Critters Writing

A Tale of 2 Monsters Part 1: From the Legends

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

Who is there that doesn’t love a monster?

What is a monster? One could say it is any creature bent on damage or destruction. This definition would then force us to include people in the category of “monster”.

However, when I think of “monsters” I think of the creatures of legends and tales, from the books and movies, and I think of the creatures that have entertained me for years. A definition of “monster” that I particularly like is from Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary1:

Something of unnatural size, shape, or quality; a prodigy; an enormity; a marvel.

A marvel. That fits so well. We marvel at the unknown, we marvel at what may be around the door, under the water, out in space. With this definition, instead of a monster being something to fear, it becomes something that is really… marvelous.

This four-part Dynamic Earth article covers two famous monsters, the Loch Ness Monster and the giant squid: one creature known to be real, the other considered more myth than monster, depending on who you talk to.

Part One of the article focuses on what makes a monster, including an overview on what makes a legend, such as the tale of the great kraken, half octopus and half crab and large enough to destroy ships. Part Two then takes us from the realm of folklore to the realm of science, and discusses the controversial study of cryptozoology: the field of study devoted to investigating the possibility of the existence of animals from legends and folk lore.

Parts Three and Four then concentrate on the two stars of the article: the Loch Ness Monster and the giant squid. Both true marvels. Both true monsters.

The Monsters

Though covered in more detail in parts three and four of this article, I did want to talk briefly about Nessie and the giant squid, specifically as they relate to our topic of legends and legendary beasts.

The giant squid could originally be termed a cryptid — an animal based purely in legends and folk tales — but scientists now have physical evidence of these creatures, including entire specimens. Based on this, one would assume that the giant squid now fits comfortably within the more traditional sciences such as zoology and marine biology.

However, there is still much about giant squids that is unknown, including the size they can reach. General supposition is that the giant squid reaches up to 60 feet in length, weighing in within the 1-2 ton range. Nevertheless, eyewitness accounts of the giant squid have put it at sizes longer than 100 feet! Not only that, but the behavior of the giant squid is also based more in rumor and in legend than in scientific observation, with stories of these creatures attacking people in the water, as well as attacking whales and boats. Because little is known about squid behavior outside of these legends, the giant squid still maintains a foot, or should I say tentacle within the field of cryptozoology.

Studies of the Loch Ness Monster — or Nessie as it is affectionately termed — live solely in the realm of cryptozoology as there is no actual physical evidence of Nessie outside of some highly contested radar and other images in addition to eyewitness accounts. However, the eyewitness accounts of Nessie are numerous, the tales of Nessie have been told for years, and there is no direct physical evidence that Nessie does not exist. So the creature lives firmly entrenched in cryptozoology and not mythology as some would feel to be more appropriate.

Both Nessie and the giant squid are monsters in the truest sense. Both are large, much larger than people, both inhabit the world of water which is still foreign to most of us, and both are heroes of tales from throughout the centuries.

Tales of Monsters

We love to be frightened. We love scary movies, and ghost stories, and legends about evil beings, and movies with big monsters and aliens and other things that go bump in the night. Or day for that matter.

Does the best selling author of our time write books about romance or suburban angst? No, the best selling author is Stephen King, whose genre tends to be focused on horror. Is the favorite ride at an amusement park the merry-go-round? No, the favorite ride is most likely the roller coaster — the bigger, faster, higher, and the scarier, the better.

So, what scares us most of all? At least in that pleasant, shivery way we all seem to crave?

If you’re thinking a person wearing a mask, carrying an axe dripping with gore, you forget that I mentioned “pleasant, shivery”, not “grossed out and tense”. No, for the fun type of scare only one thing will do, and that thing is monsters. Preferably big ones that don’t stay in their own habitat but leave the water (ice, sky, ground, space) and come stomping with big oversize feet right at you. Well, not at you specifically, but the hero of the movie or book or story you are currently enjoying, the person who we can identify with because we are so caught up in said book, movie, or story.

