THE DEEP ONES: "A Descent into the Maelstrom" by Edgar Allan Poe
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"A Descent into the Maelstrom" by Edgar Allan Poe
Discussion begins on July 3, 2019.
First published in the May 1841 issue of Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine.
Painting by Joe Coleman (1993).
SELECTED PRINT VERSIONS
The Science Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe
Tales of Mystery and Imagination
Sea-Cursed: Thirty Terrifying Tales of the Deep
Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe
I may be able to dig out one of my hardback Poe collections, but online for me if not.
Awfully quiet in here.
Frankly, I don’t think this is among Poe’s best work. The portrayal of the Maelstrom is too over the top, and I can’t buy the fisherman’s combination of detached observation and going white-haired in a day.
The opening, in which the narrator has to fall down and grasp at shrubbery due to his phobic reaction to the precipitous drop in front of him, is highly accurate. I've experienced it myself! I liked the straight-out adventure parts, such as the awe-inspiring vista that suddenly opens up at the top of Mt. Helseggen or the old man's description of the highly dangerous fishing expeditions he and his brothers had taken, much more than the "descent" itself. The latter, with all the debris (and possibly an animal or two) flying past, reminded me too much of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Still the ship is obviously going to end up going down the drain, and I guess there's not much more to be expected, unless the crew is going to wash up in Pellucidar.
I kept reading mainly to find out how the old man would survive the Maelstrom. I suppose it's explained satisfactorily enough, although the whole sequence still borders on tall-tale territory. It's all lesser Poe, but it remains somewhat interesting as an artifact of early science fiction.
It seemd to me very much a straight adventure-yarn - more Jules Verne than Edgar Allan Poe. It was hard to see it as the work of the author of 'The masque of the red death' or 'The fall of the house of Usher'. A bit of a pot boiler, perhaps?
While it’s not Poe at his best, I don’t think there’s anything atypical of him in it. “The Gold-Bug” is another adventure-yarn of his we’ve read, and the fisherman’s figuring out how to survive between direct observation and remembered principle is perfectly typical of Poe in his “ratiocination” mode.
Unusually, since I was doing a blog post on the story, I looked up a lot of criticism on it.
What follows will not be my own thoughts, but I'm not going to source everything. I hope I'm not too obscure.
First, Poe is skeptical of rationality in this story. The Norwegian fisherman may have been able to skirt the edge of the whirlpool through that emblem of rationality, a watch, but it breaks. Like the hero of Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum", the Norwegian narrator spends a lot of time measuring and calculating his environment. But it doesn't do him any good until he resigns himself to death and accepts the mystery of the Maelstrom. (Incidentally, Poe is the only person who ever seems, in English, seems to have put an umlaut on Maelstrom.) You'll also note the narrator doubts the measurements he's heard for the depth of the sea where the whirlpool forms.
Also, the Norwegian escapes less by scientific rationality than an aesthetic appreciation of the inside of the whirlpool. In effect, appreciating beauty provides salvation where mere scientific observation (like that watch) doesn't.
The nature of the whirlpool isn't really explained. The narrator of the story disbelieves, after actually seeing the whirlpool, all the explanations he's heard. The Norwegian offers an explanation -- after stating he can't remember what the schoolteacher told him. Stephen Peithman's annotation for the version I read says Poe just made up his explanation.
Interestingly, if you do a search using "Poe", "black hole", and "Descent into the Maelstrom", you'll find a fair number of scientific references alluding to the story as an example of a rotating vortice be it a rotating black hole or an ocean vortex.
The story seems to owe a debt to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". Both have old men determined to tell their tale about brushing against the mysteries of nature. Both have men who get into trouble via hubris. The Mariner shoots an albatross. The Norwegian trusts his watch and past experience about detecting storms before they approach. Both have violations of community norms. Again, it's shooting the albatross for the Mariner. In Poe's story, though, it's not the Norwegian that violates standards. It's his older brother wresting him from the ring.
In particular, the moon plays a part in revealing mysteries in both. A writer in Natural History in 1935 noted that the whole bit with the moon doesn't make sense in Poe's story given the time of year and latitude. The sun would still be out and the moon barely above the horizon.
David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's Ascent of Wonder call this a founding text in hard science fiction where knowledge can be deadly but numinous in revelation: "knowledge of the most disturbing, overwhelming kind -- that which is bigger than one's loving or hating it".
>6 Zambaco: Poe fan Jules Verne, in fact, used the whirlpool to take Captain Nemo off the stage in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
>8 RandyStafford: Incidentally, Poe is the only person who ever seems, in English, seems to have put an umlaut on Maelstrom
It's not entirely clear why he did so - it's not there in the Dutch original maelstrom (modern spelling maalstroom), nor in Norwegian malstrøm*.
The only language that does put one there seems to be Swedish - malström - but there seems to be no reason he should use a half-Swedish spelling.
* Or malstraum in Nynorsk orthography, but that didn't exist in Poe's day.
Incidentally, I came across this Ian Miller illustration for the story, commissioned for a project that was never completed: https://www.theguardian.com/books/gallery/2014/mar/03/fantasy-artwork-ian-miller...
Great Miller illustrations, indeed. Would that I ever could rise to patron and commission an original work by a favourite artist.
I can't add much to what was said before. I briefly wondered, after the early speculation that the maelstrom descends to the planet core via Gulf of Bothnia, whether the old man would see a gigantic eye or something else fittingly horrific and arational at the bottom of the funnel. But no, that would be HPL, not Poe.
Poe loosely quotes the same (I think?) James Glanville as Shirley Jackson used in "The Daemon-Lover", though a different of his works.
Yes, Joseph not James! If I picked up "James" from Cabellania, it was unconscious. Though I see that "Glanville / Glanvil" is spelled in various ways, which happened in the 18c and before, so maybe or maybe not the same author.
This piece is only tangentially connected to the discussion of Poe's tale or weird tradition in general but reminded me of this discussion and the idea of "thin places" seemed appropos
Fascinating angles on the story. I have to confess they didn't occur to me. I did pick up on the feel of the story as being more science fiction than, say, fantasy, horror or adventure. I was reminded of something I haven't read for something like forty years, "Neutron Star" by Larry Niven.
This topic is not marked as primarily about any work, author or other topic.