Sunday, July 8, 2012

Ahab's Harpoon

Markus Felix Bühler was kind enough to send over pictures of a personal project inspired by "Moby Dick"- Ahab's harpoon. It's a great piece of work.

Just a short time ago I finally managed to finish my last project and thought you could be interested in it. It´s something very different from all the things I´ve made before, a reproduction of a whaling harpoon, which dates to around the early or middle 19th century. I think this things look just very cool, and I wanted one to hang it among the other curiosities on my wall.

I can do some smithery, but such a piece would surpass my possiblities, as I have (still) no forge. So I had to trick a bit, but that´s of course a main aspect of prop-making. I sculpted the harpoon head from sculpey and the rod is wood. The grommet is actually forged from a thick piece of a steel plate. Everything is glued together, and the sculpey and wood parts painted. Sadly the silver-colour was quite viscosous and concealed some of the details. It was a common practice to add the name of the whaling ship to a harpoon, and to make my model to more than only a fake harpoon but a prop, I chose the name of the most famous fictional whaling vessel - the Pequod from "Moby Dick".

It was not that easy to make the coil around the grommet, because most strings I had looked very different from the original tared hemp or manilla which was used. Of course I could have bought real tarred hemp line, but this stuff is quite expensive, and I needed only around 2 m. So I bought cotton line and painted it with coffee, to get a hemp-like and also somewhat darkened colouration.

I've always been surprised that there aren't more literary props. Fans spend an inordinate amount of time crafting items from even abysmally bad movies, but props based on books are vanishingly rare. Lovecraft's works are an obvious exception. I think that can be attributed to two factors. First, the popularity of the "Call of Cthulhu" role-playing game and it's tradition of player handouts. Second, the fact that Lovecraft encouraged artists, most notably Clark Ashton Smith, to give his creations physical form.

The one non-Lovecraft literary item I'd love to have is a variable sword from Larry Niven's "Ringworld" books. The description has stuck with me since I first read it back in the 70s.

"I have a variable-sword," said Speaker-to-Animals. "I urge calm." The kzin stood against a curved wall. In one clawed fist he held something like an oversized jump rope handle. Ten feet from the handle, held expertly at the level of the kzin's eyes, was a small, glowing red ball. The wire which joined ball to handle was too thin to be visible, but Louis didn't doubt it was there. Protected and made rigid by a Slaver stasis field, the wire would cut through most materials including the back of Louis's crash couch.

One of these days I'll get around to ordering parts for the handgrip from one of the custom lightsaber shops.


Phil said...

Oh I agree. Having done scale modelling for a number of years, nothing bugs me quite as much as 'rivet counters' who are more than happy to tell you a piece is a few millimeters too short, or that there's a rivet missing. With literary props theres some room for interpretation.

Theres a reference in one of the Sherlock Holmes stories to a man who died of a heart attack after looking at a previously unidentified worm that was kept in a match box. I so want to take a crack at making one.

Markus said...

This story sounds really interesting Phil, do you remember from which novel this was? I know a lot Sherlock Holmes stories, but this one is unknown to me.
It would be really cool to sculpt an own account of a creature which looks so horrific that it can cause a heart attack.

CoastConFan said...

The harpoon is quite nice. As much as I like Moby Dick and its imagery, I really like the less known Melville novel Confidence Man.

The worm reference piqued my interest and memory, so after a bit of sleuthing, I found that it is an oblique reference to an unsolved or uncompleted case. The reference is from The Problem of Thor Bridge, first published in the Strand Magazine 1922, later in The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes.

@ Propnomicon, I was a big fan of Larry Niven back in the 1970s. In fact, I have been revisiting some 70s works, having just reread Hiero’s Journey, having read it back when it was a new work.

DrPnakotic said...

Making a forge is actually pretty easy. I made one in my back yard using a metal crayon box, steel mesh, an A/C conduit and a hairdryer. It can get things orange hot, and I'm still perfecting it, but it's great for small projects that need some bent metal or metal shapes you can't really get with a propane torch.

