The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor
The Tale begins in dramatic fashion, in medias res, as a clever retainer tries to comfort his master who is sailing back from an expedition in a state of despair, apparently at the failure of his mission. The retainer tells a tale about a previous voyage of his to show how catastrophe can be endured, in order to encourage his master in making his report to the king.
The Tale is an entertaining account of fantastic and exciting adventures. It gives the impression of a simple folk tale, but has a very sophisticated structure with an elaborate pattern of a tale within a tale within a tale, and alludes to esoteric knowledge to articulate its central message. Its mock simplicity is a virtue in itself, producing a sense of bare elegance, but it also drives home the Tale's universal moral and adds verisimilitude to the mariner's narrative.
Such verisimilitude is much needed, for the traveller, who was perhaps then (as now) a type considered to be a teller of tall tales, tells one including a tale told to him; as the audience moves from tale into tale, the experience becomes increasingly unreal. The fact that all the narrators remain nameless gives the Tale the feel of a timeless narration, of universal relevance. The repetition of incidents and phraseology, and the structuring of the whole by accounts of ‘similar’ happenings, give a sense of the universal similarity of experience, and suggest a world of metaphor and allegory. Voyaging is a common image for a person's journey through life, and the sailor's concern about landfall evokes the attainment of material and spiritual success in life. In the Tale, however, voyages are continually interrupted by disaster. Man's ability to speak (and to produce poetry) is his only safeguard against this, as is demonstrated by the sailor's tale, in which he attempts to allay his captain's fears about reporting to his sovereign by telling how he has had to face meetings with a numinous being as well as with the king.
Although the sailor's narrative of a shipwreck appears objectively straight forward, it is subtly suggestive: when he tells how he was cast onto a southern paradisal island ostensibly sited in the Red Sea, his description hints that the island is not as uninhabited as it seems. He then encounters the inhabitant, a giant human-headed serpent, whose shape declares him to be divine, but whose exact identity remains mysterious.
The sailor implied that his tale would advise bravery in the face of disaster, and he now reveals that his moral was learnt from this serpent, who told him how he had to endure the death of his kinsmen. The lost community of serpents totalled seventy-five, a number that alludes to a religious text, and suggests that the serpent is a metaphorical representative of the creator-god (see n. 17). His tale of catastrophe expands and deepens the lesson to be learnt from the sailor's experience, by suggesting that disaster is an inevitable part of existence that afflicts even the divine. The island was initially described by the serpent as a spirit isle, and now the serpent reveals that it will sink after the sailor is rescued; this alludes to the myth that the universe will end in a cosmic catastrophe, and that only the creator-god will survive, taking the form of a serpent (see n. 23). The serpent's narrative contains a further allusion: he mentions a daughter who was saved from catastrophe, which recalls the daughter of the creator-god, who is Truth, the personification of the ideal order of the universe.
These literary (and unliteral) allusions present an analogue of the nature of suffering. The thrust of the poem is that, since the whole cosmos—even the divine—is prey to disaster, all that one can do is to bear it bravely, attain a degree of self-realization and self-control, and ‘view’ one's experience without despair (there is much play with ‘seeing’). The serpent's survival offers the audience some hope, which is embodied in the sailor's survival and the serpent's prophecy that he will return home safely with another shipload of sailors. In this survival, art has a role: the telling and retelling of misfortune enable people to overcome or to endure it. In the Tale as a whole, literature acts as a redress for suffering: the man saves himself by his quick and skilful speech. The Tale is thus about the value of telling tales, and the formal repetition of the Tale itself provides a reassuring regularity in the tales of disaster. The stanzas likewise fall into regular groups: the first five deal with the introduction and the journey to the island, the second five with the man's dialogue with the serpent he meets there, the next five with the serpent's tale and prophecy, while the remainder take the sailor back home, where he is rewarded with the title with which he was introduced at the start of the whole.
The repetition of incidents, however, also presents many sudden reversals of fortune, and differences between what should be and what actually happens; occasionally these are almost humorous, but they create an unsettling atmosphere. The reassuring narration is clouded by multiple ambiguities: the audience cannot tell the identity of the characters, or precisely why they are travelling; the serpent's identity is left ambiguous, as is his daughter's and (through wordplay) the exact nature of the island; and there are numerous incidental verbal ambiguities (see nn. 10, 14, 15, 18, 22). The various and cross-purposed allusions increase the sense of uncertainty and unreality for the audience.
Disorder reasserts itself with a final unexpected event, and the Tale ends with a reply by the sailor's master. The sailor's monologue has ended and there is no need for any response from his silent interlocutor, but his intricately structured lesson is swept aside with a brutal, cynically laconic response: the Count asks in a terse proverbial-sounding question how it can profit a doomed man to hope for help. Although shockingly sudden, this rejection has been subtly prepared for: the serpent has already brushed aside one of the sailor's declarations as laughable. The dismissal casts doubt on the validity of his moral, on the capacity of speech to change things, and thus perhaps on the reliability of the sailor as a narrator. For all its stoic assurances, the Tale ends on a question with a final unexpected twist, and all is left hanging. The only certainty is the art of the poem, and the Count's final question is left for the audience to answer.
The Tale is preserved in a single manuscript (P. St-Petersburg 1115), written in an archaizing hand in the middle of the Twelfth Dynasty, and was probably composed early in the Dynasty; the name of the copyist is preserved. Although the start of the manuscript has been tampered with to add a strengthening strip (now lost), there is little doubt that the text is complete. Numbers give line numbers of the manuscript.