Text: Kathleen Sands, “The Mythic Initiation of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Poe Studies, June 1974, Vol. VII, No. 1, 7:14-16


[page 14:]

The Mythic Initiation of
Arthur Gordon Pym

University of Arizona

Like heroes from the beginning of man’s history, the hero of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, in both his shipwreck adventure and his strange journey toward the South Pole, comes to grips with perils and insecurities in patterns that have been discovered by anthropologists and mythologists to be common to all cultures, the rites of passage. The structural duality of the novel has often been considered a serious flaw (1), but the initiation motif provides the work with a unity which bridges the seeming break between the Grampus and Jane Guy adventures, at the same time that it throws light on many of the narrative’s details and its strange conclusion, and accounts for its mysterious power. If Pym is viewed as the initiate whose journeys are in fact a dramatic and symbolic search for unity in the diversity of the world, the two narratives of Arthur Gordon Pym fuse and form a logical progression in the formation of the mythic hero.

In its broadest conception, the initiation myth denotes the stages of an inner journey, not merely the education of the young into the skills of life (2). The events of the rite are symbols of a mental and spiritual growth which eventually delivers the initiate into the knowledge and wisdom of his society. But further, if the hero is one of the chosen, these rites may lead to shamanic initiation, which, if survived, gives him insight into the inscrutable and power over the non-elect (3). To achieve even the rights of manhood, the hero must face perils, endure violence, and, most of all, overcome his own insecurities. To become the shaman or seer, he must repeat the ritual at a higher level of peril in order to penetrate and come to an understanding of the oneness of the universe (4). Both rites of passage are primarily concerned with order and unity, with man attempting to gain communion with his society and gods. Analyzed in the light of a journey through the progressive patterns of manhood rites and shamanic initiation, Poe’s novel possesses an inherent continuity which can be traced through the events in the narrative and which is grounded in its mythic power.

In the first half of his marvelous voyage, Pym struggles with the evils of men and nature, receives his spiritual education, and achieves manhood. This process conforms to the several steps of the ritual Joseph Campbell calls the great monomyth (5). The initiate’s separation from his group, endurance of ordeals and performance of feats, instruction in morality and theology by a guide, who traditionally aids the initiate during his testing period and protects him from the perils of a journey to the underworld, are essential elements of the rite. Finally, the initiate either kills an enemy or performs some type of sacrifice, or both. Having accomplished these steps, the youth is marked in some way or invested with adult objects and returned to his society (6). The order of the ordeals is flexible and varies from culture to culture and even within [column 2:] a given society from one time to another, but the basic pattern of separation, testing and education, and return is uniform in all initiation myths from the rites of baptism in Christian belief, to the ancient “Quest of Gilgamesh,” the Omaha Indian “Thunder Rite,” and the European “Quest of the Holy Grail.” The role of the initiate is a passive one: he endures rather than controls. In conjunction with this passivity is the fact that there are no certain goals in sight; the end of the journey is undefined until manhood is actually achieved.

What Joseph Henderson and Maud Oakes call the separation, transition, incorporation patterns (p. 48) is easily recognizable in Pym’s embarkation aboard the Grampus, his amazing ordeals during the journey toward the equator, and his timely rescue by the Jane Guy. But before the Grampus episode begins, Pym tells of his “desire to go to sea” (7) and his abortive attempt at sailing and subsequent rescue, thus previewing the more comprehensive action of the Grampus narrative. Failure to achieve manhood on the first attempt is not surprising since, by its very nature, the rite is perilous and mysterious. Pym’s partner, Augustus, is doomed to perish during the course of the ordeal Pym survives. The opening incidents, then, provide a microcosm of the initiation to be experienced in the Grampus narrative. The ordeal is too short, of course, to allow the boys to achieve higher status; they keep it secret, recognizing it as an act of folly.

The two youths are not daunted by the narrow escape and the destruction of the Ariel, and Pym, driven by a desire to “grasp life at its most intense . . . to strip life down to its most significant essentials” (8), determines, with encouragement and aid from Augustus, to stow away on the Grampus. But Pym is opposed by his family: in the face of his mother’s hysterics and his grandfather’s threats of disinheritance, he is forced to make his departure clandestine, thus following the usual pattern of separation. In this way an effective break is made with the mother, and the youth is free to enter the society of men upon completion of his spiritual education.

