Thursday, September 20, 2007

Edgar Allan Poe's "A Descent Into The Maelström": A man survives by not losing his wits

Quote from A Descent Into The Maelström by Edgar Allen PoeI picked up this very engaging story because Arthur Clarke's "Maelstrom II" (a space age sequel to Poe's original) referred to it. I am not sure how this story is normally tagged; I have no hesitation labeling it hard-sf in the best traditions of the genre.

While looking for it, I read somewhere (don't recall the source), that it is this story that introduced the word "maelstrom" into English language; original used in this story is Nordic "Moskoe-ström". Moskoe is an island in Norway - near the site in sea where a very big & cyclical maelstom (whirlpool) rages.

Full text of the story is available for download.

Story summery.

Second half is the main story; first half just prepares the ground.

Main story is narrated by the unnamed middle one of the 3 brothers, & the sole survivor of the fishing boat that was wrecked first by a hurricane, & immediately afterwards was caught in The Maelstrom. Story is told 3 years after the event.

By the time they were caught in maelstrom, the (air) sail was gone, & younger brother too (blown with the sale). Narrator is holding on to a metal protrusion on the ship; his brother is holding on to "a small empty water-cask which had been securely lashed under the coop of the counter, and was the only thing on deck that had not been swept overboard when the gale first took us".

Fear makes his brother seek out the metal hold of narrator. Since there is not space for two to hold, brother effectively forces the narrator to leave the secure handle!

So narrator goes to hold the barrel brother was previously holding. Sense of doom gives way to wonder around. That is when he makes the important discovery:

"I perceived that our boat was not the only object in the embrace of the whirl. Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and trunks of trees, with many smaller articles, such as pieces of house furniture, broken boxes, barrels and staves.
It was not a new terror that thus affected me, but the dawn of a more exciting hope... I called to mind the great variety of buoyant matter that strewed the coast of Lofoden, having been absorbed and then thrown forth by the Moskoe-ström. By far the greater number of the articles were shattered in the most extraordinary way - so chafed and roughened as to have the appearance of being stuck full of splinters - but then I distinctly recollected that there were some of them which were not disfigured at all. Now I could not account for this difference except by supposing that the roughened fragments were the only ones which had been completely absorbed - that the others had entered the whirl at so late a period of the tide, or, for some reason, had descended so slowly after entering, that they did not reach the bottom before the turn of the flood came
I made, also, three important observations. The first was, that, as a general rule, the larger the bodies were, the more rapid their descent - the second, that, between two masses of equal extent, the one spherical, and the other of any other shape, the superiority in speed of descent was with the sphere - the third, that, between two masses of equal size, the one cylindrical, and the other of any other shape, the cylinder was absorbed the more slowly.
There was one startling circumstance which went a great way in enforcing these observations, and rendering me anxious to turn them to account, and this was that, at every revolution, we passed something like a barrel, or else the yard or the mast of a vessel, while many of these things, which had been on our level when I first opened my eyes upon the wonders of the whirlpool, were now high up above us, and seemed to have moved but little from their original station.
I resolved to lash myself securely to the water cask upon which I now held, to cut it loose from the counter, and to throw myself with it into the water."

Brother refused to let go of the big ship that he felt more secure in. So the narrator ended up as the sole survivor.

See also.

  1. An illustration of the narrator after jumping - tied to barrel, scared, & still inside the whirlpool.

Fact sheet.

First published: Graham's Magazine, April 1841.
Rating: A
Related: All stories of Edgar Allan Poe.