• chris white

I Can't Believe it's Not Blubber

Updated: Jan 30, 2021

I recently completed a commission with Exeter City of Literature, where I adapted a medieval poem from The Exeter Book. Here's some thoughts I had along the way...

It's a story you might have heard before. In any case, let's keep it brief. A bunch of sailors come across an island. The island turns out to be a big sneaky whale. It dives to the bottom of the sea, and kills them. If I had to summarise it in a sentence I'd probably say:

Cetacean, disguised as island, kills guillable sailors

It's basically a metaphor for succumbing to temptation; a warning that the Devil is cunning and can appear in many guises. Even a big realistic-looking bit of land.

If the idea of an island sucking you in with its promise and allure and then pulling you down into the very depths of depravity sounds in any way familiar, then you may have been to Ibiza. Or you may have just heard the story of Fastitocalon, or indeed one of his many cousins and counterparts, bobbing up as they do in different cultures and countries all across the world.

The version I've been looking at is the one in the Exeter Book. It's also know as The Miclan Hwale, The Great Whale or simply 'The Whale.' It's a short-ish poem, most likely written by a monk in the 10th Century; an adaption of an earlier poem that appears in the Physiologus*

*The Physiologus (from the Greek, later translated into Latin) is said to be one of the most widely read texts in Medieval England, outsold only by The Bible, Fifty Shades of Plague and Jamie Oliver (who has been around forever.) It's basically a bumper book of real animals with magical characteristics. As well as an Evil Whale, it features a Jealous Slug, a Greedy Amoebae and a Slutty Womble.

There's some really cool stuff in the original version. The twisted Old Testament morality I could probably do without, but it's a really lyrical and evocative piece, filled with rich imagery. The early English includes a load of words I really want to see make a comeback... words like ferðgrim (spirit-grim) and unlonde (literally, not-land) to describe the Whale... or deaðsele (death-hall) to describe the sailors' final resting place.

Anyway, here's my first attempt at adapting the first half of The Whale. This is a form of poem that gets bigger in the middle before getting smaller again... there isn't a name for that because I'm pretty sure I just invented it. Let's call it an A-Chris-tic





listen up

to this tale

'bout a whale

how it sat there

plotting, scheming

waiting for some

silly seamen

half whale, half demon

who the sailors named


but for brevity

let's call him Alan

he sits completely still

with skin that's grey and rough

looking like an island

(not Crete, but close enough)

a giant sandy hill

he sits and waits until


our sailors, water-weary

who should know better really

are hard, hardy and cheery

big, boisterous and beardy

and though their eyes are bleary

they see a shape quite clearly

a sight that they seek dearly

In that moment they were lubbers

when their eyes locked on that blubber

Right away they made a bee-line

well, to them it's more a sea-line

sailing straight into the un-lands!

god, I really hope that pun lands

hoist the ropes men and set a course

towards those not-so-sandy shores

and so, Alan-bound and unaware

they set of to seek some shelter there

with surging oars and soaring hopes


How would they know, dancing there on skin

kissing ground, hearing no sound within

all they'd found was their own reckoning?


it had beckoned them when they were tired

simmering with child-like desires

the embrace of earth, the kiss of fire

it waited til they were asleep

eighty men, not a single peep

it turned its eye toward the deep

its plunder still slumbering

and plummeted suddenly, down

toward the darkest ocean, down

with one great sweeping motion, down

to the death-hall where all were drowned

they lay there still, in coral

fishes nibble at their toes

But where the fuck's our moral?

you're wondering, I suppose

well, here's mine: Just be careful

life sometimes throws us off-track

and don't light fires on whales' backs

if you follow that rule

you'll probably be fine

don't waste your time clutching

for what looks like shelter

only to find that it's a

large aquatic mammal

so ends the tale of


the ocean ghost

the big wily whale

AKA Alan

how he sat there

plotting, scheming

waiting for some

silly seamen

so it goes

my sad tale

'bout a whale




I found the process of adaptation a bit tricky. No disrespect to original authors, but for all it's great imagery, the story of The Whale is a bit bland... It doesn't really have any other characters and apart from one plot twist (which we know from the start, anyway) it doesn't go anywhere. So trying to craft it into something a modern audience might enjoy is a challenge. I also had to think about what the new moral of the story would be, and what my Whale could represent

For my final commission piece I moved away from the story a little and wrote something which is very much inspired by The Whale, with a modern audience in mind. It's a story about loneliness, friendship and isolation, for both little people and grown-ups. It's got some cute accompanying music and stop-motion animation too. You can watch it HERE.

If you want to find out more about The Whale you can click HERE to read this very excellent translation by Dr. Aaron Hostetter or HERE to hear the poem in it's original medieval English.

Who knows? Maybe you'll be inspired to write your own adaptation. Or maybe you'll just have a sudden urge to rewatch Free Willy

And finally... Here's another silly thing I wrote, complete with stock footage of IKEA. Enjoy! And remember, if it looks a bit fishy it's probably not land.



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