Exploring the Sea: Five Writings You’ll Enjoy

You must have at least once stared at the sea and wondered what creatures and life forms it hides. The sea has always been seen as a magnificent space of unexplored depths and unplumbed mysteries. More than 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by the ocean’s water, and less than 5% of it has been explored by humans. This fact creates room for fiction literature, because what is unknown is always intriguing. And sometimes, even what we do know can be shown in a different light through literature. For this weekend’s reading, we have reviewed five writings that deal with the mysteries of the sea, whether it is about its creatures, its symbolic place in our culture, the struggles it causes, or the power it possesses.

Odyssey, by Homer (free ebook here)

We begin our list with one of the oldest, most magical writings that deal with the power of the sea: the great epic The Odyssey. Lovers of Greek myths, great heroic stories, and those who enjoy questioning everything will certainly enjoy this book! It is one of the most important books in the Western literary canon, one that has influenced many works over the millennia that have followed it, including of course Ulysses, by James Joyce. You can perceive this epic as a sequel to the Iliad, since it explains what happened to Odysseus – one of the leading characters in the Iliad - after the Trojan War. His fate is completely subject to the whims of the gods, so in his journey wandering the seas for ten years (after fighting in the Trojan War for ten years) he has no choice but to surrender to the decisions of higher forces. In that sense, man is merely a puppet who suffers due to the conflicting interests of the gods, but also due to the actions of Moirai – incarnations of destiny.

Odysseus’s voyage home took so long because of the fury of Poseidon, the god of the sea. Right after leaving Troy, Odysseus and his men were blown off course and landed on the island of the Cyclops. After several plot twists, Odysseus blinded a Cyclops named Polyphemos. Unfortunately for him, Polyphemos was the son of Poseidon! This fact caused him many troubles: you do not want the sea god’s rage when you’re trying to sail home, do you? This is just the start of many adventures in the Odyssey, and you can discuss and analyze every single one of them, since they are very open to interpretation. Many have debated why it took so long for the great hero to come home, and some have questioned whether he was truly trying to come back to Ithaca (which was his homeland and his kingdom) as fast as he could. One of the most recent revisions of the myth came to us through the accomplished Canadian author, Margaret Atwood, who wrote a novella titled The Penelopiad. She rewrote the myth from a female perspective, showing us that those twenty years were challenging for Penelope, too. If you ever wondered what happened to her during the twenty years that Odysseus was absent, you should definitely read the book or check out our previous article about it here: https://youthtimemag.com/articles-2/yt-recommend-the-book-penelopaid.

The sea hides many monsters and temptations, and it tests the strength of Odysseus, as well as his gumption and cunning. You will enjoy these stories of the many adventures he experienced with the Lotus Eaters, the Goddess Circe, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, the Nymph Kalypso, and many more. Still, at one point at least – it is clear that Odysseus wanted to return to Ithaca with all his heart:

The goddess Calypso kept me with her in her cave, and wanted me to marry her, as did also the cunning Aeaean goddess Circe; but they could neither of them persuade me, for there is nothing dearer to a man than his own country and his parents, and however splendid a home he may have in a foreign country, if it be far from father or mother, he does not care about it.

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, by Jules Verne (free ebook here)

This classic work of fiction made an eternal imprint in the canon of world literature. This is an amazing story of the mysteries of the deep sea, but also a story about alienation, bitterness, isolation, and the dark side of human nature. The name of one of the main characters - Captain Nemo, is actually a reference to the Odyssey: when Odysseus encountered the Cyclops, he was asked what his name was. He replied Utis, which means no-man, or no-body; in the Latin translation, this name appears as Nemo. The main connection between these two writings is the theme of exile and wandering: in the case of the Odyssey, it is in order to find a way home; in the case of Captain Nemo, it is in order to get away from what he thought his home was.

Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea brings to life the amazing world of mysteries that the ocean hides. The storyline starts to develop when three men are sent on an expedition in order to find and destroy a sea monster, presumed to be a giant whale. A French marine biologist, a Canadian whaler and harpoonist, and a servant set out on the mission. After a while, they find the whale and start fighting with him. However, the ship is ruined and they are defeated and then captured by Captain Nemo, who is the commander of a peculiar submarine named Nautilus. The eerie ambience of the submarine will give you the chills as the story creates an uncanny feeling. Captain Nemo is a marine biologist himself, and he lives under the surface of the sea in a voluntary exile, as humanity has failed him and civilization offers him nothing good. He makes it clear that his guests are not free to leave, since he cannot risk exposing his secret hideaway. Professor Arronax, the French marine biologist, becomes fascinated by the sea underworld, as is the servant Conseil. However, Ned Land (the Canadian harpoonist) is eager to escape. There are many plot twists in the novel, especially regarding the mysterious deaths of several crew members. Also, the characters begin to build relationships with each other, and the relationships evolve as the story progresses. Nevertheless, you will be amazed by the vivid pictures of the ocean and its depths, as Verne tends to mix fiction with reality:

The Atlantic! That vast area of water covering 25 million square miles, 9,000 miles long by 2,700 miles wide on average. An important sea, almost unknown to the ancients except perhaps to the Carthaginians, those Dutchmen of antiquity, who travelled down the west coast of Europe and Africa looking for trade. An ocean whose parallel winding shores form an immense circumference channeling the world’s largest rivers: the St Lawrence, the Mississippi, the Amazon, the Plata, the Orinoco, the Niger, the Senegal, the Elbe, the Loire, and the Rhine, bringing in waters from the most civilized countries and the most savage!

The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway (free ebook here)

Two periods in Hemingway’s life influenced this short novel: his visit to Africa and his stay in Havana. His extensive experience as a fisherman was crucial to this novel: Hemmingway’s boat was named Pilar, and he sailed with it for 27 years. According to Paul Hendrickson (the author of Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961), Hemingway’s ship helped him to preserve his sanity – it was his sanctuary and his getaway, as it gave him an opportunity to get in touch with the sea and improved his ability to handle pressure.

The Old Man and the Sea is a great metaphor for life itself. The symbolism in the novel is very layered as it includes a man and his relationship with the sea, as well as explanations of his desires and the complex internal motivations which keep him going in life. Fishermen dedicate their lives to the sea, and they have a special relationship with it. They are different in many ways from ordinary people, who live out their lives on the mainland: they are modest and in alliance with the sea. Their bravery and courage are measured through their boldness: everybody knows the fishermen who sail away into the open sea, as everybody knows who stays near the coast. As the novel says - September is the month of big fish; In May, anyone can be a fisherman. The Old Man and the Sea depicts a special world with its traditions (enjoying lunch and a drink on the terrace); a world that has unique ways of communicating and standard topics for discussion, which are typically focused on baseball, news about the changes in sea currents, or the mysteries of the deep sea, or what was once seen or caught. This world nurtures verbal traditions through storytelling; it has its specific order and stability (i.e. it was known that the work is not done after catching a fish, but then it must be cleaned and processed, and then carried to the market in Havana). The Old Man and the Sea is a story about an experienced fisherman, the old man Santiago, and his struggles with the sea. You can understand that the sea here can be interpreted as a metaphor for life itself: there are many battles you will fight and win, even though you might not get a fair taste of your victory. Here’s what the old man thought about the sea:

He always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman […] They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favors, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.

One sentence explains the whole meaning of his fight: A man can be destroyed but not defeated.

The Sea-Wolf, by Jack London (free ebook here)

Jack London creates great characters – often patterned after his own life – and similar to the archetypes of other amazing heroes. Thus you find a character who is in the safe zone, weak in some sense, but then a sudden event makes him change, adapt, and evolve. This individual metamorphosis includes stepping out of his former world and into another, usually by force or necessity.

