Blog – A cruel Carnival: Poe’s Prospero and the Seven Chambers on the Ice

Carnival has come. Here in Holland, over the next few days, hordes of dressed up party-goers will take to the streets and bars for beer, bad music and feverish festivities. I don’t particularly enjoy carnival, but I do enjoy the ideas behind the masked festival.

There is some debate on the etymological roots of carnival: whether it’s derived from Latin carrus navalis (boat wagon), alluding to the big, decorated wagons in disguise used during the festivities, or from Latin carnem levare / carnem vale (to take away the meat / goodbye, meat), since carnival traditionally marks the start of the Lent fasting time.

This last theory is more likely and, if you ask the crews of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, more apt.

The Terror

I recently had the joy of reading horror-epic “The Terror” by Dan Simmons, a novel sublimely marrying the very real, very historical expedition of the ships Terror and Erebus to the North Pole in 1845-47, with elements of supernatural horror. In this book, transformed into a ten-episode TV-show by AMC in 2018, the two ships are frozen into place on the Arctic seas, and their crews have to endure extreme cold, ice slowly crushing the hulls, the threat of scurvy and a slowly declining stock of supplies, all against the backdrop of the endless Arctic nights. And all the while a vast monster, many times more cunning and dangerous than the polar bear, is hunting them.

When more than a dozen men have been taken by the monster and the ice continues to lock the ships into place, the crews decide – with reluctant permission from their melancholy captain – to celebrate a new year’s eve carnival, masquerade and all. There, they will feast on the last of the meat, a polar bear they shot, as they enter what will be the final year of their doomed expedition.

Their captain takes little heed of the preparations, and is shocked when he takes to the ice for the celebrations. His thrifty crews have spent the last few days rigging a zig-zag maze of seven rooms of canvas on the ice, adjoining a small iceberg. Every room is painted a different hue, from blue to purple, green to oranje, white to violet to, finally, the seventh room. With black sails for walls. With ash spread over the ice, a dark cloak to reflect the light from the stars above. And a grandfather clock, at the centre of the room, ticking on inexorably.

Poe’s Prospero

This unusual sequence of coloured rooms was not originally thought up by author Dan Simmons: he bases his carnival on a short story by Edgar Allen Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death”. In this story a Prince, Prospero, has shut his castle to the plague-ridden outside world. Within his walls, he and his nobles amuse themselves until the ‘Red Death’ has passed. To stave off boredom, the Prince throws his nobles a masquerade, within the confines of the very same ‘seven rooms’.

An unwelcome guest appears. A man dressed up as a victim of the Red Death, his face scarred and his flesh rotting. Prospero is angered by this unknown guest’s ill-mannered display, and follows him throughout the seven rooms. Until they enter the seventh, the Black Room, where he confronts his guest.

But there is no mask, no disguise. This is the Red Death himself, and Prince Prospero is struck down with sickness at the heart of his power, quickly followed by his nobles.

There is no escape from death, this story tells us. The seven coloured rooms correspond to the seven stages of man, as Shakespeare wrote. (Red) death travels with the prince throughout these chambers, only to take him away in the last ‘act’ of life.

Carnival and Carpe Diem

Dan Simmons uses this story cleverly. He does not subtly allude to it, because afterwards, in his narrative, it turns out the architect of the arctic celebrations had read Poe. This is historically plausible, considering the fact that Poe’s story was published in 1842, just a few years before the arctic expedition was launched. The morbid theme struck a note with the crewman, who thought it apt for the direness of the situation he and his crew members found themselves in.

Here’s a difference, though: whereas Prospero thinks himself safe out of Death’s reach, the crew members of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus have all but accepted their coming end. With Simmons, it is not the Red Death travelling the seven rooms, but three dressed up crew members: one, headless, displaying the original captain who met his end so gruesomely. And two crew members, one standing atop the other’s shoulders, cloaked in a bear fur, as a macabre ode to the monster hunting the crew.

Carnival is, in both stories, a sort of contempt of death, either by judging oneself exempt from it (Poe) or by grimly smiling back at it (Simmons): this aspect of carpe diem is important to the festival celebrated in so many cultures. Here, in Holland, many will laugh at death even as they celebrate the fleeting joys of life.

I hope their carnival turns out better than Prospero’s, or the one on the ice.

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