How odd that we are frightened of these large creatures when we should be more frightened of the smallest creatures inhabiting the earth. After all, more of us die from disease and sickness caused by insects, bacteria, viruses, and mutated cells than from any other reason.

Very few people die from being *squished* by a large creature ala Godzilla.

Monsters have scared and entertained humanity since we first started drawing pictures of them on cave walls and telling stories about them around campfires. We liked stories of monsters so much, we even created legends about some of them, legends that survive to this day.

The thing about monsters, though, is they are best savored behind a curtain of ignorance. Once a monster is viewed up close, and looked at with the looking glass we call reason, it no longer has the power to scare us and we wonder that it ever did.

Imagine for a moment that you are an ancient sailor, sailing in a small boat about 20 feet or so in length. All of a sudden next to you appears this large behemoth of a creature, of a size that could make splinters of your boat and most likely of yourself.

The behemoth is a whale, a gray whale to be exact. Are you frightened? I’m asking the modern you this question. How can you be frightened of something that you might pay a ton of money to go see in boats as small or even smaller. But to that sailor of long ago — that’s you, too, remember — the whale must seem as a monster sent by the gods themselves to drag you to a watery death.

So you pray to the gods and you ask for salvation and forgiveness from whatever evil you had done to be sent such punishment. Lo and behold, the behemoth slowly moves away! You in this modern day and age know that the whale has moved away because you a) aren’t food, b) aren’t an enemy (yet), and c) aren’t very interesting. But to you the sailor of the past, you know in your heart of hearts that you have been saved by divine intervention.

You also know that you have a real kicker of a story to tell when you get into shore, and a legend is born.

How Legends Begin

What makes a legend? In the previous section we can see how legends are born whenever we are confronted by something outside our experience. However, there are other factors that go into making a legend.

First, many of our earlier events in history were not originally recorded in writing, but were, instead, told verbally, as stories. Sometimes accuracy was maintained…and sometimes the story teller embellished the telling, making the story more interesting to the audience or perhaps more flattering to the story’s subject.

For instance, Alexander the Great was a real person, a key figure in history. We know this is true. However, there are an enormous number of legends about Alexander, of which my favorite is the legend of the Gordian Knot.

The legend of the Gordian Knot is that there existed in the town of Gorium, in the ancient land of Phrygians, an ox cart tied to a post with a knot so complex, with both ends of the knot hidden, that no one person could untie it. Legend also has it that it was foretold that whoever would loose the knot would be conqueror of Asia.

Alexander the Great heard of the legend and decided to take a hand at undoing the Gordian Knot. After looking at it he takes his sword out and cuts it in two, thereby “loosing” the knot with one simple, clean cut. To this day coming up with a simple, clean solution to a supposedly complex and unsolvable problem is known as “cutting the Gordian Knot”.

Alexander the Great was taught by another well-known person of his time: Aristotle. One can’t help wondering what the teacher would have thought of the student’s solution. Would he have admired the innovative approach? Or would he have deplored the loss of a perfectly good rope.

Is the story true? Possibly. Or the story could have been fabricated as a form of propaganda from Alexander in order to provide popular justification for his aggressive tendencies. Regardless of its truth or not, the legend of the Gordian Knot remains to this day.

Another factor in the making of a legend is that humanity has never been especially graceful about admitting a lack of knowledge when faced with a new unknown, and can sometimes come up with the most outrageous explanations of an event or object.

As an example of dealing with an unknown, our earlier ancestors didn’t always have an understanding of planetary orbits, so an eclipse of the sun didn’t occur because the moon’s orbit brought it between the earth and the sun, blocking the view of the sun. No, the eclipse occurred because dragons were eating the sun. To stop these hungry reptiles, these same ancestors pounded on kettles and pots, making noise to chase the monsters away. If you think this is silly, think on this: the noise making worked and the sun did re-appear. Our ancestors may not have understood planetary orbits, but they did understand cause and effect.

