“In the classic hero’s journey—the archetypal plot structure of myths and movies—the protagonist reluctantly departs from normal life, enters the unknown, endures successive trials, and eventually returns home, having been transformed. If such a character exists in the coronavirus story, it is not an individual, but the entire modern world.”
To be at sea, mid-story; storm-threatened or becalmed; to be adrift, disoriented, at the mercy of incomprehensibly avenging forces that somehow (and you know this, you know this) contain the secret of who you are … We’ve got a poem for that. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” first published in 1798, is—you might say—the archetypal journey. You might say further: It’s the dream-poem of right now.
The poem begins by introducing the Ancient Mariner, who, with his “glittering eye,” stops a Wedding Guest from attending a nearby wedding celebration. The Mariner stops the young man to tell him the story of a ship, providing no introduction but simply beginning his tale. Despite the Wedding Guest’s efforts to leave, the Mariner continues to speak.
The Mariner’s story begins with the ship leaving harbor and sailing southward. A tremendous storm then blows the ship even further to the South Pole, where the crew are awed as they encounter mist, snow, cold, and giant glaciers. An Albatross breaks the pristine lifelessness of the Antarctic. The sailors greet it as a good omen, and a new wind rises up, propelling the ship. Day after day the albatross appears, appearing in the morning when the sailors call for it, and soaring behind the ship. But then as the other sailor’s cry out in dismay, the Mariner, for reasons unexplained, shoots and kills the albatross with his crossbow.
At first, the other Sailors are furious with the Mariner for killing the bird which they believed a god omen and responsible for making the breezes blow. But after the bird has been killed the fog clears and the fair breeze continues, blowing the ship north into the Pacific, and the crew comes to believe the bird was the source of the fog and mist and that the killing is justified. It is then that the wind ceases, and the ship becomes trapped on a vast, calm sea. The Sailors and the Mariner become increasingly thirsty, and some sailors dream that an angered Spirit has followed them from the pole. The crew then hangs the albatross around the Mariner’s neck.
In this terrible calm, trapped completely by the watery ocean that they cannot drink, the men on the ship grow so thirsty that they cannot even speak. When the Mariner sees what he believes is a ship approaching, he must bite his arm and drink his own blood so that he is able to alert the crew, who all grin out of joy. But the joy fades as the ghostly ship, which sails without wind, approaches. On its deck, Death and Life-in-Death gamble with dice for the lives of the Sailors and the Mariner. After Life-in-Death wins the soul of the Mariner, the Sailors begin to die of thirst, falling to the deck one by one, each staring at the Mariner in reproach.
Surrounded by the dead Sailors and cursed continuously by their gaze, the Mariner tries to turn his eyes to heaven to pray, but fails. It is only in the Moonlight, after enduring the horror of being the only one alive among the dead crew that the Mariner notices beautiful Water Snakes swimming beside the ship. At this moment he becomes inspired, and has a spiritual realization that all of God’s creatures are beautiful and must be treated with respect and reverence. With this realization, he is finally able to pray, and the albatross fell from his neck and sunk into the sea.
The Mariner falls into a kind of stupor, and then wakes to find the dead Sailors’ bodies reanimated by angels and at work on the ship. Powered by the Spirit from the South Pole, the ship races homeward, where the Mariner sees a choir of angels leave the bodies of the deceased Sailors. After this angels’ chorus, the Mariner perceives a small boat on which a Pilot, the Pilot’s Boy, and a Hermit approach. As they get closer, the Mariner’s ship suddenly sinks, but he wakes to find himself in the Pilot’s boat. When the Mariner speaks, the Pilot and Hermit are stunned, by fear. The Hermit prays. The Mariner, in turn, saves his own saviors, and rows them to land, where he begs the Hermit to grant him absolution for his sins. The Hermit crosses himself, and asks the Mariner “what manner of man art thou?” The Mariner then feels compelled to tell his story.
The Mariner concludes his tale by explaining that as he travels from land to land he is always plagued by that same compulsion to tell his tale, that he experiences a peculiar agony if he doesn’t give in to his urge to share the story, and that he can tell just from looking at their faces which men must hear his tale. He ends with the explicit lesson that prayer is the greatest joy in life, and the best prayers come from love and reverence of all of God’s creation. Thus he moves onward to find the next person who must hear his story, leaving the Wedding Guest “a sadder and a wiser man.”