The Great Sea-Serpent
By Hans Christian Andersen (1872)
There was a little fish, a salt-water fish of good family: I don’t recall the name you will have to get that from the learned people. This little fish had eighteen hundred brothers and sisters all just as old as he; they did not know their father and mother, and were obliged to look out for themselves at the very beginning, and swim round, but that was great sport. They had water enough to drink, the entire ocean; they thought nothing about their food, it came when they wanted it. Each did as it pleased, each was to make out its own story, rather none of them thought at all about that. The sun shone down on the water that was light about them, so clear was it. It was a world with the strangest creatures, and some very horrid and big, with great gaping mouths that could gulp down all the eighteen hundred brothers and sisters, but neither did they think of that, for none of them as yet had been swallowed. The small ones swam side by side close together, as herrings and mackerel swim. But as they were swimming their prettiest in the water and thinking of nothing, there sank with prodigious noise, from above, right down through them, a long heavy thing that looked as if it never would come to an end; it stretched out farther and farther, and every one of the little fishes that scampered off was either crushed or got a crack that it could not stand. All the little fishes, and the great ones with them, from the level of the sea to the bottom, were thrown into a panic. The great horrid thing sank deeper and deeper, and grew longer and longer, miles and miles long. The fishes and snails, everything that swims, or creeps, or is driven by the current, saw this fearful thing, this enormous incomprehensible sea-eel which had come down upon them in this fashion.
What was the thing, anyway? ah, we know; it was the great interminable telegraph cable that people were laying between Europe and America.
There was a confusion and commotion amongst all the rightful occupants of the sea where the cable was laid. The flying fishes shot up above the surface as high as they could fling themselves; the blow-fish took a leap an entire gunshot in length over the water, for it can do that; the other fish made for the bottom of the sea, and went down with such haste that they reached it long before the telegraph was seen or known about down there; they poured in on the cod and flounders that lived peaceably at the bottom of the sea and ate their neighbors. One or two of the sea-anemones were so agitated that they threw up their stomachs, but they lived after it just the same, for they can do that. A good many lobsters and crabs got out of their excellent shells, and were obliged to wait for their bones to grow back again.
In all this fright and confusion, the eighteen hundred brethren and sisters became separated, and never agan met, or ever knew each other after that; only some ten of them remain ed still in the same place, and so in a few hours they got over the first fright and began to be curious about the affair. They looked about them, they looked up and they looked down, and down in the depths they fancied they saw the fearful thing that had scared them—yes, had scared all, great and small, lying on the bottom of the sea, as far as their eyes could reach; it was quite thin, but they did not know how thick it might be able to make itself, or how strong it was; it lay very quiet, but then that might be a part of its cunning, they thought.
“Let it lie; it does not come near us!” said the most cautious of the little fishes; but the smallest one of all would not give up trying to find out what the thing could be. It had come down from above, so it was up above that one could best find out about it. So they swam up to the surface. It was perfectly still. They met a dolphin there. The dolphin is a sprightly fellow that can turn somersaults on the water, and it has eyes to see with, so iht must have seen this and known all about it. They asked him, but he had only been thinking about himself and his somersaults, he’d seen nothing, had no answer for them, and only looked high and mighty.
Then they turned to the seal, which was just plunging in; it was more civil, for all that it eats small fish; but to-day it had had enough. It knew little more than the dolphin.
“Many a night have I lain upon a wet stone and looked far into the country, miles away from here; there are crafty creatures called in their speech men-folk. They plot against us, but usually we slip away from them; that I know well, and the sea-eel too, that you are asking about, he knows it. He has been under their sway, up there on the earth, time out of mind, and it was from there that they were carrying him off on a ship to a distant land. I saw what a trouble they had, Shut they could manage him, because he had become weak on the earth. They laid him in coils and circles. I heard how he ringled and rangled when they laid him down and when he slipped away from them out here. They held on to him with all their might—ever so many hands had hold of him, but he kept slipping away from them down to the bottom; there he is lying now—till further notice, I rather think.”
“He is quite thin,” said the small fishes.
“They have starved him,” said the seal, “but he will soon come to himself, and get his old size and corpulence again. I suppose he is the great sea-serpent that men are so afraid of and talk so much about. I never saw him before, and never believed in a sea-serpent; now I do. I believe he is the sea-serpent,” and with that down went the seal.
“How much he knew! how he talked!” said the small fishes; “I never was so wise before; if it only isn’t all an untruth.”
“We can, anyway, swim down and see for ourselves,” said the littlest fish; “on the way we can hear what the others think about it.”
“I wouldn’t make a stroke with my fins to get at something to know,” said the others, and turned away.
“But I would !“ said the littlest fellow, and put off down into deep water; but it was a good distance from the place where “the long thing that sank” lay. The little fish looked and hunted on all sides down in tne deep water. Never before had it imagined the world to be so big. The herrings went in great shoals, shining like a mighty ribbon of silver; the mackerel followed after, and looked even finer. There were fishes there of all fashions and marked with every possible color: jelly-fish, like half-transparent flowers, borne along by the currents. Great plants grew up from the floor of the ocean; grass, fathoms long, and palm-like trees, every leaf tenanted by shining shell-fish.