The reason why our ancestors assumed dragons were eating the sun, or that gods controlled the weather and the seas is that they knew little about the world around them. Folks in the past didn’t understand that forces deep within the earth were responsible for earthquakes and volcanoes, and that weather was influenced by something such as the temperature of the ocean waters. To them, it would seem as if some external force was responsible for all unexplained events.

Consider some poor sailor in one of the small sailing craft that plied the sea centuries ago. The boat is moving along nicely and passing to one side of an island when all of a sudden, the island seems to be much closer than originally thought. Not only that, but huge teeth and arms seem to be reaching out of the water, grabbing the boat and dashing it into a million pieces.

We understand about things such as currents and lower tides exposing rocky shores, but our earlier ancestors may not have been as aware of such things. To them, it would look as if the island or sea was alive and a monster has suddenly grabbed the boat to tear it apart. If at least one seaman escapes with his life and tells this tale, he plants the idea in other seaman minds and a legend begins to form. Sound silly? Well, the legend of the creature as large as an island is real and the creature is known as the Kraken.


The Kraken


His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep,The Kraken sleepeth

So goes a poem by Lord Tennyson titled The Kraken.

Depending on the source you read, the Kraken is fabled to be the last of the Titans as well as a Norwegian sea monster. It is described as having a thousand tentacles and being a cross somewhere between a crab and an octopus, but on a much larger scale.

The Museum of Natural Mystery 5 includes a reference to an earlier written description provided by a 16th century Norwegian Bishop. This description states that the Kraken is a “floating island”, over 1 1/2 miles wide! Now that would be a monster to see.

Later tales of the Kraken have shrunk the creature down to a more palatable size, but still maintained its ferocity and stories about the creature attacking ships, sometimes pulling the ships under water, have continued even into the 20th century.

Conjecture at this time is that the Kraken may actually have been a giant squid. If this seems farfetched consider that rumors exist that the giant squid can reach lengths of 100 feet or more. If so, a squid this size, weighing a couple of tons, could easily capsize a smaller sailing vessel. Even a squid 60 feet in length, the largest scientifically proven size, would not be something one would want to meet while going for a swim in the moonlight.

The Kraken has all the makings of a truly great monster. It’s large, it lives in the ocean, in the deepest parts of the ocean, and legends say that it has attacked people. Tales of these attacks aren’t frequent enough to become truly intimidating, just enough to give us that pleasant, shivery sensation.

Now if the legends of the Kraken are attributable to the giant squid, we haven’t lost anything in the exposure. So little is known about these creatures that they might as well exist in legend as outside of it. In fact, we are so attracted to the legends about the giant squid that we have made it a star. Or should we say that Jules Verne has made it a star in his classic tale 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And it is tales such as Verne’s and movies based on these tales that keep legends of monsters of the deep alive today.

Modern Day Legends: The Movies

Considering what was said earlier, that legends sometimes grow out of humanity’s ignorance as well as our fear of the unknown and you can see the basis of many of the old science fiction movies of the 50s. Two common themes dominate these movies: the first is our fear of The Bomb; the second was our fear of what exists in regions hostile to man — the sea and space.

Interest in science grew enormously in the 50’s, especially interest in outer space. The race was on to put the first man into space and we all dreamed of a time when we, humanity, would ride large ships to other stars, preferably uninhabited stars. And that was the contradiction of the times — as much as we wanted to explore the unknown, we were also afraid of what we would find.

So, we had movies such as the extremely well done War of the Worlds6 and the not so well done Plan 9 from Outer Space7. It is a wonder we could sleep at night, our movies had creatures from every corner of the galaxy ready to fly in and wipe us all out.

Even the plants were dangerous.

