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copyright 1999, Lois Wickstrom

Stalking the Devouring Beast in Moby Dick, Peter Schlemihl, and Peter Pan

by Lois Wickstrom

Those who stalk the devouring beast have met him before. The beast has taken something from them, crippled them in some way. The initial encounter was an accident, a youthful mistake. But Ahab lost a leg to his whale, Moby Dick. Captain Hook lost a hand to his crocodile and replaced it with a hook. And Peter Schlemihl, broke and unemployed, freshly embarked from a journey at sea, sold his shadow to the devil for a magical purse with an endless supply of gold. Each of these men stalked his beast, seeking wholeness again.

Stalking the devouring beast is not so much an active pursuit, as a positioning of oneself in a likely spot and waiting for the beast to appear. The beast travels its own route in its own due time. And, as the plotter of any good horror tale knows, it shows up when the protagonist is busy doing something else.

Ahab and his crew were hunting whales to extract their oil for profit. Peter Pan was playing house with Wendy and the Lost Boys. And Peter Schlemihl was courting a bride, whose father did not approve of him because without his shadow, he was not a whole man.

There is an element of fate inherent in the pursuit:

From Moby Dick, during the second day of the final chase, Ahab declared to Starbuck, ``This whole act's immutably decreed...I am the Fates' lieutenant; I act under orders.''

From Peter Pan, as the crocodile is about to board Captain Hook's ship, author Barrie says, ``They had no thought of fighting it. It was Fate.''

And, in the temptation scene from Peter Schlemihl, the devil says, ``we are cannot escape his fate.''

Moby Dick is the tale of an innocent (named Ishmael), who meets up with an unconventional companion (named Queequeg), who never had a mother, and who comes from a land which isn't on any map (``true places never are.'') These two have an adventure and meet up with an insane ship captain whose leg has been eaten by a devouring beast. The ship captain loses his shadow in the course of pursuing the devouring beast, and is then fully consumed by the devouring beast. The innocent returns to society and grows up.

Peter Pan is the tale of an innocent (named Wendy), who meets up with an unconventional companion (named Peter Pan), who never had a mother, who has lost his shadow, and who comes from a land which isn't on any map. These two have an adventure and meet up with an insane ship captain whose hand has been eaten by a devouring beast. The ship captain is then fully consumed by the devouring beast. The innocent returns to society and grows up.

Peter Schlemihl is the tale of an innocent (named Peter Schlemihl), who freshly disembarked from a journey at sea, meets up with an unconventional companion (the devil), who never had a mother, who comes from a land which isn't on any map, and who buys Peter Schlemihl's shadow. Peter Schlemihl spends a year hoping to meet with the devil and buy back his shadow. When Peter Schlemihl finally encounters the devil again, he learns that the price of his shadow is full consumption (his soul). Because Peter Schlemihl is a good man, he refuses to part with his soul. Instead, he gives up his pursuit, grows up and returns to a normal life.

Since these three stories are drawn from the same archetype, the devouring beast itself can be seen as a symbol. A modern analogy to the bare-bones adventure is not difficult to find. For example, a soldier in Korea or Vietnam might step on a land mine and lose a foot. After peace is declared, and the soldier is sent home, he or she may nurture an unreasoning hatred for the North Koreans or North Vietnamese, and seek an excuse to return and wreak revenge. This is a refusal to face life with its limitations, and an externalization of the evil that is within.

Fiction is larger than life, and helps put life into perspective. In an effort to understand the larger implications of the devouring beast, as used in these fictions, it will be useful to examine the other symbols common to these tales.

The unconventional companion's teeth are important in Moby Dick and Peter Pan. Queequeg's teeth have been filed to points, symbolizing his cannibal upbringing. Peter Pan still has his baby teeth, or ``little pearls,'' as Mrs. Darling calls them. According to Cirlot's A Dictionary of Symbols, teeth ``constitute the battlements, the wall and the fortifications of the inner man, from the material or energetic point of view.'' Both Queequeg and Peter Pan have strong teeth, and can therefore be presumed to have strong inner defenses. The whale in Moby Dick, too, has excellent rows of teeth.

Cuddling up to the unconventional companion is important in all three tales. In Moby Dick, when Ishmael awakened from his first night of sharing a bed with Queequeg (which sharing was necessitated because there were no other beds at the inn), he found Queequeg's arm thrown over him in a ``most loving and affectionate manner...almost as if [he had been] his wife.'' In Peter Pan Barrie tells us that Wendy knew what to do for Peter when he couldn't get to sleep at night. And in Peter Schlemihl, Peter Schlemihl fainted and when he awoke, he found his ``hated companion supporting [him],'' like a ``silly old woman.''

The hollow tree is important in both Peter Pan and Moby Dick. Cirlot's A Dictionary of Symbols says that a tree, with its roots in the Earth, and its branches in the heavens, symbolizes growth and immortality. The hollow trees that provide entrance to Peter's hideaway are thus a symbol that growth has stopped. These boys will never grow up. In Moby Dick, Ishmael sees a hollow tree as a peaceful place where a hermit and crucifix might dwell. A crucifix is a symbol of death and resurrection.

