Famous Whales in Literature

Famous Whales in Literature

There was a time when whales were perilously close to extinction. Even with modern international conservation laws, the giants of the sea remain at the forefront of most environmental movements. The largest ever known living mammal (and suspected to be the largest animal ever) is still on the Earth today ‘ it is the Blue Whale at an average 75-80 feet in length. Whales of all kinds have been fairly well represented in literature – here are just some of them:

1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville

"Moby Dick"
“Moby Dick”

The most famous literary whale of them all appears in this Great American Classic from the 19th century. Young Ishmael has recently left a merchant trading vessel and decides that his next trip should be on a whaling vessel. He finds himself on the Pequod under Captain Ahab who, it seems, has a personal vendetta against a white whale that attacked his last ship and bit off his leg. Themes of the futility of vengeance reign supreme in this novel. In the end, the ship perishes and Ishmael is the only survivor.

2. In The Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

Whaleship Essex now found in the Nantucket Historical Association
Whaleship Essex now found in the Nantucket Historical Association

This book was based on the real story of the sinking of the whaling vessel, the Essex. In 1820 it set off to hunt sperm whales in the Pacific Ocean but at some point on its journey, it came under attack from one of the creatures it hunted. Most of the crew got off onto the whaling boats and attempted to get to dry land somewhere in South America. Most would die of starvation before rescue. A film version directed by Ron Howard is due for release in 2014.

3. The Story of Jonah (The Bible)

Gutenberg Bible
Gutenberg Bible

The Bible is full of all sorts of strange allegories and interactions between man and beast. This is amongst the most famous of those. Jonah was swallowed by a whale, though in some translations this is a large fish because back then nobody knew that whales were mammals so no distinction was made. After three days, Jonah came out of the whale/fish still perfectly alive and fine. This story was later used by an allegory by Jesus to foreshadow his resurrection.

4. Thor and Hymir

Thor and Hymir fishing.
Thor and Hymir fishing.

These two gentlemen are the real alpha males of the Norse world and like nothing more than drinking mead, hunting and eating. At one point in their story they are in a boat out at sea. Hymir catches a few whales on the boat and Thor uses the head of an ox to catch the great sea serpent Jörmungandr. After a short battle that the serpent inevitably loses, the two carry the whales back to Hymir’s farm where the two resume their destructive habits.

5. Beowulf

Beowulf
Beowulf

Another whale from mythology is this late Saxon tale of a Swedish hero who helps a Danish king under the attack of the beast Grendel. Though this is the primary tale, it is not the only beast that Beowulf must take on. At one point Beowulf is lost at sea and fighting all sorts of creatures, including whales. This tale he imparts to the group at the Mead Hall to impress them with his fighting skills. He also refers to lying in wait for Grendel as his ‘belly of the whale’ moment.

6. Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera

Whale Rider
Whale Rider

This New Zealand bestseller is about a young girl named Kahu who wishes to become head of her Maori tribe ‘ something that unfortunately she is excluded from because of her gender. However, she is the only grandchild of the current leader and with no male heir the tribe starts to conflict within its ranks. When hundreds of whales are beached, Kahu discovers that she has the power of their ancient tribal leader to talk to whales. It was a modern retelling of an ancient Maori folk tale. A film version was released in 2002.

7. Hruna (Whalesong)

 Hruna (Whalesong)
Hruna (Whalesong)

There are coming of age tales for humans and then there is this, the first part of a trilogy exploring what life being a whale might be like. There are many tales of whaling told from the point of view of the human whalers but few that anthropomorphise the whale and send them on a dangerous rescue mission to save his tribe from the whalers. This highly acclaimed series of books deals with some of the great issues of the time: atomic testing in the Pacific and of course, whaling.

8. The Year of the Whale

"The Year of the Whale"
“The Year of the Whale”

This classic non-fiction work of literature by Victor Scheffer fictionalises a year in the life of a newborn Sperm Whale calf. Though some of the work is now out of date with recent research (the book was published in 1969) it brought to light some of the problems facing whale populations and what we as humans could do about them. The book was one of those works that popularised ‘save the whale’ campaigns all over the world. It is still a popular work of non-fiction for those wanting to learn about the giants of the sea.

9. Yu-Kiang

Whale
Whale

One of the most unusual folklore tales of the whale comes from China and the creature known as ‘Yu-Kiang’. This was an enormous man-whale hybrid that had human hands and feet; he held dominion over the sea and when he got angry he could cause storms for boats at sea. It was also said that he could turn himself into a giant bird which would cause storms as he emerged from the ocean.

10. Heimskringla

Heimskringla
Heimskringla

The most famous of Icelandic sagas concerns a young man sent by the Danish king to Iceland in order to challenge suspected libels being uttered against him. There are two legends in this work concerning whales. In the first instance, the king sends a magician disguises as a whale in order to listen in on the rumours about him. In a second tale, a man threw a stone at a whale. The stone lodged in his blow hole and the creature exploded. For his crime, he was ordered to stay away from the sea for twenty years. In the nineteenth year he chanced a fishing trip but was killed by a whale.

Conclusion

Whales make up some of the largest ever creatures to have lived on the planet ‘ outstripping most dinosaurs and their land counterparts so it is no wonder that so many ancient cultures revered them or held them in awe through their literature. Even today, modern writers remain fascinated with these creatures of the deep.

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