From Loch Ness to the Essex Serpent, why are humans so keen to invent sea monsters?
As Sarah Perry’s novel becomes a TV drama, the human need to escape reality with a shiver of fear remains as strong as ever
As a boy I believed so implicitly in the Loch Ness monster that I made my dad drive us all the way from Southampton to Scotland to see it. The night before, in a dream, I saw its shape snaking through the marshes at the lake’s edge. I was terrified.
The next day the great grey waters remained unbroken by a serpentine neck, but that did nothing to dispel my belief. I filled an empty bottle with Loch Ness water, took it home to put in the cupboard under the stairs, and waited for tiny plesiosaurs to hatch out.
Humankind cannot bear very much reality, as TS Eliot said, so we reinvent the monsters already there in our heads. This week sees the screening of the TV series based on Sarah Perry’s novel, The Essex Serpent, a Victorian resurrection of the legend of a chimeric, watery beast said to emerge from the marshes in search of human prey. Perry’s story draws on the idea that something strange might exist in the space between us and the infinite – the “thin places” of Celtic myth.
In fact, our notions of residual monsters may have much to do with the way Celtic people were driven to the edges of the British Isles, to bays, lochs and islands, which seemed to retain such beliefs as gestures of defiance. In the 1940s a BBC radio producer, David Thomson, went to Scotland and Ireland in search of selkies, myths of shape-shifting seal people. He treated them not as tall tales, but as cultural artefacts, believing that the stories he recorded were “the last vestiges of pagan belief, before the onset of the nuclear world”.
In 1937 a remarkable survey of schools in Ireland had sought to catalogue such folklore. It was an uncanny version of Mass Observation, an assertion of a new republican state. “Is there a story told in your district of a serpent or large animal which lives in a certain lake or river there?” children were asked. “Are water-horses or water-bulls spoken of? Are stories told of strange animals met by night on roads?” One boy said that water-horses emerged from Drumcor Lough at night to feed, then returned to the lough and turned into animals like eels. “Customs and beliefs in a conservative country like ours,” the survey concluded, “come from the Bronze Age as well as from the early Christian period.”
Little wonder that the first reports of a monster in Loch Ness came from the Irish missionary St Columba, who ordered the beast to desist from attacking a swimmer in 564 AD.
In the 1930s, reports of Nessie poured in, spurred on by an increase in tourism and access to the loch’s shores, but also by the Great Depression in which escapism was a reaction to social and economic distress. Even Virginia Woolf was compelled to record a visit to the loch in 1938 when she met a charming couple “who were in touch with the Monster. They had seen him. He is like several broken telegraph posts and swims at immense speed. He has no head. He is constantly seen.”
He still is. Last week a couple staying in Scotland posted a video said to show a 5m-long creature with a fin swimming in the loch. That story came as a kind of antidote to terrible news of the war in Ukraine. In the 1970s sea monsters, yetis and aliens also appeared in a threatened world, whose wildernesses were rapidly shrinking and whose human lives were being overtaken by technology.
In the great extinction, we were left only with the dragons of our unconscious, as Carl Jung said. Perry’s novel has its counterpart in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea of 1978, in which a theatre director retires to a rocky shore where he witnesses, in the broad light of day, a sea serpent emerging malevolently from the waves. “I could see the sky through its coils,” he says, horrified. Murdoch, born in Dublin, had a fascination for the uncanny and a malignancy in nature, a sensibility evident in the folk horror films of the time; a psychosexual terror expressed in the juxstaposition of flowerprint crinolines and cryptozoological creatures.
The Victorians had an obsession with sea serpents; it was the dark side to their moral certainty. The characters in The Essex Serpent declare the coming of the beast to be a punishment for their sins, or a symptom of their times, while the main character, Cora Seaborne, believes it to be a surviving dinosaur. Darwin’s theories had thrown up such uncertainties; and while the poet Matthew Arnold wrote of the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the sea of faith, newspapers carried serious sea monster reports from around the empire. Most celebrated of all was the creature seen in the South Atlantic in 1848 by the crew of HMS Daedalus. “An enormous serpent, with head and shoulders kept four feet constantly above the surface of the sea” seen in the presence of officers of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy gave the beast a delicious credibility.
In our own troubled times the sea retains its power to contain the unknown. Jung saw the sea as the repository of our collective unconscious; Jean-Paul Sartre thought its thin green film was designed to deceive people. Scientists estimate we have still identified only a third of the species in the deep ocean.
Whales and basking sharks swimming just beneath the surface can look like many-humped beasts, and the Daedalus monster is now believed to have been a sei whale, an almost eelish mammal, albeit 20m long. And in a nod to Freudian phallic symbolism, other sea serpent sightings have been attributed to whales rolling on their backs and extruding their prodigious penises.
But I decline to yield entirely to such earthy rationality. A respected whale scientist once told me his colleague had seen a large unidentified serpentine animal at sea, almost the length of the ship he was on. So long as those reports keep coming in, I’ll keep the faith. That bottle is still under our stairs.
Philip Hoare’s book Albert & the Whale is published in paperback by 4th Estate