And God created great whales …
Call me Imma. Some years ago when the English writer and leviathan alcoholic Malcolm Lowry arrived in the port of New York, legend has it that upon complying with a request to open his trunk the customs official discovered that it contained nothing except for a single football boot and a battered copy of Moby Dick. Whether the single boot was a symbol of some soccer playing Ahab back in England we shall never know. Lowry’s biographer is sceptical about this anecdote but it undoubtedly forms part of Lowry’s personal mythology.
In spite of a gap as wide as the whale-road between a personality such as Lowry and an overly cautious person such as myself I understood immediately. Such is the admiration I have for the battered novel discovered in his trunk. Lowry, as a young man, following Melville’s example, went to sea, shipping out of Liverpool through the flood gates of the wonder world. His experiences are recorded in his first novel Ultramarine. I should have loved to do likewise but as I say, I am an overly cautious person, and furthermore it need hardly be said that the romance of ‘going to sea’ is not what it was either for good or for bad. There is an Atlantic distance between the modern factory ships so abhorred by Greenpeace and the whaling of earlier times. Moby Dick had more than a fighting chance as the outcome of the novel illustrates. The men who went down to the sea in ships to do battle had a rare courage. As Melville himself did and, fortunately for us, he was, in common with T.E Lawrence, a man of both action and meditation.
No, I am one of the fellows described in the opening chapter, pent up in lath and plaster, posted sentinel-like at the shore, gazing out over a mystery.
In line with the novel itself here are a few whaley facts from National Geographic. Despite heavy losses due to increasingly mechanised whaling, apparently the sperm whale is still quite numerous, thankfully. They have the largest brain of any animal known to have lived. Quite a contrast to the pinheads that are a regrettably familiar feature of the human landscape.
The females and calves stay pretty much around the tropics and sub-tropics; but the lone male ventures far and wide, as the albino Moby himself, and may be found as far north as Greenland. The Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings in their square-sailed ships must have come across these mighty mammals, that they would have assumed quite reasonably to be giant monster fish (hronfixa).
As Melville informs us in his ‘etymology’, the word ‘whale’ is derived from the Old English, which my OED describes as being from a particular form hwæl, and the term ‘whale-road’ (hronrade) for the sea is a well-known kenning. Beowulf in his boast describes how he and Breca ‘stitched’ the sea and used a sword each to keep off the whales. With a crew of 10-30 men the old Anglo-Saxon ships would have been definitely the underdog in any encounter with a whale in Nordic waters. Not so different from the six man lowerings from the Pequod. They may also, of course, have set out after whales in smaller boats in the exact same fashion.
Herman, who was unapologetically half-adventurer and half-librarian, tells us in his extracts that King Alfred in the 9th century took down verbatim from the mouth of a Norwegian traveller at his court details of whaling in the far north which included walruses and still further on the coasts of the White Sea much larger beasts up to fifty yards in length. I am put in mind by association, of Malcolm Lowry’s novel In Ballast to the White Sea the only manuscript of which was lost when Lowry’s wooden shack on the shore of Vancouver Island went up in flames.
Whales of all shapes and sizes seem to have been esteemed by the Anglo-Saxons for their hides and bones. And naturally their meat. Ohthere the Norseman mentions the value of the hides in the making of ship ropes. I believe that this short narrative of Alfred’s is the first written record of whaling but there are neolithic paintings from South East Asia depicting the pursuit of whales by harpoon in boats that Starbuck himself might have steered.
As the likeable Ishmael imagining the thoughts of his boon companion Queequeg: ‘it is a mutual joint-stock world, in all meridians. We cannibals must help these Christians.’