Amanda C. Kooser said...

I love this piece and the idea of people creating more literary props. Phil's reference to Sherlock Holmes does remind me that the Holmes community is probably more active than most in the prop world. My home office is decorated like Sherlock's living room, so I have vintage prints from the time, a bust of Napoleon, a Persian slipper and other items.

They are more found than made, though. I think this might inspire me to explore making some of the odder items mentioned in the Doyle stories.

Markus said...

Here is the original description how Ahab´s harpoon was fashioned, forged from the horseshoe nails of racing horses and barbs made from razors, ulitmately tempered in the blood given by the four harpooners of the vessel:

This particular harpoon for Ahab was meant to be the best harpoon ever made, for the fiercest whale of the seas. In the famous movie from 1954 the harpoon of Ahab had only a normal arrow-head-like head, but I decided to give my harpoon little extra-barbs, because this looks much cooler. Harpoons with this extra-barbs were more expensive than normal harpoons, and there is a good case to believe that Ahab wanted his harpoon with this double-barbs, to make it as hard to pull out of the whale´s flesh as possible. I have seen historic harpoons in museums and I tried to make my model as close to the original pieces as possible. It´s hard to see, but the pole for example is not consistently thick, but narrower in the middle as the old harpoons were, and it is also not of perfect round profile, but like a piece of steel forged round with a hammer.

Phil said...

CoastConFan beat me to it. But heres the quote:

"A third case worthy of note is that of Isadora Persano, the well-known journalist and duellist, who was found stark staring mad with a match box in front of him which contained a remarkable worm said to be unknown to science."

I'm currently working my way through all the Holmes stories. Darn things are terribly addictive, and the writing style surprisingly contemporary. (important to me after I failed miserably at reading Poe).

Of course now that I've suggested it, there'll probably be a dozen or more on these pages before I can even break out the Skulpy. :)

CoastConFan said...

Now that you have made a harpoon of the Pequod, you need to make Ahab’s whale ivory leg. This possessed limb made from whale jawbone attacks Ahab at one point being “violently displaced” before all but piercing him. I imagine it all covered in strange and mystic symbols like the New England hex signs but also possibly darker signs. A demon with a demon leg chasing another demon, goes well with the sextant-smashing madness scene, “Thou canst not tell where one drop of water or one grain of sand will be to-morrow noon”.

Markus said...

CoastConaFan and Phil, thanks for the further information about the Sherlock Holmes Story. This would be really a great prop to make. I actually knew an audio drama version of this story, but it sadly lacked the reference of the worm in the box.

DrPnakotic, it was actually more the lack of time than the lack of knowledge how to build a forge what did deter me from builind my own forge. I have now a bit more time, and also a good place where I could instal a small forge as well. I used a small propane torch for my last forged pieces, but it just doesn´t work to make bigger things red-hot, and it needs very long as well.
I already thought about some more harpoons, as there are also other models, for example with an unilateral barb, or even with movable barbs. At first I wanted to make a full replica of a harpoon, including the wooden pole and line, but this would be really too big for my wall, but who knows, perhaps anytime...

Ahab´s leg would be also of course a great prop. As far as I remember his original prothesis broke during the journey, and the carpenter on the vessel shape a new leg in lathe.

Artsnark said...

wonderful work! Love the idea of literary props

Raven said...

I have always harbored the personal conviction (not canonical) that Kzinti are polydactylic, giving them the extra dexterity their clawed digits might otherwise lack.

That plus my slightly superstitious suspicion linking them to the polydactylic cats of Ernest Hemingway and Leslie Fish (who breeds them to be hyper-intelligent)....

In any case, I think it would be Really Neat if any Kzin-handled weapon were designed for a polydactylic, clawed grip to use. It would emphasize the alienness of the piece.