Cover of "Leviathan"

Cover of Leviathan

LEVIATHAN OR, THE WHALE by Philip Hoare (4th Estate, 2008)

The Natural History of the Sperm Whale by Thomas Beale was published in 1839, a work which Philip Hoare refers to as “a wide-ranging and eclectic work, part scientific study, part adventure story”.

This same description could easily apply to Hoare’s own study although you would need to add that it is also an extended appreciation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick combined with a personal account of a lifetime’s fascination with water and whales.

Melville began writing his great American novel in 1850 and the timing of the work is seen by Hoare as significant for a number of reasons. Not only did it coincide with the period when the issue of slavery was coming to an end but he also believes whaling is a telling metaphor for America’s obsession with the wilderness and that Melville’s epic tale of Captain Ahab’s quest for the white whale therefore stands as a kind of “wild west of the sea”.

Philip Hoare

In more broader political terms he sees whaling as “a presentiment of a new world order” since whale oil was the petrol of its day and whalebone its plastic. The pursuit of profit led to a rapid escalation of whale hunting, a process that has consequences that are both inevitable and lamentable.

But this is more than a tale of natural history and world politics. There is still a lot we don’t know about their physiology  or habits of whales and Hoare celebrates the poetry and mystery of these great creatures.

He concedes that a lot of this book is about animals he has never seen and about which we can only speculate. This is why he writes that “it is difficult not to address whales in romantic terms” and despite the immense scale of these mammals he is drawn to them because they also seem so vulnerable. He describes them “strange, savage and innocent” as well as being “a symbol of innocence in an age of threat”.

A lot of the pleasure with this book is not only because it is so fascinating and informative but also because it is so beautifully written.  Hoare takes the reader on a lyrical journey of discovery to the point that by the end I was more than willing to accept his assertion that “we all contain oceans within us”.


Guardian review