Once aboard the Grampus, his ordeals begin. Patrick Quinn notes:

On board the ship the stowaway’s berth is a coffin-like iron box secreted in one of the holds. The entry to the hold is located in the cabin of Augustus, through a trap door in the floor. Below deck the cargo is so badly disposed, and this also by the plan of Augustus, that Pym finds himself concealed in a kind of labyrinth. There he remains entombed for almost two weeks. He is tormented by famine, nausea, nightmare,, and at one point barely escapes with his life when his dog Tiger, unaccountably appearing in the hold, savagely attacks him (p. 565)

Pym has entered the underworld symbolized by the hold and trap door, and the physical rigors and mental and spiritual tests have begun. Grace Farrell Lee likens the hold to Jonah’s imprisonment in the belly of the whale, a form of descent into hell that leads to a rebirth (p. 28). In the hold, the world is distorted, grotesque, dream-like, and above all perilous. The inner ordeal corresponds with the physical, and the coffin-like box serves to remind Pym and the reader alike how near death is throughout the period of initiation.

The labyrinth, too, is an important factor in the rite, and one that will appear again in the shamanic initiation of the second part of the novel. It is a traditional [page 15:] symbol in the monomyth of initiation, and it “temporarily disturbs the rational conscious orientation to the point that . . . the initiate is ‘confused’ and symbolically ‘loses his way.’ Yet in this descent to chaos, the inner mind is opened to the awareness of a new dimension” (Henderson and Oakes, p. 46) . It is not until Pym has traversed the labyrinth and emerged in Augustus’ cabin that he becomes an active participant in his initiation. From this point onward, he is aware that he must keep his wits about him in order to pass the tests which he must confront. The labyrinth marks a decisive point in the education portion of his initiation.

Once Pym has crossed the labyrinth, he faces a second stage of perils. The crew of the ship has mutinied and the hero and Augustus are threatened with death at the whim of their captors, the most important of which is the half-breed, Peters. Savage and untrustworthy as Peters may appear, he is the boys’ only hope of survival. From his first appearance, he is portrayed as a mentor, however brutal and amoral, and given a prominent part in the narrative. He plays the role of teacher in the rite, advising and supporting young Pym, protecting him at times from death, teaching him the arts of manhood. But he is not a benevolent guide. In keeping with the myth, he is an underworld figure, an ogre. He slaughters the other mutineers without a twinge of mercy. As guide and teacher, he aids the initiate, but he can also abandon the unworthy candidate to doom, as he does Augustus, tossing his decaying body overboard to the sharks. Peters is acquainted with evil and must share it with Pym before the hero can become a man. Pym is symbolically drawn into union with this dark figure when he impersonates the bloated dead man to trick the mutineers. He becomes a kind of ghost, for he is neither boy nor man, but in the limbo of initiation, a resident of a kind of underworld.

At this point in the narrative another significant initiatory event occurs. During the scuffle in the cabin with the mutineers, Pym strikes and knocks unconscious one of the scoundrels. Although Parker survives, by this act Pym symbolically meets the requirement that the initiate kill. Later the sacrifice requirement is literally fulfilled in the ultimate murder of Parker and the eating of his flesh by Pym, Peters, and Augustus. The implications of the gull’s offering of flesh from the mesmeric ship of death are inescapable (Lee, p. 29). Murder and cannibalism are inevitable. This act also indicates, paradoxically, Pym’s essential morality, for only he weighs the moral implications of cannibalism; a part of his spiritual education has been accomplished in this incident.

During the shipwreck Pym undergoes further physical testing through hunger, thirst, and exposure, and, more importantly, spiritual testing of his character. The dreamlike quality evident in the earlier sequences in the ship’s hold appears again in these episodes with hallucination distortion, and the grotesque. Although the primitive powers symbolized by the sea have marked Pym with fatigue and hunger and have changed him spiritually, they do not conquer. Pym and Peters survive and return to the society of men aboard the Jane Guy where Pym takes his hardearned place as a more than able seaman.

