The Ends of the Earth

Our earth is a sphere. It has no beginning; it has no end.

If a scurvy sailor sailed around it for long enough, keeping to the same longitude, he would return home.

I know the earth is round, because Pythagoras and Aristotle said so.

Also, because that nice Portuguese man, Ferdinand Magellan, circumnavigated it in the years that led up to 1525 without falling off.

But when you’re out there, in the middle of the ocean, I’m told it does things to you. And sailors can feel so remote that they might feel they have reached the ends of the earth, the isolation is so complete.

I have heard this from many sailors, but only first hand from one.

My husband’s best friend Max is a clever, charming, gothic soul. His father was a consultant in Harley Street, and drove a Harley Davidson. For father-son bonding sessions, they would travel to his 17th century quayside pad on the Isle of Wight and have a little sailing holiday.

Max said sailing was only enjoyable retrospectively. According to him, you spent your whole time sick, cold and tired, miles from any civilisation.

He used to say the most dismal sound on the earth was the Radio Four shipping forecast, which is aired at about 12:30am and again at about six am.

Not only was the world a lost civilisation across the waves, with small children tucked up in feather-down duvets and cats curled up by fires, but the world was asleep and the sailor was, often reluctantly, exhausted and awake.

The sea can do that to a man.

William Golding seized on that feeling of isolation when he wrote his trilogy, ‘To The Ends of The Earth”. He chose to set his story before modern communications made it possible for ship to talk to shore: in the early days of the nineteenth century.

Edmund Talbot is a young man with powerful connections. His influential godfather has secured him a job with the Governor of New South Wales, and he sets sail on a warship for Australia.

Anyone who knows Golding will see it coming: the unsettling of the roles of all on board. A clergyman, who might be expected to be among the professionals and gentlemen on any venture, is victimised mercilessly.

There might as well be no other people on the globe but these few, on the boat in the middle of an ocean; and values begin to revert to the survival of the fittest before our very eyes.

Talbot is a gentleman, and the book is his journal: but he becomes increasingly concerned that his future employer should not see records which betray what happens to a group of civilised people when no-one is watching.

It’s very Golding. He does love to isolate his subjects, there, seemingly at the ends of the earth.

If Golding’s sea isolates, CS Lewis’s is a sea of signs and wonders. He takes a Narnian crew on a sea voyage of discovery in ‘The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader’; and while they encounter many astounding finds along the way, yet the last sea – the one before the edge of the flat earth of Lewis’s creation – holds the most delightful of surprises.

Just before the ends of the Narnian earth, the water ceases to be salt, and is sweet to drink. As the crew look over the side of the boat they see a tiny race of sea-people living their lives out there, at the brink. Lilies grew, and as the wind dropped and the sails hung dead, an inexorable current drew them to the east, and the edge of the world.

It’s like a dream sequence. While the crew is still solitary, there is a direction: eastwards, and a feeling that events are totally out of the hands of the voyagers.

They made their choice to come here, knowing the inevitability of travelling towards the edge of the world. Now, they observe, knowing that these hours might be their last; but before their end they will see wonders no other pair of Narnian eyes has seen.

It’s just fiction; fanciful fiction. But can it be that the wonder of discovery balances the desolation of loneliness and isolation?

The third trip to the ends of the earth belies the hypothesis.

Victor Frankenstein, the creation of Mary Shelley, chose to experiment with life and death, incurring the most dire of consequences.

He assembled a body and devised a way to accord it life, and all for scientific glory.

The experiment went horribly wrong and the monster he created murdered Frankenstein’s wife.

How to undo the damage done? Victor vowed to hunt the monster down and kill him.

Shelley chose the most desolate backdrop for a rather hopeless end to her story: the monster left signs and messages for his creator. “Follow me”, he tells him, “I seek the everlasting ices of the north, where you will feel the misery of the cold and frost, to which I am impassive.”

Frankenstein is utterly absorbed with – what -a need for his own redemption? Undoing what he has done? Or is it revenge? Or horror at what he has unleashed on the world?

All of these, perhaps. His greatest struggle is destined to take place where there is no help, far from human comfort, at the ends of the earth.

Our earth is a sphere. It has no beginning, and no end. But it does have extremes of isolation.

Perhaps to us humans, who are creatures of community, isolation is an end in itself.