The Tiger Lily is also common to both Peter Pan and Moby Dick. In Peter Pan, Tiger Lily is a brave Indian woman, who lives in Never-Never Land, where children go when they dream. And, in Moby Dick, a field of Tiger Lilies growing without a drop of water, are part of ``the dreamiest, shadiest, quietest, most enchanting bit of romantic landscape.''

What the British call ``good form'' figures in all three books. Ishmael assures the reader that, ``to do anything coolly is to do it genteelly.'' When Peter Pan sneaked aboard Captain Hook's ship, he shouted, ``I'm youth, I'm joy...I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg.'' Barrie tells us, ``This of course was nonsense; but it was proof to the unhappy Hook that Peter did not know in the least who or what he was, which is the very pinnacle of good form.'' Yet Hook had one last triumph as Peter's dagger edged him to the bulwarks. ``As he stood on the bulwark looking over his shoulder at Peter gliding through the air, he invited him with a gesture to use his foot. It made Peter kick instead of stab. At last Hook had got the boon for which he craved. `Bad form,' he cried jeeringly, and went content to the crocodile.'' In Peter Schlemihl, when the devil asked if he might throw his cloak upon Peter's horse's back, Peter ``allowed him to do so without demur,'' thereby showing good form.

All three books feature a sea voyage. In Peter Schlemihl, the voyage ends before the tale begins. In Moby Dick, the voyage occupies the vast majority of the tale. And, in Peter Pan the voyage, which places Never-Never Land clearly on this planet (only a few months distant by boat from South America), occurs near the end of the tale. According to Cirlot, the ocean represents ``an immense illogic ... containing within itself the seeds of its antithesis...the source of all life...the begetter of monsters...the chaotic source which still brings forth base entities ill-fitted to life in its aerial and superior forms. Consequently, aquatic monsters represent a cosmic or psychological situation at a lower level than land-monsters...The ocean is to be found as the symbol of woman or the mother (in both her benevolent and her terrible aspects)...The ocean is equated to the collective unconscious.'' Thus a part of the archetype of stalking the devouring beast is a journey to the collective unconscious, in which dwell primal fears. The sea voyage can be taken to occur on two planes -- the physical and the psychological. Both planes expose the traveller to danger. The fears are the devouring beast of the inner voyage. The devouring beast of the physical plane can be seen as an externalization of those fears. Thus the protagonists can strive to kill the whale or avoid the devil and the crocodile, instead of facing their fears.

There is also sexual imagery in all three tales. The first time the reader is introduced to Peter Pan, he is merely called ``Peter'' and Barrie tells us twice on the same page that ``Peter is a cocky fellow.'' The first time Peter Pan is called ``Pan,'' he is sitting on Wendy's bed, playing his pipes. The first thing Wendy offers Peter Pan is a kiss. When he does not understand, she gives him a thimble, and he gives her an acorn to wear on a necklace, suspended over her heart. Upon arrival in Never-Never Land, only Wendy is tired. She falls into Never-Never Land because of an arrow shot to her heart by the Lost Boys. Only the acorn ``kiss'' saves her life. As soon as Wendy recovers, she and Peter pretend that they are the parents of the Lost Boys, and Wendy's younger brother is forced to play the role of ``baby.'' In 1911, when Barrie wrote this tale, they had the same vernacular sexual meaning for the word ``Peter'' that we have now. The original title of Peter Pan is ``Peter and Wendy.''

Moby Dick again has vernacular sexual meaning in the title. And, considering Melville's lavish description of a whale's penis and praise of a whale's erection, that sexual meaning is probably intended. Even Ishmael's rescue from a whirlpool in the ocean deep by the ship Rachel, who was ``looking for her children'' is a scene of rebirth.

In Peter Schlemihl, the sexual import is even more blatant. Peter Schlemihl goes courting and proposes marriage to the beautiful Mina. Her father refuses the match because Peter Schlemihl (the man without a shadow) is not a whole man. A schlemihl, like a child-man, cannot have a wife.

In both Moby Dick and Peter Pan, the insane captain does not appear immediately on the deck. The author uses suspense and rumor before letting the reader glimpse this embodiment of evil, who will be devoured by the beast he seeks. In contrast, in Peter Schlemihl, we are shown Peter Schlemihl in all his innocence and error. He is warned that the devil will seek him out in one year's time. He is a good man. Just as he does not hide, nor sell his soul to the devil, he is not consumed.

In both Moby Dick and Peter Schlemihl, the intended victim is warned of his fate. Ahab sees the mangled, torn body of his shadow, the Parsee, twice upon the whale's body, before he embarks upon his fatal encounter. In Peter Schlemihl, the devil shows Peter Schlemihl the soul of a former acquaintance whom he has acquired. The sight is enough to permanently dissuade Peter Schlemihl from further bargaining with the devil. In contrast, in Peter Pan, Barrie stops the clock that has been ticking in the crocodile, as it makes its final fatal approach. Hook goes to his death without warning, but with dignity.

