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.)


Jenny Turton said...

How tragic that beauty, magic and wonder should result in pragmatism and destruction! So true of many human responses to nature.

Thomas Wharton said...

I agree, and I think that was Pliny's real point in telling his friend the story. It's not really a "wonder tale" about a wild animal befriending people. His letter is more about the people themselves and their lack of patience and trust ("human" qualities that the dolphin displays).