In the second part of the narrative, a variation of the [column 2:] quest monomyth, the shamanic initiation, essentially repeats the rites of passage at a higher level of consciousness, incorporating the final progression in the long journey from innocent youth to shaman or seer. In this myth too, separation, purification, and return make up the basic pattern, but this initiation concerns not only education but psychic liberation, freedom from the powers that control men (Henderson and Oakes, p. 41). In the shamanic rite, the initiate must feel a powerful calling. He is then separated from the society of ordinary men and guided by a priest into the underworld where he is tested physically and spiritually. Ascent to heaven to obtain the consecration of God is the final step before the new shaman, or hero, is returned to society. Few respond to the calling, for death threatens at every moment during the rite. The dangers are not merely natural, as in the earlier rite, but wondrous, outside the bonds of conventional physical nature. Since the initiate experiences adventures far beyond the realm of the mundane affairs of common men, he is raised above them and freed from the controls that govern their lives, entering into a contemplative state at one with the cosmos. This deliverance through shamanic initiation sometimes occurs simultaneously with the simpler initiation into manhood, as with Telemachus, but the two rites most frequently are found in progressive order, as is the case with Poe’s hero.

In the second half of the plot, Pym has gained his manhood and abruptly recovers from the frightful episodes aboard the Grampus. Peters too has made an amazing transformation, from a savage to a resolute, wise companion to the hero. As the Jane Guy progresses farther and farther southward, the setting and atmosphere become less and less commonplace, until the ship is totally cut off from any remnant of known civilization. The separation is completed when only Pym and Peters survive the massacre of the crew and are stranded temporarily on the island of the Tsalals, with its gum-arabic streams black, soapy-textured soil, and strange plants. As Lee points out, the questors must pass into the underworld (p. 29), and this island is a kind of Hades where the familiar and the unknown are strangely combined, where absolute evil holds power. The natives are black to their very teeth, and their actions are as black as their bodies, their demonic nature emphasized by their terror of the mysterious white animal with the red teeth which is later associated with the white mist. The sacred animal, grotesque and unnatural, symbolizes a god, a power benevolent to Pym and Peters and fearsome to the evil Tsalals.

The priest-guide is necessary for the survival of the initiate during his journey through Hades and his penetration into the source of power. In Pym’s narrative, Peters’ half-breed background and demonic nature, established in the Grampus narrative, are integral to his role, for in the shamanic initiation, it is essential that the priest-figure be a free agent, answerable to no man, only to supernatural forces. He is a figure who prepares the way for the initiate and instructs him. Peters does this quite literally when he descends the sheer wall of the mountain ahead of Pym and guides the faltering initiate to safety at the bottom. Because he knows evil and is unbounded by commitments to any society, he is objective and wise. It is appropriate that on the island Pym betrays [page 16:] fear while Peters remains calm in the face of danger.

The sequence of events on the island of the Tsalals fits into the initiation pattern in other ways too. The labyrinth motif is repeated; trapped by the avalanche, Pym and Peters must run a maze and scale a wall before reaching safety. Strange symbols, which are incomprehensible to the initiate because he has not yet completed his purification and penetration into the power of the universe, are present. His guide offers no solution, for Pym must achieve his own wisdom. The sacrificial token of admittance, an offering which guarantees safe return from the underworld in some shamanic rites, is represented by Nu-Nu, the terrified Tsalal native. He is destroyed by fear before the boat is engulfed in the mist because he is unworthy to enter with the initiate into the mysteries of the unknown. As one of the evil creatures of Hades, he is fit only for sacrifice.

The final episodes of the narrative represent the ascent to heaven to obtain the consecration of the gods. Only the chosen can survive this ultimate peril in the rite. Charles Eckert explains, “The entire experience is extremely threatening because of the presence of the gods who usually ‘consume’ or ‘kill’ the initiate . . . so that he may return as one ‘reborn to a higher status’” (p. 162). Pym does seem literally consumed by the enfolding mist, “the suprareality,” where primal knowledge and unity exist (Lee, p. 33). But Poe makes Pym’s experience forever uncertain, for the reader (who is not one of the chosen) is excluded from the ultimate experience with the gods. Poe cuts Pym’s story short, leaving the success of his initiation into the priesthood and the details of his return to society ambiguous. There are, however, important clues in the frame of the novel. The fact that in the preface Pym defends the credibility of his adventures, despite their improbability, implies that he has survived his ordeal. Evidence of return is significant; in the rites of passage mere survival is a reliable indication of success, for the initiate who fails is doomed. The shaman rite is no different. Survival of the tests and rebirth, or return, into society are proof of success.