Inspired by Side View’s weekend theme which is unfailingly diverting…check out details here


30 thoughts on “The Ends of the Earth

  1. Golding’s tale, To The Ends of the Earth, is rather reminiscent of his Lord of the Flies. Ack!

    I love sailing . . . as long as I’m passenger and not crew. 😀
    We did a 4 day Windjammer Cruise off the coast of Maine with a rather deranged Captain and a delightful Cook who catered to our Vegetarian desires.

    The first day . . . cold and gray and dismal. And then the sun came out and we enjoyed smooth sailing. No casualities.

    As always, wonderful post, Kate.

    1. He’d been hit by lightning twice and felt rather invincible. He had a crazed look in his eyes, especially when the storm clouds rolled in. I think he planned on seeing if he could survive a trifecta. 😉

  2. Wonderful as ever, friend Kate, my favorite shrew! What always amazes me is that any of us can ever think we can do anything in isolation, unseen, or unheard. Quite frankly, although that statement has a “God-fearing” tone to it, it’s not meant that way. I’ve always sort of felt like the very air has eyes an ears. We often might think we are getting away with certain behavior, but the fact is, WE know – and we are more judgmental of ourselves than anybody else can ever be, and have a curiously human habit of never forgetting – even when we fool ourselves into thinking we have, at least for a while. Who we are comes out at the most opportune and inopportune times – even at the very end. . .

    1. And yet, evil happens; conscience is highly developed in some, yet others seem to derive pleasure from the pain of others. It is easier to inflict pain on someone when there is no one there, to check it.

      1. Evil surely does – didn;t mean to imply otherwise. Many people are amazingly well-adapted to ignoring the “better angels of our nature.” I think, though, that the deterioration of individual behaviors is at least partially caused by the conscience, oddly enough – as a way of defying ourselves, or any sort of authority – even if that authority is that “better angel.” The desire and lure of “doing it my way” can be overpowering for some.

      2. Certainly can 🙂 Thanks as always for your take on the subject, Paula….I sometimes get caught up in the debate and forget to say thank you!!

  3. What an interesting post, Kate. One of the most fascinating and compelling books I’ve ever read, was ‘The Proving Ground’ an account of the disastrous 1998 Sydney to Hobart yacht race in which 6 sailors died, not only because it is a fascinating dissection of how the tragedy unfolded and provides some insight into the competitive ego, but also becauses it touches on how being at sea can play tricks on the mind. I have heard of instances where sailors jump overboard for no apparent reason after been driven mad from the isolation. We have sailed around the Whitsundays a few times and that is hairy enough in bad weather, and although I can see what the attraction might be to sail across the ocean, I wouldn’t be keen to do it

    1. Nor me,BB. I got woefully seasick the day Max sailed Phil and I round the Isle of WIght….completely missed my husband sailing us single handed round The Needles. Which is merciful, because Phil can’t sail.
      Must seek out The Proving Ground…thanks!

    1. Thanks Sidey 😀 I don’t know how I ever did without the weekend theme. You have a knack of choosing the subjects which set a flurry of writers thinking in lateral directions….

  4. I’ve read two of the books but not Golding’s. One to look up.

    I always felt sorry for the Monster. He got a raw deal. Shelley’s work appalled me, not least for the naming of a murdered character after her own son; and because she never explained how the Monster managed to travel so far, across the sea, without being spotted.

    1. It was definitely a case of having to suspend one’s disbelief, wasn’t it, Tilly? The whole power-of-electricity thing takes a lot of getting used to as well, when we know so much about it. Didn’t know abou the naming after the son! I am quite sure I could not have written in that way! It does make me want to delve deeper into her biography. There were some strange minds out there, writing novels, back then.

    1. Ooooh, thanks, Pseu: that’s half term reading sorted out!
      And you are so right – we can be far from everyone else, even in the middle of a crowded room. Last week we passed a Lebanese lady begging on the Edgeware road. She was probably in her fifties, but she was in Lebanese dress and shfe was sitting down, a stance unfamiliar on a London street. I just walked past: it was evening and I had the kids, there were all sorts of shady types around. The next day it hit me that I had chosen to walk past someone who was utterly marooned, even there on that busy street.
      Going back at half term, hope I can find her again.

  5. Lewis is amazing. I think the Narnia series is probably the best one ever written – unless one counts ‘Alice’ as a series.

    *grin* Of course, you forgot to mention the Douglas Adams journey to the end of the earth!

    1. …which is a classic, Col, you are right there…wasn’t it national towel day this week?
      I’ll say this for you: you really know where your towel is….

  6. Sailing the oceans of Earth is sailing water not earth. Other planets orbiting our home star, Sol, are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Pluto. All have proper nouns to name them! Splendid post!

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