Nick and Nora Charles

Nick and Nora: making marriage actually seem fun and sexy since 1934

Despite their differing surnames, Rhodes and Hawke are a married couple, finding their combined efforts to be more effective. In this way, they continue a fine tradition of husband-and-wife adventure duos, such as Nick and Nora Charles. Together, they style themselves “the Scavengers,” a sly play on yet another adventuring (if not romancing) couple: I mean, of course, Ms. Peel and Mr. Steed of that very modish duo, “The Avengers.” There’s a liberal dash of Indiana Jones-type archaeologist-adventurer in each of them, as well.

The Orange Monk first became acquainted with Rhodes and Hawke (in that order) when they were single-but-eyeing-one-another at the University of Southern California. They have since relocated “back east,” but they continue to be my go-to people when it comes to matters of Classics or antiquities. Or matters photographical or museum-ological, for that matter. And certainly when it comes to matters Bacchanal, as Dr. Hawke is the author of Oenological Odyssey, the blog I have linked to in my “Allies” section to the right, where he chronicles his (sometimes mis)adventures with wine-consuming and wine-making.

The Avengers

The Avengers: It's swingin' London in the '60s, baby... but which way is Mr. Steed meant to swing?

Clearly, I would be hard-pressed to imagine anyone more suited to the task of introducing us to Atlantis. They have very kindly agreed to do so, and their article is appearing soon at this very blog, so keep your eyes “Peel”-ed.

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The Scavengers in Sims3

"The Scavengers" (SIMulation)

Can’t wait? If you happen to be one of those geeks (as I am) who owns and plays The Sims 3, you can actually download Prof. Rhodes and Dr. Hawke, and set them upon simulated adventures. Download Trace Rhodes and A.D. Hawke individually, or download them together as a household.

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In which the Orange Monk laments not being able to approach the book without preconceptions; and in which the Canadian harpooner, Ned Land, sites “the Monster.”

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