At last the little fish spied a long dark streak away down, and made his way toward it, but it was neither fish nor cable: it was the gunwale of a sunken vessel, which above and below the deck was broken in two by the force of the sea. The little fish swam into the cabin, where the people who perished when the vessel sank were all washed away, except two: a young woman lay there stretched out, with her little child in her arms. They seemed to be sleeping. The little fish was quite frightened, for it did not know that they never again could waken. Sea-weed hung like a net-work of foliage over the gun- wale above the two beautiful bodies of mother and babe. it was so quiet, so solitary: the little fish scampered away as fast as it could, out where the water was bright and clear, and there were fishes to see. It had not gone far before it met a whale, fearfully big.
“Don’t swallow me!” cried the little fish; “I am not even to be tasted, I am so small. and it is a great comfort to me to live.”
“What are you doing away down here, where your kind never come?” asked the whale.
So then the little fish told about the astonishingly long eel, or whatever the thing was, that had sunk down from above and produced such a panic amongst all the other creatures in the sea.
“Ho, ho!” said the whale, and he drew in such a rush of water that he was ready to make a prodigious spout when he came to the surface for a breath. “Ho, ho! so that was the thing that tickled me on the back when I was turning round. I thought it was a ship’s mast, that I could break up into clothes-pins. But it was not here that it was; no, a good deal farther out lies the thing. I’ll go with you and look for it, for I have nothing else to do;” and so it swam off, and the little fish behind it, not too near, because there was a tearing stream, as it were, in the wake of the whale.
They met a shark and an old saw-fish; they, too, had heard of the famous sea-eel, so long and so thin; they had not seen it, but now they would.
“I’ll go with you,” said the shark, who was on the same road; “if the great sea-serpent is no thicker than a cable, then I can bite through it in one bite,” and he opened his mouth and showed his six rows of teeth—” I can bite dents in a ship’s anchor, and certainly can bite off the shank.”
“There it is!” said the great whale ; “I see him.” He thought he saw better than the others. “See how it rises, how it bends and bows and curves!”
But it was not the sea-serpent, but an extraordinarily great eel, ever so many ells long, that drew near.
“Why, I have seen him before!” said the saw-fish. “He never has made a hullabaloo in the sea or frightened any big fish out of his wits.” And so they talked to him of the new eel, and asked him if he would go with them on their voyage of discovery.
“If that eel is longer than I am,” said the sea-eel, “there will be something disagreeable happening.”
“Ay, that there will,” said the others; “there are enough of us not to tolerate him!” and so they shot ahead. But then there came right in their way a great monster, bigger than all of them put together; it looked like a floating island, that could not stop itself. It was a venerable whale. Its head was grown over with sea-weed, its back covered with barnacles, and such innumerable oysters and mussels, that its black skin was altogether whitened.
“Come with us, old fellow!” said they. “Here is a new fish come, and we won’t stand it.”
“I would rather lie where I am lying,” said the whale. “Leave me alone; leave me alone. O ah, 0 ah! I suffer from a dreadful disease! My only relief is to get up toward the surface and get my back up higher; then the great sea-fowl can come and pick at me. That feels so good! only when they do not drive their beaks in too far; sometimes they go in too deep, quite into my blubber. You can see now how a complete skeleton of a fowl is fixed in my back; she struck her claws in too deep, and could not get them out when I went down to the bottom. And now the little fishes have picked at her. See how she looks, and how I look. I am all diseased!”
“That is all imagination!” said the shark. “I am never sick. No fish is ever sick.”
“Pardon me,” said the whale. “The eel suffers from headache, the carp has the smallpox, and we all have intestinal worms.”
“Nonsense!” said the shark, and refused to hear any further, and the others also would rather not; they had something else to attend to.
At last they came to the place where the telegraph cable lay. It has a pretty long bed on the floor of the sea from Europe to America, over sand-banks and sea-mud, rocky ground and weedy places, entire forests of coral. The currents down there, too, change, whirlpools eddy, and fishes swarm in greater masses than the countless flocks of birds that men see when birds of passage take their flight. There is a stir, a splashing there, a humming and rushing; the rushing still haunts a little the great empty conch-shells when we hold them to our ears.
“There lies the fellow!” cried all the great fishes and the little one with them. They saw the cable, the beginning and end of which vanished beyond the reach of their eyes. Sponges and polyps swayed from the ground, rose and fell over it, so that now it was hidden, now came to view. Sea-porcupines, snails, and worms moved over it. Gigantic crabs, that had a complete fringe of creeping things, stalked about it. Dark sea-anemones, or whatever the creature is called that eats with its entire body, lay beside it and smelled of the new creature that had stretched itself on the bottom of the sea. Flounders and codfish turned over in the water so as to get an idea about it from all sides. The star-fish, that always bores down into the mud and can keep its eyes outside, lay and stared to see what was to come of all this bustle.