One example is the literary critic Humphrey van Weyden, who survives an ocean collision. Just like Hemingway, London used his experience of sailing in order to write this novel in a convincing, realistic manner (he once sailed with a ship called Sophia Sutherland). Weyden is soft in his nature, but after the shipwreck he is forced to adapt in order to survive. He drifts into a bay right into the hands of the Sea-Wolf Larsen, the captain of a hunting ship. Larsen is truly a depiction of the man of the sea as we know it: he is extraordinary, but brutal. His high intelligence does not come from books, but from the life-and-death battles the sea has put upon him. As Weyden sees it, Larsen sometimes seems as if he is not human at all, but rather an incredibly powerful, cynical being who terrorizes his crew. As the story unfolds, you will understand how tragic his character is, although he inspires awe. He is not spiritual, he is not tender, but he does save Weyden from the jaws of the sea and offers him a chance to survive. This experience is crucial for Weyden as it makes him confront real, raw life, as opposed to his literary work. What he learns on the ship is precious and makes him stronger. After a few plot twists, there comes a major one: the character of Miss Brewster appears, a poetess who is also saved by their ship, just as Weyden once was. You will sense the beginning of a love story here, but not without further complications – as both Larsen and Weyden feel affection for Miss Brewster.

Great adventures on the sea, as well as the novel’s compelling dynamics, will make you read page after page, and before you know it – you will have finished the book. It is one of the great writings about the sea, one that truly depicts the contrast between the men of the land and the men who belong to the sea: their mentality is different, the way they spend their days, their values, the way they look and how they treat people and the sea itself:

Pacing back and forth the length of the hatchways and savagely chewing the end of a cigar, was the man whose casual glance had rescued me from the sea. His height was probably five feet ten inches, or ten and a half; but my first impression, or feel of the man, was not of this, but of his strength. And yet, while he was of massive build, with broad shoulders and deep chest, I could not characterize his strength as massive. It was what might be termed a sinewy, knotty strength, of the kind we ascribe to lean and wiry men, but which, in him, because of his heavy build, partook more of the enlarged gorilla order.

Moby Dick; or the Whale, by Herman Melville (free ebook here)

Last but not least, one of the greatest writings of all time! There are many ways to interpret this voluminous novel; we will offer you just a glimpse at one way. Ishmael, the narrator of the novel, tells the story of Captain Ahab and his personal struggle. The novel is actually a depiction of the clash of two forces: on the one side - you have humans and their world; on the other side – you have forces of nature and the sea world. This war between the two worlds proceeds in this case from a desire for revenge: Captain Ahab is determined to kill a legendary big white whale named Moby Dick, out of two reasons. First, the whale caused him to lose his leg, so he acts partly out of fury and the desire for revenge; and second – hunting the whale will affirm Ahab’s greatness as a captain, harpoonist, and sea-wolf. The contrast between men and the sea is strong and beautiful, as the fight between them is tense and has many plot twists, so the reader is never completely sure how it will end. What we do know is the monomaniac nature of Ahab: he is determined to defeat Moby Dick, or die himself. For him, Moby Dick is the personification of pure evil and is constantly mocking him and daring him to get into a battle with him. There is also much layered and complex symbolism in the novel that can leave you with different conclusions. Just as in the aforementioned books, Melville in his novel shows what unique and extraordinary people harpoonists and captains are. Take a look at the portrait of Captain Ahab:

There seemed no sign of common bodily illness about him, nor of the recovery from any. He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini's cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. […] Whether that mark was born with him, or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say.

Don’t worry - we won’t spoil the book for you by saying who won the fight at the end! Just one more useful advisory: the novel also contains much factual data and pages that are not an integral part of the storyline, such as the listing and brief explanations of different types of whales, explanations of etymology and scientific (and other) extracts regarding the topic. You will be surprised at just how much you can actually learn about the sea by reading Moby Dick. And here’s a fun fact for you: you know the biggest coffeehouse chain, Starbucks? Well, it got its name from a character in the novel, Starbuck, who was a chief mate on the ship.

There you have it - five different readings in which you can explore the sea! Which ones are your favorites?




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