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Non fictional Flags in books

Last modified: 2013-04-04 by peter hans van den muijzenberg
Keywords: books | moby dick | der stechlin |
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Scarlet Letter

For a discussion about the mistaken descripton of the US custom flag, see here

Moby Dick

After being spooked by it's size for many years, I finally got the courage to pick Herman Melville's book "Moby Dick" and read it through. Let me say that my purely subjective appreciation is that the book isn't worth it's fame. It has, however, some qualities, being one of them some vex remarks. It practically ends with a mention to Ahab's ensign (Ahab is the (mad) captain of the ship, the Pequod), whatever that may be, and in page 235 (of 656) in my portuguese edition it reads (my backtranslation - it would perhaps be nice if someone posted the original words):

It is generally admitted that the white, by it's purity, enhances the beauty of many natural things, as marble, lacquer and pearls; it is know that several nations gave this colour a certain royal prominence over the other colours; the old and powerful kings of Pegu attributed to their title of "Lords of the White Elephants" precedence over the rest, and in the banner of the modern kings of Sion that quadruped appears represented in a snowy white. The flag of Hannover also presents the image of a white horse.

And he goes on talking about the virtues of white, including some racist remarks, but without further vex references. Possibly there would have been, if only he knew that a spermwhale appears prominently represented in the municipal flag of São Roque do Pico, Azores, Portugal. A black spermwhale, though...
Jorge Candeias, 08 June 1999


Jorge Candeias has asked for this original text from Moby Dick, Chapter 42: The Whiteness of the Whale.

Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own, as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various nations have in some way recognized a certain royal pre-eminence in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing the title "Lord of the White Elephants" above all their other magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Caesarian heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial colour the same imperial hue;

and then follows the remaining three-fourths, or more, of that sentence. Pegu was a kingdom in what is now Myanmar. It was conquered by the kings of what is now Thailand, though known to Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, as Siam.
John Ayer, 08 June 1999


Der Stechlin

We often discuss imaginary flags in science-fiction books, erroneous flags in history books etc... but much more rarely correct and significant descriptions of real flags in books.

I found a good example in the novel "Der Stechlin" by Theodor Fontane (1819-1898). The book describes the last years of the count Dubslav von Stechlin, who lives in the castle of Stechlin, in the village of Stechlin, near the lake of Stechlin, in the county of Ruppin, Brandenburg and therefore in the historical heart of Prussia. The action takes place after the retirement of Bismarck (1890) and of course the German unification (1870-71).

The book is heavy and a bit tedious to read because a deep knowledge of German/Prussian historical reference would have been needed. There is a general opposition between the ancient, rural kingdom of Prussia and the recent, industrial German Empire, but the details are much more subtle. The Count himself is much more progressive than could be expected from his origin, and looks with humour at the dusk of aristocracy. In the beginning of the book (so if you want to read the flag-related part, you just need to proceed to page 15 out of 419 :-) is the description of the castle of Stechlin and its garden. (If you prefer the original version to my translation from the French translation, the book was published by Carl Hanser Verlag, Muenchen, in 1980.)

"On the top of the [artificial] hill, [stood] a platform with a pole, to which was hoisted the Prussian black and white flag, the whole being in a rather bad condition..Recently, Engelke [the old servant of the house] had wanted to add to this flag a red stripe, but his proposal had been rejected. "Don't do that. I do not agree. The old black and white [flag] is still standing by chance; but if you add red to it , it will surely tear"
Ivan Sache, 21 May 1999