“Ahab and the Carpenter” walks an interesting line between comic relief and central storyline. In one view, the chapter consists of little more than a flummoxed ship’s carpenter stammering off-balanced replies to Ahab’s maudlin ravings. In another view, the ship’s carpenter exposes, or even criticizes, Ahab’s faulty logic with every comical “oh dear!” In this second view, the ship’s carpenter plays the role of court jester to Ahab, turning the chapter into a considerably less dispensable moment of levity than pure comic relief.
According to some random person on Wikipedia, court jesters came in two varieties — the natural fool, and the licensed fool. The natural fool was seen to be touched by God, and as such privileged to (and expected to) criticize the king. The licensed fool was given the same privilege (and expectation) by decree of the king. In either case, the fool could play foil to the king’s decisions.
In either case, the ship’s carpenter certainly challenges many of Ahab’s lunacies: “What was that now about one leg standing in three places, and all three places standing in one hell — how was that?” And we learn from this criticism that Ahab himself is far too “touched by God” in this book, especially by Chapter 108, for any amount of jest to sway his higher faculties of reason. In other words, Ahab’s indifference to the fool proves that he is not relying on reason to decide his fate.
Chapter 108: Ahab and the Carpenter
He’s the unsung jester;
He presides with sniff and sneeze.
He’s a bullshit tester;
He’s a flutter up in the eaves.
With a hem and haw
Pointed high and low —
Nothing tests your wits
Like a man who’s slow,
And Ahab stares into the great unknown expanse,
A litmus shifting with the man’s unknowing plans.
(c) and (p) 2010 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 16, 2010
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea December 17, 2010