The Boy and the Dolphin

From a letter by Pliny the Younger (62 AD – 118 AD) to his friend, the poet Caninius.

I’ve been told about an incident which many people witnessed, though it sounds very much like a fable to me. The story was told to me the other day over the dinner table, where we happened to be talking about various kinds of marvels. The person who told me the story was a man of unquestioned honesty, but perhaps as a poet you will find another kind of truth in it.

In Africa there is a town called Hippo, not far from the seacoast. It stands upon a lake connected to an estuary, which alternately flows into the lake or into the ocean, depending on the tides. People of all ages amuse themselves here with fishing, sailing, or swimming, especially boys, who love to compete with each other to see who can swim the farthest. Once, during one of these trials of strength, a boy who was bolder than the rest struck out for the opposite shore. On the way he encountered a dolphin, who sometimes swam in front of him, and sometimes behind him, then played around him, and at last took him upon his back, set him down, and then took him up again. The dolphin carried the poor frightened boy out into the deepest part of the estuary, then immediately turned back again to the shore, and deposited  him among his friends. 
The story soon spread through the town, and crowds of people flocked around the boy (whom they saw as a kind of prodigy) to ask him questions and hear him tell his story. The next day the shore was thronged with spectators, all keenly watching the ocean and the lake. Meanwhile the boys swam as usual, and among the rest, the boy I am speaking of waded into the lake, but with more caution than before. The dolphin soon appeared again and came to the boy, who swam away quickly with his friends. The dolphin, as though to invite and call them back, leaped and dove and flipped playfully. He did the same the next day, the day after, and for several days together, until the people began to be ashamed of their fear. Some swam out to the dolphin, calling him to come to them, and he did, and allowed himself to be touched and stroked.

The boy who first met the dolphin now swam up to him, and leaping upon his back, was carried backwards and forwards through the water. He felt that the dolphin knew him and was fond of him, while he too had grown fond of the dolphin. In fact there seemed to be no fear on either side, the confidence of the one and tameness of the other mutually increasing.

Remarkably, this dolphin was followed by another, who remained close by but did not allow himself to be approached or touched like the first, but only swam back and forth with him. Even more remarkably, the first dolphin would sometimes push himself onto the shore, dry himself in the sand, and, as soon as he grew warm, roll back into the sea. Octavius Avitus, deputy governor of the province, believing the dolphin to be a god, poured some ointment over him as he lay on the shore, as an offering. The dolphin swam away immediately and did not return for several days. When he reappeared he seemed slower and less playful; however, he soon recovered his spirit and returned to his former tricks and sport.

Many officials flocked to the lake to view this spectacle, and their prolonged stay caused much unwanted trouble and expense to the townspeople. For that reason it was decided the best thing to do would be to quietly have the dolphin killed.

The conclusion of this sad tale I leave you to finish, my friend, trusting that your poetic gifts will find the proper words. Farewell.

(Adapted from the Harvard Classics edition of the letters of Pliny the Younger.)

Useful monsters

The wolf prowls the worlds of Story, in many forms and guises. One of the most terrifying is the garm wolf. This creature takes its name from a hellhound, Garmr, mentioned in the Poetic Edda: he is a monstrous dog whose howling will announce the coming of Ragnarok, the fall of the gods and the ending of the world.

In the Perilous Realm, the garm wolf is a wild wolf which has been captured and transformed, by sorcery or ill-treatment or usually both, into a vicious hunter and killer. Unlike the werewolf, which is a man (or woman) changed into a monster that kills other men, the garm wolf is a wolf changed into a monster by man, to kill other men.  The journey may be different but the end result is much the same: a creature that is neither one thing or another but something else, a thing that crosses a guarded boundary and leaps out at us from our darkest nightmares.

Wolves have been demonized in stories probably since stories were first told, or at least since humans began to domesticate sheep and cows and other livestock. When this happened, however many thousands of years ago, when we began to keep animals as stock, like items in a store, instead of just following them around with spears and bows, what a change that must have made in our way of seeing the world. Because now there were two different kinds of animals: ours, and all the others out there, including the ones that wanted to kill and eat ours. Come to think of it, this may have been the reality-altering moment that the idea of wild first entered human consciousness: when we put a fence around some animals to keep other animals out. Before the sheepfold and the barn, we were hunters along with the wolves and the other predators. The forest was our home too. But once we learned to keep animals and breed them, we stopped thinking of ourselves as having anything in common with the other predators. Of course we were still predators, only we’d learned how to keep our prey close by for when we needed them. We no longer had to venture out into the dark dangerous forest to find them.

