Fishermen come in various shapes and sizes, especially in popular culture. Traditionally, they’ve been depicted in literature and film in ways that typically accentuate their positive characteristics. However, one of the more atypical depictions worthy of investigation is that of the fisherman-monster.
The English writer Izaak Walton was mostly responsible for establishing the cultural prototype of the “angler as solitary intellectual” as he was a significant literary force in England during his lifetime (1593-1683) and befriended several literary heavyweights such as John Donne and Ben Johnson. Among his many important publications, The Compleat Angler is considered, arguably, the most important piece of fishing literature ever published. In it Walton creates a dialogue between a fisherman and a hunter so the former can extol the many benefits of angling, rural life, and Anglican beliefs.
More than a century later across the Atlantic, Henry David Thoreau assumed Walton’s baton. With quotes like these – “Time is but the stream I go fishing in” and “Many men go fishing all their lives not knowing it is not fish they are after” – Thoreau extended Walton’s prototype to profound extremes. Sprinkled throughout his essays and classic autobiography, Walden, are philosophical ruminations about the role angling plays in one’s life. Thoreau’s prose calls for a new brand of self-sufficiency and solitude, one that enables us – through intimate interactions with Nature, particularly the kind angling affords – to better understand our societies, neighbors, and ourselves. Walton and Thoreau are the original architects of those modern scenes that depict anglers fishing in solitude, searching for greater meaning in their lives.
One of Thoreau’s contemporaries, Herman Melville, solidified the cultural archetype of the “angler as mad Captain”, a character whose intrepid, crusty, lone-wolf stoicism and megalomania blazed a destructive trail through the most adventurous of oceanic narratives. Captain Ahab’s maddening pursuit of the white whale established the template for other obsessed anglers, most notably Captain Quint in Jaws.
In Ahab and Quint, we have a noticeably different portrayal of the fisherman The predatory nature of the hunted coalesces with the aggressive capitalism of the hunter to form a provocative critique of both. Although not literally monsters, characters such as Ahab and Quint are figuratively monstrous in their incessant chase for wealth and destruction.
Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo is a more benevolent, composed extension of Ahab. His eccentric tastes, professorial interests, and relatively controlled temperament depart from the curmudgeonly outbursts of Ahab and Quint, yet even Nemo possesses flashes of righteous indignation. His hatred toward imperialism and desire to ruin his nemesis fuel many of his contradictory actions. As one of many examples, although he is an ardent fan of freedom, he entraps anyone who steps foot onto his vessel.
Other prototypes since Walton and Thoreau have portrayed fishermen as peasants who are students of nature, not books; fisherman who are determined, even-tempered, and pragmatic, not maniacal; and who are ordinary, conservative members of society, not eccentric radicals. Nevertheless, each borrows something from the Walton and Thoreau templates.
Santiago, the stoic old wise man in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, is the archetypal solitary fisherman, but a rugged individualism and graceful stubbornness, along with an acute acceptance and understanding of nature, forms the basis of his intellectual life. While Thoreau and Walton philosophize about why they fish, Santiago just fishes. His angling exploits are also inspired not by a transcendental thrill of the hunt, but rather, by more practical economic necessities.
Kino in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl demonstrates similar traits: while his son falls victim to nature’s cruelty (a scorpion bite), his fishing adventures are designed to earn money to pay for his son’s medical care. Although pearls are his quarry, Kino is still a “commercial fisherman” because his fishing is economically induced, and the story’s primary theme is how economic greed exposes the inherent evil lurking in every soul.
More recently, the depiction of fisherman as “blue collar warriors” in television shows such as Deadliest Catch and Lobster Wars offers another economically based depiction of anglers. Building off the Santiago and Kino prototypes, these commercial fishermen risk their lives to put seafood on our dinner plates. Of course, they also earn impressive bounties for their large harvests. Their quests resonate with heroic myth making that would make Joseph Campbell smile.
However, one of the more peculiar portrayals of fishermen in modern cinema depicts the fisherman as a bloodthirsty, vengeful, hungry monster. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) features a fisherman struck by a car full of teenagers. When they dump his body in the local harbor, he returns a year later as a demented, corpse-like angler sporting rain gear, a gaff-like hook, and an intense need for revenge.
Stuart Gordon’s Dagon (2001) is a creepy adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s 1917 short story of the same title. As a couple vacations off the coast of Italy, they encounter a storm and head for shore toward a quaint fishing village. However, fish-like humanoids inhabit the village, and as the couple discovers how much trouble they’re in, they learn what’s lured the villagers: the fishermen in this village sustain themselves by sacrificing innocent victims to the ancient fish-god known as Dagon. In both films, Gorton’s Fisherman has turned into a homicidal maniac.