Last week’s piece of weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing was . . .
Review: “A Descent Into the Maelström“, Edgar Allan Poe, 1841.
Because this is Poe and you might know the story already, I’m going to spend less time discussing the plot and more time summarizing the criticism around the tale and its relevance as a scientific metaphor.
The tale is pretty simple in outline. The narrator has climbed to the top of a 1500 foot peak overlooking the sea. With him is an old, white-haired man who still seems spry despite his aged look. And he’s definitely not as nervous as the narrator as he overlooks the crashing waves and is buffeted by blasting wind.
On Mount Helseggen, they look at a gigantic whirlpool that’s been known to take down entire ships. The old man tells how he once was trapped in that whirlpool, but, unlike his two brothers who were also aboard, he escaped to tell the tale, an event which aged him and turned his hair white in a day. (The Oxford English Dictionary notes that Poe is the only known example in English of putting an umlaut in Maleström.)
Stephen Peithman’s notes in his The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Poe’s reworking of various sources. The immediate inspiration was Edward Wilson Landor’s “The Maelstrom: a Fragment” from 1834. (Sam Moskowitz, in the “Prophetic Edgar Allan Poe” chapter of his Explorers of the Infinite says a manuscript of Poe’s story exists from 1833. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore says no original manuscript is extant. I know which version I’ll believe.) Both stories have a ship trapped in the whirlpool with a hero escaping alive. But, whereas Landor’s hero faints after he escapes and can’t remember how he did it, Poe’s story is very much concerned with the how of the escape, the epitome of Poe’s applied ratiocination — though it’s not quite that simple as we’ll see.
Poe then seems to have gone to the Encyclopedia Britannica – anywhere from the third to sixth editions – and the 1834 Mariner’s Chronicle (which seems to have copied a lot from the Encyclopedia Britannica entry). The Mariner’s Chronicle added the supposedly true account of an American sea captain who went into the Maelstrom and lived. The Encyclopedia Britannica article also used material from the 1755 The Natural History of Norway by Erik Potoppidan, Bishop of Bergen, and Poe references his name.
Peithman notes that Poe is frequently criticized for obscure, vague, and convoluted language. That, however, is usually used by him when describing a character whose mental state is unbalanced by terror or insanity. The old sailor’s account is quite lucid in its details and straightforward. Continue reading