A Descent into the Maelstrom Notes from Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

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Stories of Edgar Allan Poe A Descent into the Maelstrom

An important epigraph from theologian Joseph Glanville opens this tale, declaring "The ways of God in Nature, as in Providence, are not as our ways; nor are the models that we frame in any way commensurate to the vastness, profundity, and unsearchableness of His works, which have a depth in them greater than the well of Democritus" Poe, pg. 226. These words suggest that the wonders of nature will play a central role in the plot that follows next. An unnamed narrator is walking on a rocky path near the sea in Norway with an old man, who declares that although his hair is white, he is in fact not very old at all. He declares that a traumatic event that happened three years ago has "broken me up body and soul," adding that he has led the narrator to that high cliff overlooking the ocean in order to share his story, telling the narrator to quickly overcome his fear of those high cliffs, because they have a perfect view of the sea, the topic of his story.

He explains that they are standing upon Mount Helseggen in Norway at approximately sixty-eight degrees latitude at The Lofoden Point. The narrator admires the scenic landscape around them, noting that there are two islands visible in front of him, one nearer than the other, "Just opposite the promontory upon whose apex we were placed, and at a distance of some five or six miles out at sea, there was visible a small, bleak-looking island; or, more properly, its position was discernible through the wilderness of surge in which it was enveloped. About two miles nearer the land, arose another of smaller size, hideously craggy and barren, and encompassed at various intervals by a cluster of dark rocks" Poe, pg. 227. The water is also rather rough and surges violently around the rocky island, as the old man explains that the islands are named Vurrgh and Moskoe, respectively. After ten minutes of patient waiting, the sea suddenly erupts into a violent explosion of water as the currents begin to spiral together around and around into an enormous whirlpool filling up the entire sea before them, around the island called "Moskoe." The water bordering the pool is angled at forty-five degrees to the surface, and the narrator grows fearful at seeing such a large and powerful phenomenon roaring louder than North America's own Niagara Falls, declaring that this must be the infamous Norwegian Maelstrom.

The narrator also notes that he has heard much of this natural wonder as documented by the Norwegian scholar Jonas Ramus. While rocky Helseggen shakes because of the ocean's force, the old man confirms this statement, adding that it is also called the "Moskoe-strom" because the island of Moskoe lies in the middle of this enormous whirlpool. The guide reveals that the water from Lofoden Point to Moskoe is safe for ships, but on the other side of Moskoe towards Vurrgh the water is too shallow for ships to sail through, and the only time that this is possible is during the short fifteen minute time period when the water of the Maelstrom is calm again, and it is only safe to cross every six hours when the waters calm down, before the waters surge into a vicious vortex once more, swallowing ships, animals, and anything in its path before spitting them out again, crushed, during that fifteen minute period of calm. Reflecting the sentiment of the opening epigraph from Glanville, the narrator marvels at how powerful this whirlpool is, that it could smash apart the strongest ship of his day "as a feather," inserting a quotation about the Maelstrom from Encyclopedia Britannica and recalling Athanasius Kircher's professed theory that this Maelstrom is the entrance to an underground network of tunnels leading to the Gulf of Bothnia or the Berents Sea.

Noting that the narrator has witnessed this phenomenon, the old man begins to tell a story about a tragic event that happened to him three years ago. He was a fisherman along with his two brothers, and they liked to catch fish near Vurrgh because they are more plentiful, in spite of the shallow waters beyond Moskoe. As a result, they had to calculate their passage through the channel very carefully, during that fifteen minute period when the Maelstrom disappeared for a short while, sailing as quickly as possible to avoid being sucked beneath the waves. When it was safe and they were several miles away, they would cast anchor near some faraway island, until they would wait for the waters to calm yet again and brave the waves where the Maelstrom once had raged at high tide. He describes a couple of close calls he and his brothers had experienced, when they had nearly gotten pulled into the Maelstrom due to bad weather or poor winds. However, his closest brush with death happened on July 18th, 18--, during a tremendous hurricane that attacked that entire region by surprise. The three men had ventured beyond Moskoe near Vurrgh at two o'clock in the afternoon and prepared to return at seven o'clock, just in time for the six hour travel loop, permitting them to cross during that high tide.