So, as we looked over this new thing we’d invented called the fence, which divided the world into two separate places, home and out there, our stories must have changed, too. On the other side of the fence was the wolf, a dusk thing, prowling the border of night and day, of two worlds. He was a lot like our new friend the dog, and so seemed close to us in a disturbing way, and yet he was not like the dog because he could not be tamed. And so the wolf made a handy villain. We could tell scary stories about his cruelty, his lack of mercy, his diabolical craftiness (conveniently forgetting these are traits we excel at ourselves). We could give evil a face. And if we could name it, and kill it, we’d be safe for a while. Good defeats evil once again.

And so we invented the Big Bad Wolf, and he began to prowl through our stories and nightmares. And that is what the tale of the garm wolf is really about, perhaps. It is a story about the story of the Big Bad Wolf. About how we made the wolf into a useful monster.

The Spark of Story

Lovely description of how the spark of Story was first lit in the author Richard Wright when he was a child:

“Once upon a time there was an old, old man named Bluebeard,” she began in a low whisper.
 She whispered to me the story of Bluebeard and His Seven Wives and I ceased to see the porch, the sunshine, her face, everything. As her words fell upon my new ears, I endowed them with a reality that welled up from somewhere within me. She told me how Bluebeard had duped and married his seven wives, how he had loved and slain them, how he had hanged them up by their hair in a dark closet. The tale made the world around me be, throb, live. 

As she spoke, reality changed, the look of things altered, and the world became peopled with magical presences. My sense of life deepened and the feel of things was different, somehow. Enchanted and enthralled, I stopped her constantly to ask for details. My imagination blazed. The sensations the story aroused in me were never to leave me.”

From Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth, by Richard Wright. Harper, 1945.

Overland to the Klondike

Edmonton was the jumping off place for the gold seekers who were so unfortunate as to choose the overland route to the Klondike. They came from every part of the world and many, unused to the travel of the north, brought with them fantastic devices for making the long trip in quick time.

One of the most ingenious arrangements was that of Texas Smith. He arranged three barrels tricycle-wise, fixed shafts to the barrels, and hitched up a horse. Inside the barrels he carried all of his supplies. Texas got about seven miles before the hoops came off the barrels and he traced his way back to Edmonton by following the track of beans, rice and flour.

In a shed near the river bank, Brenneau Fabian was preparing for the journey. Noahs’ Ark, the people called his invention. It was a large vessel, large enough to hold a score of men. Made entirely of galvanized iron, the ship was hinged in the middle so that the stern could be folded over the bow and the whole pulled along on either wheels or runners – a streamlined version of the covered wagon. A team of oxen was to be the motive power on land, and sails on the water. The Juggernaut did not leave its place on the riverbank. For many years, Fabian’s Folly was an outstanding float in all parades in Edmonton.

Another party spent a long while constructing an ice boat. Since the group expected to do a little profiteering when they reached the gold fields, space had to be allowed for cargo. Gingerly the heavy contraption was tugged out onto the ice. The towering mast was hoisted and the expanse of sails set. The boat bade fair to become part of the ice. It would have taken a hurricane to move it. The grinning citizens rounded up fourteen teams of horses to haul the monstrosity back up the grade to the shed from which it emerged with such ├ęclat.

The prime folly was that of the I Will Steam Company of Chicago. This firm manufactured a single piece of equipment: a steam sleigh for hauling a train of four cabooses on runners. Powered by a boiler and a marine engine, traction was provided by studding the cylindrical wheels of the engine with spikes or teeth. The first car behind the engine carried fuel, the second was the living quarters of the crew, and the third carried provisions. The date for the start arrived. The crew strode about oiling and wiping and testing gauges. “Let her go!” cried the leader. With the blast of a four-funnel liner, the sleigh lurched forward. The wheels churned, showering the spectators with clods of earth. The tractor wallowed and settled in the mire. All the frantic efforts to extricate her failed. The “I Will” wilted. Years later an enterprising sawmill man bought the machinery for his mill.

… Men with an eye to business advertised the Edmonton route far and wide as the best, quickest, and easiest route to the Klondike. Hundreds believed this golden hokum, and hundreds died of scurvy, of starvation, of heartbreak, somewhere in the North.

-- From Johnny Chinook, Tall Tales and True from the Canadian West, by Robert Gard, 1945. 

Robert Kroetsch's novel The Man from the Creeks tells a story of the Klondike Gold Rush, based on the famous poem "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" by Robert Service.

The Fathomless Fire: update

In an earlier post I announced that The Fathomless Fire, the second book in The Perilous Realm trilogy, would be on bookstore shelves this August. The release date has since be revised by the publisher, to January 2012. My apologies to those who have been waiting eagerly for the continuing adventures of Will, Rowen, Shade and their friends. 

I can at least promise you that "Fire" is worth the wait!

P.S. Amazon lists the book as a paperback, but I'm told this is an error: it will in fact come out first in hardcover.

NEW UPDATE: January 10th, 2012: The Fathomless Fire is now at a bookstore near you!