The Great Sea Serpent

Suddenly, only about the length of a cricket pitch from their port side, an appalling head reared itself out of the sea. It was all greens and vermilions with purple blotches—except where shell fish clung to it—and shaped rather like a horse’s, though without ears. It had enormous eyes, eyes made for staring through the dark depths of the ocean, and a gaping mouth filled with double rows of sharp fish-like teeth. It came up on what they first took to be a huge neck, but as more and more of it emerged everyone knew that this was not its neck but its body and that at last they were seeing what so many people have foolishly wanted to see—the great Sea Serpent.

— from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

When I read this passage as a child, I was less than impressed, having grown up with depictions of sea serpents that looked more like the one below.

Cecil and Beany, Saturday morning cartoon that debuted in 1962

Nevertheless, Lewis’s description quoted above matches what was said about the beast in sailor’s stories and cryptid descriptions of the time: the horse-like head, the round staring eyes, the lengthy body. This description also matches that of Nessie the Loch Ness monster, implying cross-fertilization between lake and sea.

Most of the older depictions look even more ridiculous than the postcard one above, so that Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent may have actually been an improvement. Cecil looks more dragonlike than the earlier illustrations, and, indeed, as the 20th century progressed sea serpents in popular culture began to look more reptilian than piscine, such so they became a species of sea dragon.

In reality, many historians believe sightings of the rare oarfish may have inspired such tales.

While the largest oarfish ever recorded was 26 feet — not very impressive considering the great sea serpent  of legend was huge enough to encircle a ship and crush it in its coils — exaggeration likely inflated its size. Perhaps it was difficult to estimate from a bouncing boat in choppy waters.

Close up of the head of a young specimen, showing the dorsal fin running down its back and the mottled coloring, though I can’t say it’s vermilion and green like Lewis says. (The blotches look purple enough though.) In addition, the oarfish is capable of projecting its jaws outside its mouth, giving it a horselike profile.

(I wonder if Pauline Bayne’s depiction of the Green Witch as serpent was based on a sketch for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader which went unused.)

This artist showing the moment the sea serpent attacks the Dawn Treader is more in the creature-as-dragon camp, giving the monster snakelike scales and ignoring the garish coloring in favor of black.

In this depiction of the same scene the sea serpent looks … part pelican? It also seems way too friendly and doesn’t adhere to the text either.

Now we come to the Dawn Treader movie, which turns the dangerous yet goofy monster of the book into a titanic, slimy, alien nemesis whose attack serves as the plot’s action-filled climax. As I said in an earlier post, I was not a fan of this change, which likely came from the producers. But the concept art was cool.

Here we have the Sea People fighting the creature, whose size seems more reasonable than the kaiju-sized beast that made it into the movie. Remember the sea serpent was long rather than titanic, long enough to encircle the boat several times, yet lightweight enough for the crew to push it out of the way. This early version of the creature is decidedly more fishlike than reptilian, drawing on features of abyssal species like anglerfish for the long pointed teeth and sea robins for the long pectoral fins made for walking on the sea floor.

The sea serpent in the film showing it rearing over the prow of the ship as Edmund flees for his life. Two production designs are below.

This is a terrific design… for a horror / SF movie set on some other planet. It doesn’t belong in Narnia.

It’s kinda like a moray eel… kinda like The Predator of action movie fame… kinda like a watermelon… kinda like a crustacean… and kinda like a cobra with that hood, which is filled with shrimp legs. It’s really disgusting and overcomplicated, and neither are words I would use to describe Narnia.
If a slimy, scary, eel-like monster was what the producers called for, wouldn’t this have been a better choice?

Or this one, which is dinosaur-influenced? Imagine the malicious character one could animate into that face.

I’ll close with this silly but charming 1930s illustration of a flapper mermaid riding a sea serpent, which actually looks more like the serpent according to Lewis’s text than any of the others!

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