Perhaps the most famous flood story in literature concerns one that fails to happen in a book that was never written. Children all over the world have been transfixed by the tale of the little Dutch boy who is on his way home one evening and spots a hole in a dyke, then spends the whole night in the freezing cold blocking it with his finger, knowing that if for a moment he deserts his post, the waters will rush in, bringing disaster to his neighbours and loved ones.
Those who believe the story is true, or at the very least a time-honoured legend, can be forgiven, as a number of Dutch towns have put up memorials to the young hero (pictured). In fact, the tale comes from a book-within-a-book, written in 1865 by the American children’s writer, Mary Mapes Dodge. Her Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates includes a passage in which a school class reads the little boy’s story aloud from a fictional work called The Hero of Haarlem.
My new book Flood: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books) tells how floods have been described in literature from Alexander Pushkin through George Eliot, Emile Zola, William Faulkner and Mervyn Peake to modern science fiction.
A number of fictional accounts, such as Pushkin’s epic poem, The Bronze Horseman, and Zola’s ‘naturalist’, almost documentary, story, The Flood, are based on real events, while modern writers as diverse as J. G. Ballard, Bernard Malamud and Stephen Baxter have conjured up world-destroying apocalyptic deluges.
*Flood: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books. ISBN 978 1 78023 196 9) also includes chapters on the deadliest floods in history, how so many religions have stories of apocalyptic floods, how floods have been portrayed in art and films, how some of the most ambitious structures ever built by humans have been erected to protect against flooding, and how climate change may now be making humanity more vulnerable than ever to the waters.