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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Water - Part 4 – Mythologized Humans - Pirates (and Shipboard Stories)

Why do you think that there are so many stories about ships and pirates?

My guess is that ship stories have a nice contained little world with occasional interludes of ports, islands, meetings other ships or foul weather; perfect for the imagination to grab ahold of and run with.
The authority structure on board a ship is simple to describe, absolute by necessity and frequently overthrown. Mutiny sits easy in the rebellious hearts of most humans. On board a ship, the writer can spend less effort on setting and make things straight forward, more black and white for the reader.

The authority of a captain bares some resemblance to the authority of a father or family head when we are young. Whether the captain be a good one or a bad, each sailor must decide for himself whether to toe the line or mutiny at the risk of being hung, thrown over board, keel hauled, marooned, or any one of a bizillion ways sailors in real life have invented to impose order on ships. On the sea, the captain has no one to answer to, but some far away country's law, their consciences, God above, and their own ability to keep the sailors under control.

Pirates ships are more captivating because they are captained by people who are already breaking the hard-to-enforce-laws of at least one country and therefore have even less to answer to. Pirates appeal to our sense of rebellion even more because they make up their own laws. Some part of most of us would love to conquer and plunder without guilt and get away with it.

What do you think is the function pirate stories fill in our society?

I think one of the messages most pirate stories end up sending is that that no one can act without repercussions. Usually pirates are brought low in the end by navel war ships, acts of God or a mutinous crew. There is no free ticket to act with impunity. Though many pirate stories sure have a lot of fun on the way to the inevitable justice that must win out in the end.

Now, I admit, I've not read a multitude of pirate stories, so if you know of a pirate story that doesn't end with justice prevailing, please share the title.

This is of course the mythologized, romanticized version of pirates, because real pirates are scary, dangerous thugs that are a scourge, hard to capture and discipline in the vast ocean. And modern day pirates, unlike in the good old days of cutlasses and flintlocks, have a wide array of arsenal choices chock full of deadly weapons at their disposal: automatic weapons and bombs; not to mention the modern conveniences of fast communication and tracking for the organized pirate operations. No, modern pirates are a different breed of terror.

Classic ship and pirate stories I've read and recommend:

The Odyssey, by Homer – the brilliant original ship story, though it focuses more on the journey than the interactions on the ship. This story is the basis for so many that followed. It's great to read to see how much others have borrowed from it. (Pictures above with The Odyssey  is Odysseus in the Serpent Maze, by Jane Yolan, a family favorite.) For this book, an abridged version is a reasonable decision, since Homer lived so long ago, the ideas of relevance and pacing are going to be off for many people, though I'd recommend reading it unabridged. It's not too long.

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville – beautiful language and writing style. Again, this story is the basis for so much that has come after. Here I recommend the abridged version for all but the purists, die-hards and audio book listeners [like me]. There are many beautiful passages that an editor will likely cut, but there are many chapters (on whales in general, sperm whales in particular, the history of whaling, the whaling industry and spermicety - the stuff harvested from sperm whale's corpses) that would bore many to tears.

Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson – a delight to read that is often referenced. I recommend reading the unabridged version, because it is short and fast paced enough for even most modern children.

Peter Pan, by J.M.Barrie – The pirates are not the focus of this story, but J.M. Barrie was a great fan of nautical adventure stories that involves pirates, ships and islands, especially Treasure Island. The pirates here are a fun intro to pirates for young readers and Captain Hook is a classic pirate character that is far better in the book than in the movies.

Nonfiction sources – If you are interested in ships and nautical journeys I recommend reading about early explorers like the Vikings, the Phoenicians, Cabot, de Gama, Columbus, Hudson, Lawrence, Cook. These are the real life adventurous souls that took to ships and sailed in uncharted or barely charted waters to find new lands. If you are a slow reader like me, children's non-fiction books can often give you a quick overview to help you find the areas you would like to focus on for further research.

Other nautical books I recommend or have on hand:

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel - a nice read. It's long and again thin of plot, but it's a interesting philosophical journey for the main character with plenty of tension despite the mostly nothing happening for large portions of the book.

Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway – beautifully written words. I decline to recommend this book. Like some classics, the plot is a little thin and I'm not inclined to be wowed by famous names. I generally hold famous authors up to a higher standard. This book didn't meet my expectations. I was able to finish it, its a shortish book, but I was glad to be done with it and probably wouldn't have finished it if Hemingway was so highly praised.

Pirate questions I'd love to see discussed, or hear opinions or disagreements on:

1. Why do you think that there are so many stories about ships and pirates?

2. What do you think is the function pirate stories fill in our society?

3. If you know of a pirate story that doesn't end with justice prevailing, please share the title.

Please feel free to respectfully disagree with me. I love to be proven wrong, umm... or at the very least I love to see accuracy prevail. And I always love to hear ideas I haven't thought of on a subject I'm interested in.


Chris F said...

Re: #1, I think the fascination is due to the universal yearning for freedom. The pirate represents social freedom, and the ship represents physical freedom. BTW, technically the phrase is "toe the line". Also, I always really like your photos in your posts. Amazing.

KC Trae Becker said...

Thanks Chris for the tip about toeing the line and for your nice words about my pics. Your comment about pirate stories representing people's yearning for freedom got me thinking. I think my interpretation of it as representing people's rebelliousness and yours are just different sides of the same coin. I enjoy seeing traits and ideas reinterpreted like that; for example as aggressive child can be viewed as an assertive child. The different connotation makes a huge change in the way the trait is handled. Thanks for opening my eyes to this new viewpoint!