The “fighting whale” in shipwreck accounts has had a pervasive and stubborn hold on maritime narratives, simultaneously perpetuating lasting memorable tales and false assumptions about whale behavior that have endured for nearly two centuries. This essay traces the cultural mechanisms behind the narrative recasting of this docile creature into a calculating predator that savagely attacked whale ships. Owen Chase's Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-ship Essex set off a flurry of similar tales when it appeared in 1821. Chase attempted to preempt any accusations regarding his own faulty seamanship—he had originally refused to land on the nearby Tahitian islands for fear of cannibals—by creating in its place an enduring myth of a manhunting creature of the sea. The casting of the whale into a murderous villain became a staple of the novelistic narrative structure of shipwreck reportage that demanded a ferocious embodied antagonist in its dramatis personae to justify the capitalist and imperialist objectives of the whaling industry. I argue that Moby-Dick complicates Chase's flat vilification of the whale and its associations with the cultural meanings of the evil sea monster in romanticism and the ancient Leviathan tradition. With origins tracing back to early Christian retellings of the ancient Greek Physiologus nautical myth, the legacy of that tradition of maligning the whale is immediately visible in contemporary writers, such as Jay Parini and Nathaniel Philbrick.
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David O. Dowling; Media, Myth, and the “Fighting Whale” In Maritime Narratives. Genre 1 December 2014; 47 (3): 255–283. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00166928-2797177
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