In just a few days it’ll be time for Witch Week, but right now I want to look forward to a little beyond that. I’ve begun one particular classic a couple of times now, but was never quite in the right frame of mind for it.
But it’s a shame to let 2019 go without giving it another try. Why? Because its author was born exactly two hundred years ago, and because Moby-Dick is bruited to be more than a simple tale of a doomed quest. So, along with fellow blogger Lizzie Ross, I shall once again begin at the beginning.
But first, I shall now glance back at works I have read (links are to my reviews) that could almost have been preparations for this adventure, volumes that have owed a part of their existence to this great whale of a tale.
I begin with Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea (2000), a non-fiction study of the last voyage of the whaler Essex which recently spawned two films, one for the cinema and the other for the small screen. The real-life tragedy of the Essex, rammed by a bull whale, partly inspired Herman Melville’s novel, although he didn’t deal with the aftermath, the truly epic journeys across the Pacific taken by the survivors.
The Essex sailed from the Massachusetts island of Nantucket, an island which, despite the depradations of tourism, is said to retain a unique atmosphere all of its own. Otto Coontz’s YA novel The Shapeshifters (1983) evoked the supernatural air that some have detected on the island, believed to predate the arrival of European settlers.
Also set on the island — even if an alternate world version of it — is Joan Aiken’s 1966 fantasy Night Birds on Nantucket. This also involves a search for a particular whale but, in this case, not in fact one which is white. This post reveals its colour and suggests a reason for it being so.
Another denizen of the deep is the object of a quest, this time on dry land: China Miéville’s curious Kraken: an anatomy (2010), which is almost a mirror image of the Moby-Dick narrative. A giant squid becomes an underground cult’s fetishised deity, and while the action is set around London’s Thames river the humans never truly get their feet wet. However, like Melville’s earlier novel Miéville’s ‘urban weird’ tale reflects a religious fanaticism of a certain deranged kind.
Miéville returned to the Moby-Dick theme, this time more overtly, in his YA fantasy Railsea (2012). Instead of watery wastes the environment is a planetary surface covered in railways tracks, and the pursued animal is a giant mole, Mocker Jack, which tunnels underground: it’s entirely significant that the obsessive mole-chaser, Abacat Naphi, is an anagram of Captain Ahab.
Finally, the Poul Anderson SF classic Tau Zero (1970) focuses on a Pequod-like star-ship with ramjet propulsion technology. Melville’s novel is even specifically name-checked, an allusion to a voyage that has taken a life of its own, pursued to its bitter end.
All these works are, in one way or another, reflections of that original 1851 masterpiece, inspired by the story, the characters, its incidentals or its underlying themes. In reading these books I have been chasing the whale in a roundabout fashion; but the time will come soon when I shall be addressing it face on.