If you are a serious fan of science fiction then you also had to have seen the original Thing8, with a pre-Gunsmoke James Arness appearing as plant shaped like a man, strong, nasty, barbed, and with a thirst for human blood. This movie was an excellent example of the belief that if it was different, than it had to be evil and out to get us, us being relative. The movie also included subtle digs about scientists and their search for knowledge at the cost of endangering mankind.

The Thing highlighted the ambivalent attitude we had towards science in the 50s. As much as we loved science, we were also a bit frightened of it and those who were its practitioners. After all, if it was science that would send us into space, it was also science that brought us the very real horror of nuclear war.

Not all visitors to the planet had hostile intentions. One of the best movies made during the 50s was the Day that the Earth Stood Still9 , with the alien out to save us from ourselves. Our parents liked the message, we liked the big robot that could zap everyone to ashes.

It was the Bomb and our fear of the Bomb (at least in hands other than our own), that became the second major theme of most sci-fi films of the 50s. We, the general populace, didn’t know exactly what side effects could be generated by this deadly weapon so we made a few up. With a little help from the movie makers, of course. The two most common effects of the Bomb used in movies at that time were common creatures grown to a monstrous size, and extinct animals, primarily dinosaurs, being awaken.

If you grew up in the 50s and 60s, you were exposed to some wonderful movie monsters. By today’s standards the monsters probably seem clumsy and pretty fake, but in that time it seemed to be so simple to suspend your beliefs and let your imagination roam. A special favorite was Them!10, with its full size monster ants. Them! was far superior to another movie of the time called Tarantula11, with its images of real life spiders blown up and superimposed with the movie actors. However, both movies did share a common theme: insects growing to an enormous size because of radiation.

The monsters didn’t just crawl around on the ground. Another of the better movies of the time, It Came from Beneath the Sea12, featured a giant octopus that attacks San Fransciso, courtesy of special effects master Ray Harryhausen. In this movie, the creature surfaces to seemingly try out the munchies on dry land for a change in diet or some such thing. And guess who the munchies, were, hmmm? Just call us Octo-Crunchies!

Another Harryhausen movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms13, was about a pre-historic creature that was awakened from a frozen state by the detonation of an atomic bomb in the Arctic. This beastie decided to visit New York, taking in the sites, tearing down a few buildings, noshing on one of New York’s Finest instead of pretzels in the Park.

With many of these movies, the special effects used was the best available, but the real key to the enjoyment of the movies was not the effects so much as it was the suspense, and the ability to generate that pleasant, shivery feeling. Particularly effective was the use of the music. There is a distinctive sound that these old movies used when a creature was approaching our heroes, one that can’t be described but if you hear it, you know it. By providing “hints” of what is about to happen, the film makers built anticipation, but also provided a gentle warning so that the movie viewer was surprised by the appearance of the monster, but not so surprised or startled as to pass from pleasure to discomfort.

Lest you think great monster movies were only created in the 50s, some current movies also have created wonderful monsters. Steve Speilberg’s Jurassic Park is one of the best movies of all time with its incredible effects, excellent story line and adherence to some of the older movie formulas — most specifically by not being too graphic. In addition, as with the 50s movies, man rather than beast is the true culprit, this time the scientists messed with DNA rather than the atom. The end result, though, is pretty much the same — big critter eats smaller critter, smaller critter is us.

Oddly enough, out of all the movies that feature “monsters”, the most plausible movie monster is probably the giant squid from the Disney movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea14. Based on the Jules Verne book of the same name, the movie features a giant squid attacking the submarine that is the focus of both the book and the movie.

Though fictional, the squid shown in the movie and discussed in the story is not so large as to actually be outside of reality. Based on folk lore and legend, the giant squid can reach sizes of 100 feet or more. Add to this eyewitness accounts of giant squids attacking submarines and other ships, and you move much closer to fact than fiction with this story.

In fact, Jules Verne himself had heard a story of a giant squid attacking a military ship and based his monster on this story. A case of legend possibly becoming fact, which is as good a lead in as any to Part Two of A Tale of Two Monsters, covering Cryptozoology.

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