Probably the most telling symbol shared by all three books is the shadow. Ishmael says, ``Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.'' Peter Pan casually left his shadow lying in Wendy's bedroom after sitting on her bed and playing his pipes for her. When he returned, he tried unsuccessfully to stick it on with soap. He finally regained possession of it after Wendy sewed it on with needle and thread. Peter Schlemihl sold his shadow and found that he could not live a normal life without it.

Cirlot says that the shadow symbolizes the soul or a vital part of a person. Also the shadow can represent the primitive and instinctive side of the individual. In Moby Dick, Ahab's ``evil shadow'' was the Parsee, who was lost two days before Ahab's own death. Ahab saw his shadow twice more before he too succumbed to the whale. So, in two of the three books, the devouring beast took the shadow before it sought to take the soul.

As in any good horror story, the devouring beast gives warning before it takes the lives of the main characters. And in every case, the main characters have the option of abandoning their stalking to return to normal lives. In Moby Dick, on the third and fatal day of the hunt, Starbuck tells Ahab, ``not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!'' In Peter Schlemihl, the devil repeatedly offers, ``I shall go if you bid me.'' And in Peter Pan Hook toys with the idea of having Wendy as a mother for himself and his crew, and becoming a family. Only Peter Schlemihl heeds the warning, and his is the least interesting of the tales.

Finally, there is the devouring beast, himself. The whale, as drawn by Melville, is a fearsome creature of the deep. Moby Dick can kill with a flick of his tale or a bite from his jaw. Besting him in battle is worth far more than the dollars his oil will bring. It would be a victory of humankind over the wilds of nature. Such a victory would temporarily affirm the unconquerable nature of mankind. The failure is a warning, and an affirmation that there are forces (destructive, possibly evil forces) which are stronger than mankind.

Barrie's crocodile, like Moby Dick, is both vicious and cunning. The crocodile is a terror not only in the deep, but also on land. But nobody in Never-Never Land ever attempts to kill him. They hear his clock ticking, and get out of his way. The crocodile's only target is Captain Hook, and everybody on the island knows it. As the ticking indicated, it was only a matter of time, until the crocodile ate his prey. Hook was a flawed man and a doomed man. He was also the only grown-up on the island. Still, the victory of the crocodile was almost a deus ex machina to permanently rid the island of Hook.

Chamisso, author of Peter Schlemihl used the strongest archetype -- the devil. The devil is the ultimate devourer. He not only ruins the current lifetime with his mischief -- he takes the soul destroys the afterlife as well. The devil (as shown in the tale of Job) is an agent of God, who can only do God's will. And, the devil is undeniably the ultimate evil, totally out of control of humans who do business with him.

The devil archetype includes both the roles of whale and crocodile, and is yet more. Thus to stalk the devouring beast is to tempt the devil. The devil in turn tempts mankind. The devouring beast can turn and stalk the pursuer. This, stalking and being stalked by the devil, ultimately, is the archetypal drama that unites these three tales. The devil is the ultimate devouring beast.

In Peter Schlemihl the devil serves yet another purpose. He, like Peter Pan and Queequeg is the unconventional companion. All three have unusual names, unusual lifestyles, and unusual backgrounds. The devil lives in Hell and spends his life trying to deceive people. Peter Pan ran away the day he was born. On Never-Never Island, he spends his life among mermaids, Indians, and pirates. Queequeg was raised as a cannibal, and smokes a lighted tomahawk pipe in bed.

Overstad, in Bibliotherapy: Books to Help Young Children describes four types of imaginary playmates. Her fourth type closely resembles all three of these characters. Overstad says this type of imaginary playmate has an ``unusual name, exotic background, [and] strange tastes, preferences or lifestyle.'' Overstad says this type of imaginary playmate serves ``as a creative addition to the child's life.'' To a child, these imaginary playmates are very real. The child sees them, talks with them, and has adventures with them. Overstad says these imaginary playmates fill an unconscious need of the child.

The adventure of stalking the devouring beast can also be seen as a creative approach to unconscious needs. The same has been said of the act of writing fiction.

All three books are imaginary tales, peopled with imaginary beings. These beings have fears, conscious and unconscious. In this context, the devouring beast itself can be viewed as an externalization of those fears. Stalking the devouring beast, then, can be said to be a creative approach to dealing with those fears.



Stalking the Devouring Beast Bibliography


Barrie, J.M., Peter Pan. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985.

Cirlot, J.E., A Dictionary of Symbols, second edition translated from the Spanish by Diccionario De Simbolos Tradicionales. New York: Vail-Ballou Press, Inc., 1971.

Melville, Herman, Moby Dick. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

Overstad, Beth, Bibliotherapy: Books to Help Young Children. St. Paul, MN: Toys 'n Things Press, 1981.

von Chamisso, Adalbert, Peter Schlemihl, translated by Leopold von Lowenstein-Wertheim from German, included in 3 Great Classics. New York: Arc Books, Inc., 1964.