Suddenly, as the men turned back towards Lofoden Point, a huge wind swarms upon the boat, throwing it off course and tearing out both of its masts while spectacular clouds flew rapidly across the sky. The old man's younger brother died when the masts were torn off, since he had mistakenly tied himself to one of them for safety, thinking that it would prevent him from being swept overboard. The elder brother clung to the boat, and they both stare in awe as both the water and sky rage around them, even as they both react violently upon realizing that the Maelstrom is reaching full force again, with the fifteen minutes of calm having expired. They were powerless to navigate, due to the heavy winds and their dismembered boat, and even as the hurricane settled down abruptly, it is too late to avoid being pulled into the dreaded Moskoestrom, as the old man gazed at his watch to check for the time, realizing that he had forgotten to wind it! Enraged, he hurled it into the ocean as the boat drifted into those circular currents, daunted by a sudden hole in the cloudy sky revealing "the full moon with a luster that I never before knew her to wear." The ship turned sideways, with its right side overlooking the deep abyss at the center of the Maelstrom, slowly traveling in the water's currents.

Many thoughts went through the old man's mind, and his fear suddenly dissipated in the spirit of discovery that filled his body, realizing that he could boldly go where no one had gone before, and discover at long last what lies at the center of the whirlpool. This soon passed as well as the fear possessed him once more along with a renewed determination to survive. The boat spins slowly around and around for about an hour, slowly descending, while his older brother stood at the back of the ship holding onto a water cask so that he would not be swept overboard. Abruptly, he moved to where the old man was resting, clinging onto the Astrolabe ring and pried it from his fingers. Aggravated that his own brother would do this to try to save himself but understanding that his brother had gone insane with fear of his own impending death, the old man took over his brother's place at the water cask while the boat tipped over more into the whirlpool's center, "Never shall I forgot the sensation of awe, horror, and admiration with which I gazed about me. The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference...whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony...as the rays of the full moon, from that circular rift amid the clouds which I have already described, steamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss" Poe, pg. 239.

The boat somehow managed to stay upright because of the nature in which the current was carrying it, and the old man couldn't see anything at the bottom of the abyss except for great clouds of watery mist caused from the waters crashing together far below; an enormous rainbow, inspired by the full moon's bright rays, filled the interior of the Maelstrom. As the boat traveled lower and lower, the old man observed the movement of the current and some derelict objects that were floating around them, such as a fir tree, wrecked ships, furniture, and random barrels. A startling realization flooded the old man, as he remembered that sometimes items would wash up on the shore near Lofoden undamaged, because they had hit the current at exactly the right moment so as to avoid being crushed in the Maelstrom's bottom and merely floated up to water's surface when the whirlpool calmed down again. He saw that out of the objects around him, those that are shaped like cylinders descended the most slowly; with this knowledge, he tied himself to that very water cask which his brother had abandoned, and, after vainly trying to signal to his elder brother nevertheless that he, too, should tie himself to a barrel, cut himself free from the sinking boat and lunged into the raging waters around him.

Events ended exactly as the old man had hoped, as the barrel's descent was greatly slowed due to its cylindrical shape, and an editor's note refers to Archimedes' "De Incidentibus in Fluido" for further information about this phenomenon. Moving at a much faster speed, the old man watched his boat and brother quickly descend within an hour and fall to certain destruction into the foam at the Maelstrom's bottom. Eventually, the barrel and the old man eventually began to rise as the whirlpool's calming period started to arrive at last after nearly six hours of raging, and finally he reached the ocean's surface once again, alive and well, off of the coast of Lofoden. The hurricane continued to attack, however, even after six hours, and he was pushed along in the current towards a fishing boat which rescued him from any further dangers. He knew these rescuers, as they were fellow mariners like himself, and they revealed that his hair had changed from black to white because of his extraordinarily fearful near death experience inside of the Moskoestrom. Yet they refused to believe his tale to be the truth, and the old man says that he does not expect the narrator to trust these events to be the truth, "I can scarcely expect you to put more faith in it than did the merry fisherman of Lofoden." With these words the tale ends, leaving the reader and narrator alike to formulate their own conclusions about the credibility of this old man's painful experience of not only his descent, but also his ascent from the murky depths of the Maelstrom. Now, his even greater burden is that nobody believes these events to be the truth.

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