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