At the end of the novel, we can only speculate on the degree of godlike wisdom Pym has gained from his ordeals. Instead of a narration of events within the engulfing mist, a third voice is abruptly interjected, neither Pym’s nor Poe’s. The narrator of the closing end of the frame discloses Pym’s untimely death (which is not out of keeping with his shamanhood, since a shaman remains mortal) and the unexplained loss of two or three final chapters which “. . . may contain matter relative to the Pole itself, or at least to regions in its very proximity.” The narrator explains that Mr. Poe refuses to fill in the details for fear of inaccuracy and because he does not believe the second half of the narrative, and that Peters, who also survived, resides in Illinois but is unwilling to contribute his aid. So we are left with the white mist towering above, never to share in the extraordinary knowledge Pym has surely acquired in this final step in his priesthood rite. This is Poe’s master-stroke, for whatever might be contained in the “lost” chapters is surpassed by the imagination of the reader. Subtly, he has drawn us into the rite itself, for amazing as Pym’s experiences have been, they are familiar to the subconscious of all men who share in the universal archetypes of initiation.



(1) That the two narratives appear unrelated is undeniable, a bothersome problem because there is an elusive unified power that emanates from the work. As a result, much criticism of the work has centered on thematic repetition in an artempt ro reconcile the seeming fault. L Moffit Cecil, “The Two Narratives of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 5 (1962), 239, contends that the two stories are merely spliced together, since the narrator of the first half is Poe and of the second half Pym himself. Patrick Quinn, “Poe’s Imaginary voyage,” Hudson Review, 4 (1952), 565; revised and reprinted in The French Face of Edgar Poe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 169-215, says that perhaps the success of the work comes from a thematic unity based on the repeated overthrowing of power and authority. But Quinn’s explanation does not fully account for the emotional power of the work. Marie Bonapatte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation (London: Hogarth Press, 1949), pp. 290-352, gives Freudian interpretation to the work, with emphasis on a mother search theme, which takes the hero back toward the womb rather than toward maturation. Sidney P. Moss, “Arthur Gordon Pym, or the Fallacy of Thematic Interpretation,” The University Review, 33 (1967), 299-306, sees the first half of the novel as an initiation plot, but he does not explain the motif nor relate it to the second half of the narrative. More compatible with the mythic viewpoint are the following critics. Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), focuses on Pym’s journey as “a study in the depersonalization of the self” (p. 176), a quest for understanding in an external world that becomes progressively more simple and opaque (p. 173). G. R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), centers his attention on a pattern of ironic perversity, discussing the journey as an attempt “to see through the deceptive illusoriness of the world and discover the primal facts of existence and the self” (p. 176), a comprehensive view I find essentially concurrent with the novel’s mythic motifs. Grace Farrell Lee, “The Quest of Arthur Gordon Pym,” Southern Literary Journal, 4 (1972), 22-33, focuses on the motif of the descent into hell, a pattern that encompasses both narratives, but she does not define any progression in the passing from the first into the second. I must, however, concur in large part with Lee’s interpretation because it penetrates into mythic patterns which may supply unity at a level of consciousness that goes beyond structure and theme.

(2) Joseph L. Henderson and Maud Oakes, The Wisdom of the Serpent (New York: George Briziller, 1963), p. 162.

(3) The Shaman, originally a term used to designate Siberian priests initiated into cosmic understanding, is used commonly by anthropologists to include medicine men, magicians, and priests of various cultures (Henderson and Oakes, pp. 184-185).

(4) Grace Farrell Lee points our, “Each time Pym undergoes a rebirth ordeal he emerges at a deeper level in his descent” (p. 25). If by this she means he has achieved a deeper penetration into the source of cosmic knowledge and power, I fully agree, though I feel the novel demands the term ascent since Pym’s level of consciousness rises markedly with each ordeal.

(5) The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), p. 21.

(6) Charles Eckert, “Initiatory Motifs in the Story of Telemachus,” Myth and Literature, ed. John B. Vickery (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1966), p. 162.

(7) Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket ( New York: Hill and Wang, 1960), p. 5.

(8) John H. Stroupe, “Poe’s Imaginary Voyage: Pym as Hero,” Studies in Short Fiction, 4 (1967), 317.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PS, 1974]