The telegraph cable lay without stirring, but life and thought were in it. Human thought went through it. “The thing is crafty,” said the whale; “it is able to strike me in the stomach, and that is my weak point.”
“Let us grope along,” said the polyps. “I have long arms and limber fingers; I have been moving by the side of it; now I’ll go a little faster,” and so it stretched its most flexible, longest arms down to the cable and round about it. “It has no scales!” said the polyps; “it has no skin at all. I do believe it never feeds its own young.”
The sea-eel laid itself by the side of the telegraph cable and stretched out as far as it could. “The thing is longer than I am,” it said; “but it is not length that does anything; one must have skin, stomach, and flexibility.”
The whale dove down deeper than it ever had been. “Art thou fish or art thou plant?” it asked, “or art thou only some piece of work made up above that cannot thrive down here amongst us?”
The telegraph cable did not answer; it has no power for that. Yet thoughts go through it, men’s thoughts, that rush in one second miles upon miles from land to land.
“Will you answer, or will you take a crack?” asked the fierce shark, and all the other great fishes asked the same thing.
The cable did not stir, but it had its private thought, and such a one it had a right to have when it was full of thoughts. “Let them only give me a crack! then I shall be hauled up and be myself again; that has happened to others of my race in shallower waters.” So it gave no answer; it had something else to attend to; it telegraphed and lay in its lawful place at the bottom of the ocean.
Up above, the sun now went down, as men say. It became like flaming fire, and all the clouds glowed with fiery color, each more splendid than the other. “Now we shall get the red light,” said the polyps, “and can see the thing better, if need be.”
“At it! at it!” shouted the shark. “At it! at it!” said the sword-fish and the whale and the eel. They rushed forward, the shark foremost. But just as it was about to grip the wire, the sword-fish, out of pure politeness, ran his saw right into the back of the shark. It was a great mistake, and the shark lost all his strength for biting. There was a hubbub down in the mud. Great fishes and small, sea-anemones and snails rushed at one another, ate each other, mashed and squeezed in. The cable lay quietly and attended to its affairs, and that one ought to do.
The dark night brooded over them, but the ocean s millions upon millions of living creatures lighted it; craw-fish, not so big as a pin-head, gave out light. Some were so small that it took a thousand to make one pin-head, and yet they gave light. It certainly is wonderful, but that’s the way it is.
These sea creatures looked at the telegraph wire. “What is that thing?” they asked, “and what isn’t it?” Ay, that was the question.
Then there came an old sea-cow. Folks on the earth call its kind a mermaid, or else a merman. This was a she, had a tail and two short arms to splash with, hanging breasts, and sea-weed and sponges on her head, and that was what she was proud of.
“Will you have the society of intelligent people?” said she. “I’m the only one down here that can give it. But I ask in return for it perfectly secure pasturage on the bottom of the sea for me and mine. I am a fish, as you see, and I am also an amphibious animal—with practice. I am the wisest cow in the sea. I know about everything that goes on down here, and all that goes on above. That thing you are pondering over is from above, and whatever plumps down from up there is either dead or comes to be dead and powerless; let it lie there for what it is; it’s only some invention of man.”
“Now I think there is something more to it,” said the little fish.
“Hold your tongue, mackerel !” said the great sea-cow.
“Stickleback!” said the rest, and that was even more insulting.
And the sea-cow explained to them that this terrible thing, which, to be sure, had not given out a single mutter, was only some invention from the dry land. And it delivered a little oration upon the rottenness of men.
“They want to get hold of us.” said she. “That’s all they live for. They stretch nets for us, and come with bait on a hook to catch us. That thing there is some kind of big string which they think we are going to bite at. They are such stupids! We are not. Only do not touch it, and it will shrivel up and all turn to dust and mud. Everything that comes down from up there is full of cracks and breaks—it’s good for nothing.”
“Good for nothing!” said all the creatures in the sea, and held fast to the sea-cow’s opinion, so as to have an opinion. The little fish had its own thoughts. “That exceedingly long, thin serpent is perhaps the most wonderful fish in the ocean. I have a feeling it is.”
“The very most wonderful,” say we human folks, and say it with knowledge and assurance. It is the great sea-serpent, long ago the theme of song and story. It was born and nourished and sprang forth from men’s cunning and was laid upon the bottom of the sea, stretching from the Eastern to the Western land, bearing messages, quick as light flashes to our earth. It grows in might and in length, grows year by year through all seas, round the world, beneath the stormy waves and the lucid waters, where the skipper looks down as if he sailed through the transparent air, and sees the swarming fish, brilliant fireworks of color. Down, far down, stretches the serpent, Midgard’s snake, that bites its own tail as it encircles the earth. Fish and shell beat upon it with their heads—they understand not the thing—it is from above. Men’s thoughts in all languages course through it noiselessly. “The serpent of science for good and evil, Midgard’s snake, the most wonderful of all the ocean’s wonders, our Great Sea-Serpent !”