“You stand on dead men’s legs.”
So says Captain Larsen to his human find, the once drowning stranger now plucked from San Francisco Bay by the crew of The Ghost, a schooner starting for the coast of Japan to hunt seals.
The captain ordered his crew to lift the chance man from the freezing water only because they were short one. (The captain’s mate died onboard from a “debauch” the night before.)
The rescued man is Humphrey Van Weyden, who responds to Larsen’s questions of occupation by identifying himself as a “gentleman” who has an “income.”
The angered captain responds, “Who earned it? Eh? I thought so. Your father. You stand on dead men’s legs.”
Humphrey dismisses the abuse and asks to be put ashore.
It’s then that Wolf Larsen, as the captain’s known, refuses Humphrey’s request and commits to make him stand on his own legs.
“My mate’s gone, and there’ll be a lot of promotion. A sailor comes aft to take mate’s place, cabin-boy goes for’ard to take sailor’s place, and you…”
Thus Humphrey Van Weyden, gentleman, is impressed into service as “Hump,” cabin boy of The Ghost.
This is the setup for Jack London’s 1904 novel The Sea-Wolf. London pits Wolf and Hump against each other for an engaging tale on the sea and to explore whether humans have immortal souls.
It’s Van Weyden who tells the story. He shows Larsen both as a fierce captain of super-human strength who abuses his crew, and as a self-educated man (his state-room full of literary classics and scientific works) who’s curious but skeptical about the value of life.
During breaks in the terror and the hard work of sailing, Wolf seeks Hump to debate whether life is anything more than “particles of yeast…striving to devour each other.” Hump’s impressed by Wolf’s ability to reason and argue, but is unable to change him from “a man of whom to always be afraid.”
Wolf does have a weakness–he gets migraines. This enables two things: opportunity for Hump to save himself, and a gradual physical deterioration that presents an idea about life being more than the desire to devour.
Reading The Sea-Wolf I felt like I too was captive on The Ghost.
Category Archives: Book Review
“You stand on dead men’s legs.”
Ever see Fractured Fairy Tales? As a kid I loved watching the cartoon from the sixties. The five-minute episodes featured knights and damsels, kings and commoners in humorous parodies of stories for children. The shorts aired during morning programming for kids, but parents were the target of the writers. The show entertained with wit, often including touches of social and political commentary.
With similar humor and wit Miguel de Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. I recognized immediately its cartoonlike genre and short chapters, so I chose breakfast time for reading it. Like a kid who used to watch a cartoon before going to school, I smiled through an episode of Quixote before going to work. One hundred and twenty-five chapters gave as many escapes from adulthood.
The book’s characters fart, puke, cross-dress, get drunk, strike each other, flog themselves, and play adult practical jokes. It’s hilarious and juvenile but written for adults. Published in Spain in 1605, the book was so enjoyed that Cervantes wrote a sequel. Both are included in the 1885 English translation. Today it’s still funny and its social and political commentary still applies.
What’s funny is that fifty-year-old villager Quixote has read so many stories of chivalry he gets the notion he’s a knight. The age of chivalry has passed for a century, but Quixote dons heirloom armor, mounts a tired horse, and sets out for adventure.
Deluded by his obsession he takes innocent individuals for enemies, challenges them, then in cartoonlike violence delivers blows and receives them back. Sidekick Sancho Panza is unable to get his master to see what things really are. The lazy, simple, farm laborer accompanies Quixote on an ass, shares the consequences, and stays faithful for one reason: Quixote promises to win him an island to govern.
Quixote is mad, of course, and those who don’t yet know it find out fast. In one scene a traveling entertainer makes Quixote special guest at his puppet show. During the performance, Quixote watches as a puppet knight and his puppet lover are chased by puppet horsemen. At this Quixote draws his sword and showers blows on the miniature mounted Moors.
In another scene, some who know Quixote’s madness have fun with it. A duke and duchess invite Quixote and Panza to their court for their own entertainment. The noble pair, as part of a long-running practical joke, convince knight and squire to mount a wooden horse with a peg in its head, and make them believe it’s flying them to a remote kingdom.
Cervantes strings a hundred such scenes together, moving character Quixote from beginning to end in a way that makes sense, holds attention, and entertains. There’s social and political commentary to think about or to let go. If you just want reading that brings back the feeling of juvenile cartoon-like fun, give Quixote a try.