Like its thematic predecessor, “MS. Found in a Bottle,” “A Descent into the Maelström” delves into themes of natural sublimity, seagoing adventure, philosophical horror, and irrational curiosity. Where “MS.” built its philosophy on a folkloric foundation of Flying Dutchman legends and hollow-earth theories, this tale is centered on the maritime legends of the Norway Maelström. Although the actual whirlpool is barely powerful enough to sink a yacht, Poe is more interested in pitting human reason against natural chaos than a geography lesson. The tale is a chilling, white-knuckled study of the hair-thin margin between reason and madness.
While “MS.” presented a cohesive narrative of the fantastic, “Descent” fails in a number of regards to promote a consistent vision. Whether it is more a tale of psychic horror in the face of oblivion or more a cousin to the “ratiocination” detective stories of C. Auguste Dupin is open to conjecture. Like “Pit and the Pendulum,” it aspires to pose logic against cosmicism, and the juxtaposition is at times effectively ironic, at others awkwardly clumsy. While it is undoubtedly a study of the psychology of terror, “Descent” becomes muddled in its rational climax which conflicts with Poe’s emphasis on the indomitable reign of oblivion (“Silence,” “Shadow,” “Usher,” “Conqueror Worm,” “Haunted Palace,” etc., etc.). Nonetheless, “Descent” exhibits a finely-tuned ability to form mood, and a delicate appreciation for the natural sublime – the beautiful and hair-raising horrors that loom in nature’s deepest fits of rage.
The tale – immediately riffing off Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner – begins with a white-haired seaman accosting a young man with the story of his life-changing encounters with death, the miraculous, and the sublime while at sea. They are speaking at the peak of a Norwegian mountain overlooking the port of Lofoden, where – between the shore and the just-visible island of Moskoe (or Mosken) – the infamous Maelström whirlpool (or Moskenstraumen) rages and foams. Its powerful suction is caused by the tremendous tidal currents dragging along the uniquely shaped seabed off the coast of Mosken, and (in Poe’s universe if not the real one) it is capable of dragging a rigged ship down the spiraling walls of its conical throat to the bottom of the sea.
The narrator corrects the young man’s assumption that he is old: in fact, he laments, he is still a young man, but that he was prematurely aged during a single night and offers to tell the young man the story of his transformation. To give the narrative the best possible conditions, he guides his companion to the very top of the Helgesen peak, where they can stare down into the throat of the Maelström and its brother whirlpools. The young man (our narrator) tries to peak over the side, but its horrified by the heights and sights, and clutches the grass to steady himself. At that moment, amidst a crashing roar, the tides roll in and the Maelström opens its black, mile-wide throat while the “old” man watches on placidly while he stands dangerously near to the edge with a strange sangfroid.
He begins his tale of the experience which changed his hair from black to white overnight by declaring that he is the only man who went into the void of the Maelström and returned to tell about it. He was once a fisherman who operated a flushed-decked sloop with his two brothers, and once afternoon they decided to sail across the Maelström’s strait while the tide was out in order to have their pick of the fish which other mariners are too afraid to seek.
Their excursion begins well, but all too soon a violent storm rushes in towards them just as the tides – and thus the Maelström – are beginning to roll. They have no choice but to make a run for it, and aim their prow at the shore just beyond the Maelström’s lair. They are savagely punished by the weather, and one brother – who had lashed himself to the mast – is blown overboard and drowned when the winds tear it away. With the boat dismasted, it is now at the mercy of the waves. The storyteller clings – like the narrator who had clutched the grass – to a ringbolt in order to stay on board the careening boat with its slick, flush-decked top. He holds on for dear life for six hours, not realizing that his other brother is still alive until he hears his voice screaming in his ear as they are pulled into the raging maw of the Maelström.
The clouds begin to part, allowing the full moon to pour ghostly, silver light into the interior of the mile-wide whirlpool. Amidst its deafening roar, the storyteller is overwhelmed with awe at its terrible beauty, and begins to count himself honored to die such a sublime death. Meanwhile the ship is slowly drawn down the descending spirals, closer and closer to the jagged rocks at the bottom, where the moonlight is creating a garish rainbow in the mist.
A great deal of wreckage, flotsam, and fallen trees are swirling around them, and – calmed by his philosophical response to the sublimity of his predicament – he is able to notice that the heavier items are descending the fastest, while the lighter ones – barrels, limbs, spars, and the like – are almost suspended in animation: swirling more or less in the same spot. Cylindrical objects like barrels seem to do the best. He calculates that if he can buy himself time by abandoning the ship by holding onto a lighter, cylindrical object (viz., the water cask lashed to the stump of their mast), he could outlast the Maelström’s wrath. He tries to communicate this idea to his brother, but the man has completely lost his mind and refuses to release his grip on the now-quickly descending boat.
The story-teller decides to save himself: he tightly lashes himself to the cask, cuts it free, and almost immediately notices a change in his descent, while the fishing boat continues to speed its way to the bottom, where it is ultimately dashed to pieces amidst the rocks and mist and moonlit rainbow. Soon the violence of the whirlpool begins to lessen, its steep sides begin to flatten, and the story-teller floats calmly to the surface, where the weakening storm’s winds and waves blow him towards the coast. He is picked up by another fishing boat where he discovers that his raven-black hair has turned snow-white, and his face and limbs have aged by decades.
With a note of sober resignation, he tells the narrator that none of his neighbors believe his story, and that he “can scarcely expect you to put more faith in it than did the merry fishermen of Lofoden…”
Although “Descent” fails to elicit the same effect of natural fantasy and existential horror, it succeeds in exploring the thrill of impending doom and the clash between rational and irrational responses to fear-inducing stimuli. The contrast between the two brothers’ fates – one resisting death and reaching out to reason, the other abandoning reason and sinking into oblivion – is a departure from Poe’s typical treatment of rationality in the face of existential oblivion. In “Descent” the old sailor survives his dilemma after appealing to his powers of observation and deduction, but the torment of his experience is not without its cost: he is made unrecognizable to his community, who call his sanity into question, and whose doubts might even prove infectious to the reader. The survival of the body does not guarantee the endurance of life.
His mentorship of the narrator resembles that of the wedding-guest and the Ancient Mariner in the eponymous poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Like in that sublime sea tale, the sailor is extracted from the ocean, returned to his hometown a changed man, and finds himself compelled to relate his tale and mentor young men with the traumatic wisdom he has acquired. Though less effective than Coleridge’s haunted sage, Poe’s bleached fisherman conveys a compelling portrait of the tenuous borderline between soundness and insanity – one which Poe will more thoroughly explore in his homicidal tales of Psychological Duplicity.
If for no other reason, this story would be remarkable for its influence on nautical-themed speculative literature: Poe’s plunge into the mythical whirlpool(along with his maritime fantasias “MS. Found in a Bottle” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym) laid the foundation for future writers of science fiction and horror, especially William Hope Hodgson’s tales of nautical terrors (Ghost Pirates, “The Haunted Jarvee,” “The Boats of the Glen-Carrig,” the entire Sargasso Sea Mythos) and Jules Verne’s oceanic fantasies (especially 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’s Maelström climax).