Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Archive: Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent

And now for something completely different: a children's picture book.

SPOILER WARNING: Yes, it's true. I'm going to spoil the plot of a children's picture book. If you really don't want Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea Serpent spoiled, go to a library or bookstore, pull it off the shelf, and spend the five to ten minutes reading it takes. Better yet, take half an hour and savor Bill Peet's gorgeous colored pencil illustrations. 

Anyway, I should probably back up a bit, because the author, Bill Peet, isn't the world's best-known picture book creator, which I frankly see as a travesty. Bill Peet was an animator for Disney back in the day, and in fact you can see his influence very heavily in The Sword and the Stone and the original, animated 101 Dalmatians. He had a distinctive artistic style and an equally distinctive sense of warped, yet gentle humor. He also self-illustrated his books with absolutely gorgeous colored-pencil artwork. My Mom found out about him from a local librarian when I was just a little kid, and he's been a mainstay of our family and her classroom (she's a third grade teacher) ever since.

The thing that I have always liked about him, though, is that his books aren't just vacuous bubblegum-silly picture book claptrap. There's a message, it's a good one, and just because it isn't presented harshly doesn't mean it's not there.

I remember reading an Amazon review of Cyrus the Unsinkable Sea serpent years ago where the book is referred to as being a lesson about resisting peer pressure. There's an element of that, sure, at the very beginning. However, the book is much more about courage, duty, self-sacrifice, and protecting those weaker than you than it is about peer pressure. Cyrus actually fits into a category of characters that also includes Atticus Finch. Does that seem like an overly-drastic claim? Read on.

The book begins with Cyrus as a very, very bored sea serpent. In fact, the cover art and the picture on the first page depict him as looking like he's about ready to pass out from his boredom. Here's the thing, though, and pay attention to this: Cyrus is an incredibly powerful creature. He talks to a shark in the earlier pages, and he clearly dwarfs the beast. Given the appearance of the shark, it's probably a great white, and they're not exactly tiny. That conversation with the shark the catalyst for the whole rest of the story, however.

The shark (and this is where the peer pressure thing comes in) suggests that as a way to get some excitement in his life, that Cyrus wreck a ship and eat everybody. Cyrus is aghast at this idea, but the shark calls him a coward and this angers Cyrus who swims off to a harbor prove his "manhood." He slips into the harbor and picks out a ship getting ready to head off on its maiden voyage. The ship is clearly the Mayflower with the serial numbers filed off. (It's called the Primrose, and if you look at the clothes of the crew and passengers, they're dressed as puritans.) As the ship is setting sail, an old man standing on the wharf angrily curses them, telling the passengers they're doomed to die at sea and then rattles off a list of hazards: doldrums, a storm, and pirates.

At this point, the kind-hearted sea serpent's inherent nobility overrides his anger at being called a coward by a shark and he resolves to watch over the ship and protect her. It's a good thing for the passengers, too, because everything the old man said comes to pass.

The first hazard is the doldrums. The ship sails into an area with no wind and gets stuck. The passengers and captain all worry about this for a bit and retire for the evening. Cyrus, not sleepy himself, stays up and circles around the ship for a while, trying to figure out what to do about this problem, and then realizes that he can be the source of wind the ship needs. He swims along behind, puffing at the sails and pushing the ship along. This challenge requires little from him - just some ingenuity, but he rises to it nonetheless.

However, it's not long before a truly nasty, ship-wrecking storm blows up. Initially, Cyrus just hangs back and lets everyone tear down the sails and get belowdecks, but at some point, the waves are getting massive enough to sink the ship. Faced with this new hazard, Cyrus makes a snap decision, wraps himself around the ship, gulps in a bunch of air and turns himself into a huge life-preserver to help the ship survive the massive waves tossing it about. This takes considerably more out of Cyrus. The books doesn't get into the mechanics, but have you ever had gas pains? Know how much those suck? Imagine what the poor sea serpent went through. After the storm is over, Cyrus is understandably exhausted and decides to take a nap. Who can blame him, really?

Unsurprisingly, he wakes up to see that the ship has sailed off beyond where he can see. He momentarily contemplates calling it good enough and bowing out. And then he discards the idea and goes off in search of the ship, just in case. It's at this point that the sea serpent's true colors really shine through, because the next hazard is going to require more of him than anything previous. Before he'd dealt only with environmental problems. Now, however, he's confronted with an entire ship of armed pirates. Unfortunately, he can't catch up in time to keep them from wrecking the Primrose's sails with their first broadside, but he takes one look at the rapidly degenerating situation and chooses harm to himself over harm to the passengers of the Primrose who, at this point, still don't even know he's there. Lacking time or other apparent methods to defend the primrose, he does a deep dive and a very fast surfacing right under the pirate ship, cracking the hull in two with his skull and knocking himself unconscious in the process.

There are a few important things to note at this point. First is that he has, yes, now wrecked a ship, but he did it to protect some innocents. Second is that Cyrus, now that the threat is neutralized, shows mercy and doesn't do anything further to the pirates, not even splashing them. He does, however, not give up on the now-wrecked Primrose and her passengers. It bears mentioning that, at this point, the ship is still only something like halfway to the New World. There's a great exchange about the old man cursing the ship at the beginning of the voyage, and then there's this great bit of dialog from Cyrus:

 "Who could forget him?" Cyrus Muttered to himself. "He was right about the doldrums, the storm and the pirates. But he didn't figure on me. I just might prove him wrong."

It's also worth mentioning at this point that the passengers are afraid of Cyrus. They just saw him wreck the pirate ship. Cyrus, however, doesn't care. He grabs the anchor and tows the ship the rest of the way to the New World. The passengers are initially terrified that they're being dragged off as a snack, but the captain of the ship points out that the pirates would have likely killed them if the serpent hadn't shown up and that he's pulling them along in the right direction.

Fortunately for both Cyrus and the passengers, the rest of the journey is pretty uneventful. He pulls them along, day and night, as fast as he can and then hits a burst of speed to push the ship up onto dry land at the end. The passengers all climb onto a huge rock (Plymouth rock, perhaps?) and give him a rousing cheer, and then he swims off for a nap. He's certainly earned it. The book ends with Cyrus snoozing in some palm trees.

Now, let me ask you, readers - does that sound like a story about resisting peer pressure to you? Or is that a story about courage, self-sacrifice, and doing the right thing for its own sake? Cyrus suffered much, gained little, and wore himself out. But he saved the lives of dozens of innocent people. That's a pretty noble character and a pretty lofty message for a colorful picture book about a sea monster, don't you think?

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