Tuesday, 18 January 2011

'Swinging the Maelstrom'

'Swinging the Maelstrom' was one of the titles of a novella written by Lowry which was eventually published as Lunar Caustic in 1961.

Where does the name "maelstrom" originate and where exactly is the whirlpool?

For many centuries, the Norwegian Sea was regarded as the edge of the known world. The disappearance of ships there, due to the natural disasters, induced legends of the monsters (kraken) which halt and sink ships. As late as in 1845, the Encyclopædia metropolitana contained a multi-page review by Erik Pontoppidan (1698–1764) on ship-sinking sea monsters of half a mile in size.

Many legends might be based on the work Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus of 1539 by Olaus Magnus where he described the kraken and maelstroms of the Norwegian Sea. The kraken also appeared in Alfred Tennyson's poem of the same, in Herman Melville's Moby Dick and in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne.

Between the Lofoten islands of Moskenesøya and Værøy, at the tiny Mosken island, lies the Moskenstraumen – a system of tidal eddies and a whirlpool called a maelstrom. With the speed of the order of 15 km/h (the value strongly varies between the sources), it is one of the strongest maelstroms in the world.

It was described in the 13th century in the Old Norse poems Edda and remained an attractive subject for painters and writers, including Edgar Allan Poe, Walter Moers and Jules Verne. The term maelstrom originates from the combination of Dutch words malen (to grind) and strom (stream); it was introduced into English language by Poe in his story "A Descent into the Maelström" (1841) describing the Moskenstraumen.

The Moskenstraumen is created as a result of a combination of several factors, including the tides, position of the Lofoten and the underwater topography; unlike most others whirls, it is located in the open sea rather than in a channel or bay. With the diameter of 40–50 meters, it can endanger small fishing vessels even in modern time, which might be attracted by the abundant cod feeding on the microorganisms sucked by the whirl.
Read more on Wikipedia

We can now see what the name of "maelstrom" could conjure up for Lowry - Norwegian connections in place and mythology, links to his favourite writers such as Poe and Melville and childhood links to reading Jules Verne. Malc may also have known about the Norse myth from his mentor E.E. Kellett who wrote The Northern Saga (1929) which refers to Edda. These links combined with the word's association with "violent or turbulent situation" become a perfect metaphor for Lowry's state of mind when he entered Bellvue Hospital in 1936 - the source for the novella.

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