How to Train Your . . . White Whale?

My only in-person experience with white whales occurred at Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, when a male beluga whale aggressively chased the female whale in the tank, alternately poking out and pulling in his male member.  I know, pretty gross.  Watching the birds and the bees in action was memorable and fascinating to me as a nine-year-old child.  We were visiting the park with my dad and grandpa, who lives in Everett, Washington.  This was one of many of our biannual trips with my dad.  To this day, I think of that embarrassing and fascinating experience each time I hear the words “white whale.”

I guess it was only natural to then read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), number 70 on the BBC book list.  It is constant fodder for jokes, references, allusion, and recreations on television and other forms of media.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard characters make reference to the novel in some way, whether that be to a white whale, the actual reading of the novel, Captain Ahab, or Queequeg.  And, in fact, the name of the ship, the Pequod, was an answer to a Jeopardy question the other night, and thanks to my decision to finally read this highly remembered novel, I knew the answer. From game shows to Spongebob, Melville’s novel seems to be immortal and is probably his most famous work.

The New York Times Sunday Book Review has a slideshow of many of the book covers of Moby Dick over the years.  One shows a group of 1950s era kids walking with a dog and holding a football.  I’m not sure what that has to do with whaling, but you can see all of the covers here.  It is an interesting look at the history of the novel’s many outfits.

Gerard Butler on the set of “The Bounty,” picture via Wikimedia Commons by ChrisGampat

An obscure connection to pop culture and Moby Dick is in the recent Dreamworks animated film How to Train Your Dragon.  In that film, which I have only seen because I have children, mind you, (oh, and because the sexy Gerard Butler voices Stoick), there is a sequence in which main character Hiccup studies for his dragon fighting course.  He looks through a book that outlines everything their Viking civilization knows about dragons.  In the middle of Moby Dick, this scene was all I could think about, for Melville had done the same for whales, or leviathans as he likes to call them.  He divides the chapters into sections on different whales and their characteristics, including the shapes of their heads, the span of their tails, the amount of oil they carry, and the location of their spouts.  Apparently, a narwhal horn is mystical like a unicorn’s horn; it is an antidote to poison and can be used to cure fainting ladies.

This all seems highly boring.  And it was, at first.  But the detailed passages soon reminded me of Hiccup’s book on dragons, and I began to read the outdated information about whales with Hiccup’s voice in my head.  Suddenly, these paragraphs and infinite subheadings were fascinating and hilarious. In the movie, you’ll remember that little is known about some of the dragon species, especially the black Night Fury.  Well, Melville’s account of whales is similar. There are some species that little is known about, including the white whale.  Hmmm. I’m starting to wonder if How to Train Your Dragon is the happy ending version of Moby Dick.  Stoick is as blood thirsty for dragons as Captain Ahab.  Hiccup is an underdog who makes good, somewhat similar to Ishmael, the only survivor of the Pequod once the tale is through.  Maybe a close comparison between the two is a stretch, but I think it’s safe to say that the movie definitely borrows some inspiration from Moby Dick.

Now, the creepiest part of Moby Dick is when Tashtego falls into a sperm whale’s open head while the crew is mining it for oil.  He is sucked into the depths of the gaping hole and the crew fears for his life, for he must be drowning in that head.  Could you imagine?  Drowning in a whale’s wet, sticky, sperm oil–filled head?  (Shudder.)  However, the lovable savage Queequeg saves him at the last instant.  The peril and the rescue are top notch entertainment.

And while we’re on the subject of Queequeg, he is my favorite character.  Ishmael constantly refers to him as a pagan or savage.  I suppose that’s just a result of the time in which the novel was written and the poor understanding people had of other religions.  Despite the unflattering treatment of Queequeg as an actual person with thoughts and feelings, the interaction between Queequeg and Ishmael in the first 100 pages of the novel is classic and endearing.  Those pages are the reason I wanted to finish reading Moby Dick, even though the middle parts were dry.  I laughed out loud at the account of Ishmael and Queequeg meeting as bed mates in the middle of the night.  Ishmael’s description of sharing a bed with a stranger because of the inn being at full capacity is classic.  He says: “No man prefers to sleep two in a bed . . . people like to be private when they are sleeping.  And when it comes to sleeping with an unknown stranger, in a strange inn, in a strange town, and that stranger a harpooneer, then your objections indefinitely multiply” (47).

When Ishmael finds out that Queequeg has been out selling embalmed New Zealand heads “great curios, you know,”  his anxiety over sharing a bed increases (52).  If that story about Queequeg selling heads is true, “I take [it] to be good evidence that this harpooneer is stark mad, and I’ve no idea of sleeping with a madman” (51).  Apparently, Queequeg must stay out late selling these heads, because the next day is Sunday “and it would not do to be sellin’ human heads about the streets when folks is goin’ to churches” (52).  And these thoughts eventually lead us back to Ishmael’s disapproval of Queequeg’s own religion, but after they get to know each other, Ishmael concludes: “What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself―the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” (61).  I couldn’t have said it better myself!  I appreciate Ishmael’s sentiments, which extend to us even today.  We live in a country with much religious variation, and the kindness and understanding that Ishmael displays is much needed from all of us.

These passages and the exciting ending are what make Moby Dick a must-read and a classic.  The novel also follows the Western tradition of using Biblical imagery and references to make its point, making a knowledge of the Bible necessary for understanding, a topic which I discussed here.  Melville is not a stranger to Biblical allusion, as what I consider to be his masterpiece, Billy Bud, Sailor, is a Christ story in disguise, just like Harry Potter and the Hero Cycle, which I wrote about here.

My favorite Biblical account in Moby Dick is not the ending in which Ahab’s search for the mystical whale lasts three days and ends with death.  Instead, it is the retelling of the Jonah story, complete with different interpretations and entertaining commentary.  The main point of the preacher’s retelling is: “Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin but I do place him before you as a model for repentance” (95).  I know that in following my own religion, I sometimes feel compelled to be perfect.  This story reminded me that it is okay to make mistakes and to do better next time.  Life is a process, not a place for me to display how perfect I am.  And since I’m not perfect, this is impossible.

Melville’s treatment of the Jonah story reminded me of another favorite retelling of mine.  That’s the story of Esther in Christy by Catherine Marshall.  She tells the story and interprets it in a way that applies to real women of our day, women who struggle with self image and self esteem, but who can learn to use their strengths for good.  I guess this is the beginning of another blog post on that novel.

Despite the lackluster middle of Moby Dick, I can appreciate any novel that illuminates the scriptures for me.  I can also appreciate any novel that includes a scene in which two straight men from different cultures and religions must learn to share a bed comically and ultimately learn to love and respect one another.

Okay, so this is a Kindle, not an ipad, but you get the idea. Image from Wikimedia Commons via NotFromUtrecht.

On a side note, this was the first novel I have read on an e-reader, my ipad2!  I have to say that I am hooked!  While reading, I was able to annotate and bookmark.  I also used the dictionary function frequently.  Being able to define a word at the touch of a finger is quite the luxury.  I did miss the heft and softer feel of a real book, but I am not opposed to reading electronically.  I’ve loaded many other classics onto my ipad now, including War and Peace, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Don Quixote.  I highly recommend an e-reader!

So, have you read Moby Dick?  Do you think references to it will ever stop being made in popular culture?  And why has it become such a well-known novel in the canon of American literature?

Melville, Herman.  Moby Dick or, The Whale.  Virginia: Virginia Tech.  Produced by Daniel Lazarus, Jonesey, and David Widger.  Ibooks e-book file.

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