Between the Mountains and the Deep Blue Sea

From “Mohini (Enchantment)”
Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

Between the Mountains and the Deep Blue Sea


15th century map
Inverted map of Fra Mauro (1460). Source “The Fra Mauro World map” Piero Falchetta.

The music comes from an album by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, The Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon. It captures the essence of the exotic and the unknown. To those with an adventurous spirit there is something in the music that calls the listener to places where the music was born. Perhaps to others it just sounds foreign and unfamiliar and even, perhaps, uninteresting. There is a short story by Lord Dunsany (“Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean”) that begin:

Toldees, Mondath, Arizim, these are the Inner Lands, the lands whose sentinels upon their borders do not behold the sea. Beyond them to the east there lies a desert, forever untroubled by man: all yellow it is, and spotted with shadows of stones, and Death is in it, like a leopard lying in the sun. To the south they are bounded by magic, to the west by a mountain, and to the north by the voice and anger of the Polar wind. Like a great wall is the mountain to the west. It comes up out of the distance and goes down into the distance again, and it is named Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean.


This mountain separates the inner lands from the sea. The inner lands are a land at peace protected by natural boundaries of desert and mountain and by enchantments. It is a land at peace, it is a prosperous land, it is a land whose citizens want for nothing. Yet there is this mountain and on the other side it is rumored there is the sea. But no one in the inner lands have seen the sea and those that have crossed the mountain have never returned.

It is the best and the brightest that are the most tempted by this mountain and are most likely to make the journey over it. Even the royal family and the heir apparent have been seduced by the mountain. Because the desire to cross the mountain and see the ocean has attracted so many, the people of the inner lands resent it. They go so far as to build a temple devoted to cursing this mountain.

I think this story is a fable of sorts about living in a world of change and the unknown. We can live in the relative peace and comfort of the familiar or accept the challenges and opportunities that come with accepting change and embracing the unknown. The phrase “accept change” and others like it are overused to the extent that it is no longer clear what it means. These phrases are often employed to entice people to accept things solely because they are new and different, which can create another set of problems.

The character of that which is new must be assessed, as must that of the familiar. I think that often accepting change, any change, can be a good thing because it forces us to reassess what we think and the way we do things. Elaine May once said “The only safe thing is to take a chance” and that is what those that climbed Poltarnees to get to the other side did. They took a chance. Those that made the journey safely were so entranced by what they found they had no desire to return. Or perhaps they perished. It is something that cannot be known with certainty.

In the classroom it seems that students struggle with new ideas and concepts. They often resist the stories from other times and places and are unwilling to invest the kind of time it takes to get inside the skin of those that made these stories. I think that it is interesting that elements of the Arabian Knights have found their way into European stories like Gulliver’s Travels. Odysseus’ struggles with the Cyclops are not that different from those of Sinbad with similar kind of creature. Critics, the last time I checked, were not certain which story came first or if they both weren’t influenced by some other story that has long since perished. The point is that what interests people of all cultures in story telling is remarkably similar. The places and names are different and perhaps a bit unpronounceable to those outside the culture that tells the story, but the events and challenges are very similar.

Stories shanghai us to places we may at first be unwilling to go (the term “shanghaied” itself is taken from the practice of kidnapping sailors to places they did not want to go). And the reading of stories, especially when read with an open mind, will change the way we think and the way we look at the world around us. Story telling is at its rhetorical, it makes an argument for a different way of viewing things. We may be attracted by something in the characters and the conflicts they must resolve but we often end by assuming the point of view and attitudes of characters in the story. Our minds change and we are often unsure what has changed them.

The classical teachers of rhetoric argued that the emotional argument, not the logical or the ethical argument, was the most effective and therefore ought to be the argument of choice for orators. I read somewhere that St Augustine preferred rhetoric to logic (and by rhetoric he meant the emotional argument) because he could achieve his desired result more easily. If we can be made to feel a certain way about a thing our thoughts and opinions will often follow our feelings. When it comes to stories it seems we start by feeling a certain way about characters and what they encounter and often end up thinking the way the authors want us to about the issues and ideas the characters in the stories must confront.

This is why it is so important to read with our minds engaged and to consider what we think and feel and why we think and feel as we do after we finish reading. The same could be said of the movies we watch and the music we listen to. There is a rhetorical quality to these as well. It seems that as a culture we are becoming increasingly more passive, but perhaps it is just human nature to gravitate towards ease and it is easier to go where the story takes us than it is to consider the journey and whether we want to take it.

One purpose of education is to challenge students to question; to question the world around them, their attitudes toward the world around them, the source of their resistance to the content of the classes they take, whether they be English classes or Science classes, whether they are studying stories or the theory of evolution. The purpose of the classroom is not to produce students that think as they have been taught but students who consider and evaluate effectively what they are being encouraged to think and believe. Totalitarianism thrives more easily when the governed are a non-reflective people that prefer to accept without question what they are invited to believe.


From The Great Dictator

In this scene Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator dances with a globe of the earth as though it were his personal plaything until the bubble bursts. The film is polemical in nature in that it is a passionate argument against war and dictatorship. In the film the Great Dictator is ultimately defeated. Whether his downfall is the result of a triumph of reason or of one emotion prevailing over another, you will have to watch the film to discover. The image of the dictator and the globe though is emotionally powerful and perhaps captures more effectively the dangers of dictatorship than a well-reasoned argument.

Nkosi Sikelel i’Afrika

Zain Bhikha

Philip Sidney in his essay “In Defense of Posey” argues that lyric poetry is a powerful tool for motivating people to act. When the African National Congress was trying to overthrow the apartheid government of South Africa they would rally their supporters by singing “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika.” The song so effectively provoked a spirit of solidarity among those resisting the government that its singing was banned. Both the song and the film quickly and effectively produce a result that most would find desirable. But this result is produced by a manipulation of the emotions. The ends produced make the means acceptable but the danger is of course that the emotions could as easily have been manipulated in a different direction as might be suggested by the films of Leni Riefenstahl that documented Hitler’s rise to power.

Poltarnees is perhaps the mountain that stands between what our feelings invite us to believe that our minds might question.  Because emotions can easily be manipulated for the good or the bad care should be taken not to believe too quickly what our passions would endorse. Optimism and pessimism both have their place. We need a spirit of enthusiasm to make the journey and a spirit of caution not to journey too precipitously. The mountain must be climbed if we are to advance but it is the nature of a mountain to retard progress, to require a slow and deliberate assent.

The story “Poltarnees, Beholder of Ocean” ends, “Once every year, with solemn rite and ceremony, they curse the tides of the Sea; and the moon looks in and hates them.” It is in our nature as human beings to quest and to explore and the moon that guides us through the darkness of our uncertainty looks with disfavor on our unwillingness to make the journey.