20 October 2012


Locus Focus: Take Eighty-One!

As I explained on Twitter last weekend, this post is late because I forgot the novel I was supposed to be featuring in the office. (And for some reason, I feel more guilty saying that than I ever felt in school when turning something in late because I had forgotten it at home the day before.)

Now that I've written about a tomb in Ancient Egypt and a grave in modern America, I thought I'd feature a Burial Ground from a setting where nobody really expects to find one . . .

The Coral Cemetery
Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Seas
by Jules Verne

Ned and Conseil were standing beside me. As we looked I understood that I was going to assist at a strange scene. When I examined the ground, I noticed that it was swollen by slight extumescences encrusted with chalk deposits, laid out with a regularity that betrayed the hand of man.

In the middle of the clearing, on a pedestal of rocks roughly piled up, stood a coral cross, extending its long arms as if made of petrified blood.

On a sign from Captain Nemo, one of the men came forward, untied a pick from his belt, and began to dig a hole a few feet away from the cross.

Suddenly everything became clear!

Until this point in their undersea adventure, Professor Pierre Arronax, his manservant Conseil, and seasoned seaman Ned Land (Did you see what Jules Verne did there?) have been marveling at how different the submerged world is from anything they have known on the surface. Even settings that approximate our own are utterly alien: when Captain Nemo takes Arronax out for a day of hunting, they spend it in a "forest" of perfectly vertical underwater stalks, tracking sea-otters for game while avoiding predatory blue sharks. But the cemetery is a different story.

The first time I read the funeral scene, I wondered why Captain Nemo had not developed a new style of laying the dead to rest. (Underwater burial may not be an oxymoron, but it's an irony.) Now I'm guessing that Verne, who certainly cannot be accused of a poor imagination, deliberately made this cemetery as familiar as possible. He wanted us to be as struck by it as Arronax--to be reminded that even the best adventures end . . . and even the scrappiest characters die.

And for some reason, death itself does not do the trick. Inasmuch as people can freely give their lives for a friend or for a cause, there can be as much agency in death as in anything else in life. But the one thing we can never do for ourselves is to see to our own burials. We can make as many arrangements as we like beforehand; but after death, we truly are at the mercy of others.

It's a sobering thought in a story driven by a man of little mercy and nearly unlimited power. Especially so for Arronax, Conseil and Land, who have been his prisoners for months: they must see that unless they manage to escape their watery prison, the coral cemetery will not only be the final point of their adventure, but also the final point of their lives.

Do you have a setting you'd like to share?
Link it up in the combox and I'll leave you a comment! =)

Image Source: Vingt Mille Lieus sur les Mers by Jules Verne


Shaz said...

So many happy childhood memories revolve around the film. I really must read the book one of these days.

Enbrethiliel said...


I haven't seen the movie yet, but the more I read about Ned Land, the more I think Kirk Douglas was the perfect casting choice! =)