Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Old Word for the Sea

Original cover of Conquerors from the Darkness, closeup of drawn young man's face superimposed on sketchy buildings and sea plants
I somehow thought etymology had always been an interest of mine, but recently I remembered when it may have begun.

I was 11, in sixth grade. I hadn't started reading for pleasure until just before that year in school. I began with biographies of famous Americans as young people, but then moved on to juvenile fiction, including the bit of science fiction I could find in my middle school and small town libraries.

And that led me to Robert Silverberg. I think I read his Time of the Great Freeze first, but my revelation happened in Conquerors from the Darkness.

It sounds a bit silly in summary, but the story is this. At some point in Earth's future, we have been conquered by a race of sea-living aliens. (I always visualized them as looking a bit like Dr. Seuss's Sneeches.) They flooded the Earth, except for a dozen or so floating cities where the remnants of humanity live, indentured to the aliens' centralized plans and needs. (In retrospect, it's easy to see the story has some Cold War influences.)

The protagonist, just-18-year-old Dovirr Stargan, has grown up in one of these cities and bristles at its confines. At the first opportunity, he joins up with a shipful of pirates (called Sea-Lords) who dock at the city. He rightly sees them as the last free men on Earth.

Since this is wish fulfillment written for young teen males, you can probably imagine the general plot outline that follows: Not only are the aliens overthrown, but Dovirr ends up in charge of everything. It's silly, really, but my young self found it satisfying.

The other thing I found, though, was the word Thalassarch. That was the title Silverberg chose for the leader of the Sea-Lords, and he tells the reader about it like this:
It was an ancient title that had come swimming up out of man's remote past. Once there had been a place called Greece and a language called Greek, and there was a word in that language for the sea, the word thalassa. Other words had growth from that. Panthalassa, the sea that was everywhere. Thalassarch, the ruler of the sea. The ancient words had endured, though Greece itself lay under tons of ocean mud.
I think that's when the etymology bug bit me. I looked it up in the dictionary, finding the handful of real English words that derive from thalassa. Who knows if Silverberg's story was a cause or an effect. Maybe if it hadn't been Dovirr Stargan, it would have been someone else soon after. But it was a moment of pure personal interest within a child, driving discovery, and in turn, shaping a lifelong interest.

In some ways, Silverberg's books were an odd choice for an 11-year-old girl, because they're clearly masculinist (I don't remember a single female character in the three books I read that year). But that's a testament to the power of fiction to make connections among people, as Steven Pinker has pointed out.

And in the case of Conquerors, there was even more power to make connections to the love of words.

Postscript: Until writing this post, I couldn't remember what the cover looked like on the hard-cover copy I read back in middle school, but as we all know, Google is our friend. It turns out to have been drawn by none other than Richard Cuffari.

3 comments:

Michael Leddy said...

I love thalassa. It suggests something far vaster and more mysterious than sea.

Tom Olson said...


Funny how that works. Apparently I read Conquerors from the Darkness at about the same age, along with Time of the Great Freeze, Across a Billion Years, and just about any other science fiction I could get my hands on. I think I read it several times, and loved it as any 12-year-old boy would, but over the years the memory faded. I lost the title, and the main character, and the plot (really? It had aliens in it?); but three things remained. A name: it was by Robert Silverberg; an image: tiny bands of primitive humans, wandering across an endless ocean; and a word: Panthalassa. I loved that word. Over the past few years I've tried several times to figure out what book it was, by scrolling through bibliographies (RS wrote a lot of books), but without success. Finally, searching for "Robert Silverberg Panthalassa" led me to your blog, which gave me the title. Now, thanks to The Last Bookstore in LA, I also have a copy. I'm afraid to read it, of course; it is bound to seem hopelessly juvenile. But I'm glad to have the option. Thanks, Number Three!

Daughter Number Three said...

Tom, your comment made my day. I'm very happy to be part of the interweb where people can find a factual answer to a question they've had for a long time.

I have memories of books from my youth that are as vague as yours, and have had some success in identifying them. (Peter Sieruta at the Collecting Children's Books blog helped my ID a couple based on my vague descriptions; but, sadly, he died a few years ago.)

It's odd what parts of a story stick with us through the years, isn't it? Human memory is such an odd thing.