Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Flying Dutchman

The FD is a particular subset of the Accursed Wanderer. As the Legend is now commonly rendered, he is the captain of a ship doomed eternally to sail the seas in search of landfall, due to an ill-advised ultimatum he once delivered to the Gods – that he would round a cape (or gain a harbour) in spite of wind and weather, "though I should beat about here until the Day of Judgement". On the rare occasions he comes within hailing distance of another ship, the captain tends to try to send letters home to his long-dead family. The legend – which puts into a maritime venue the story of the Wandering Jew – ends (sometimes) in spiritual redemption, and release from the Bondage of Immortality.

There seems no clear literary provenance for the specific FD story before the first years of the 19th century, although early references to the legend seem to assume it is familiar. Sir Walter Scott, in the notes to his poem Rokeby (1813), indicates that the original ship – which seems to have no name of its own, being usually called, like its captain, The Flying Dutchman – had been carrying a cargo of gold (which caused a murder) and a plague, and a subsequent ban on its ever reaching port.

In an introduction to Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), Alethea Hayter suggests that the FD legend was one of the author's sources. The anonymous "Vanderdecken's Message Home, or The Tenacity of Natural Affection" (1821 Blackwood's Magazine) emphasizes the Belatedness of the tale – the sense that Vanderdecken cannot register the passing of Time – and indicates that the captain uttered his fateful ultimatum sometime in the middle of the 17th century in the region of the Cape of Good Hope. Edward Fitzball's The Flying Dutchman, or The Phantom Ship: A Nautical Drama (produced 1826) repeats this material.

The first literary sign of the possibility of redemption seems to come in "The Memoirs of Herr Von Schnabelewopski" (1834 Salon) by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), whose fictional narrator tells of a possibly genuine theatrical performance in Amsterdam, during which the Devil takes Vanderdecken's oath as a pact, and tells him he'll have to sail the seas until the Last Judgement, unless redeemed by a woman's love. Frederick Marryat, in The Phantom Ship (1839), also offers redemption to the Dutchman, in the form of a fragment of the True Cross. Richard Wagner – who acknowledges Heine – soon transformed this material into the definitive rendering of the legend in his Opera Der Fliegende Hollander (1843).

Later uses of the legend tend to reflect Wagner. W Clark Russell's The Death Ship: A Strange Story (1888; vt The Flying Dutchman 1888 US) involves a tedious shipboard romance. In Edgar Turner's The Submarine Girl (1909) the eponymous lass in her super-sub awakens the FD, marries him, and they live together in South Africa. He settles down in E A Wyke-Smith's The Marvellous Land of Snergs (1927). He features in Master Davy's Locker: A Story of Adventure in the Undersea (1935) by Ernest Wells (1902-    ). In the novel-length "The Shadow" (in Crimes, Creeps and Thrills anth 1936 ed anon John Gawsworth) by E H Visiak his appearance lacks much serious point. The narrator of The Drunken Sailor (1947 chap), a poem by Joyce Cary (1888-1957), is a version of the Dutchman. Richard Matheson's "Death Ship" (1953) re-enacts the story on another planet. The Master Mariner sequence – Running Proud (1978) and Darken Ship: The Unfinished Novel (1980) – by Nicholas Monsarrat (1910-1979) is based on the legend, and was meant to carry its protagonist from the moment he is cursed by a Witch in the 16th century up to a redeemed death in 1978, but the author died too soon to bring the narrative into focus. The FD makes a cameo appearance in Diana Wynne Jones's The Homeward Bounders (1981), and Tom Holt's Flying Dutch (1991) plays a humorous riff on the legend as a whole.

In general, any accursed wanderer in any fantasy who is associated with ships and who is caught in time and who cannot get home is almost certainly intended to echo the FD. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.