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"The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" are a series of "sketches," or short prose works, about the Galapagos Islands. They are primarily written from Melville's own experience sailing around the islands; however, it should not be supposed that the narrator is supposed to be Melville himself. In fact, Melville originally published "The Encantadas" under a pseudonym.
Before each sketch is a few lines of poetry, most of them from Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queen.
The first sketch gives the reader an introduction to the "enchanted islands" of the Galápagos. The narrator notes that they are primarily the creation of volcanic ash, built up over thousands of years in the ocean. This volcanic origin is why all the islands are covered with "clinkers"—small, black volcanic rocks. They are very isolated, due to their position far out in the ocean. There are a few dozen different islands. They run along the equator, and so they have a tropical climate, and no seasons. With a few exceptions, the islands are uninhabitable, owing to a lack of water, food and shelter. The only animals are primarily reptilian: snakes, lizards and tortoises, with a few million giant spiders thrown in for good measure. Most plants are tangled and prickly. The area is difficult for sailors to visit, due to the strange sea currents created by the island chain. The narrator ends the description by noting that he is sometimes affected by an optical illusion, in which he seems to see a tortoise crawling toward him with the word "Memento..." in flaming letters on its back.
The second sketch describes an encounter between the narrator and a tortoise. The ship's crew brings three tortoises aboard, and the narrator examines them closely. He is fascinated by how ancient they seem to be, judging from the old cracks and scars on their shells. He also notes their stubbornness, as they attempt to push over or through any object they encounter when walking: "Their crowning curse is their dredging impulse to straightforwardness in a belittered world." The next night, however, the tortoises are served for dinner, and their shells are hollowed out and made into giant soup-bowls.
In the third sketch, the narrator tells us about the Rock Redondo, a huge stone tower situated on one of the islands. Over two hundred feet tall, the Rock affords a grand view of its particular island and the surrounding ones. The narrator observes that many sea birds make their nest along the naturally- occurring tower, beginning with penguins at the bottom, proceeding through various gulls and pelicans until reaching the large sea gulls at the top. The noise of the birds is deafening throughout the day.
The narrator climbs the Rock Redondo in the fourth sketch. After noting how impossibly difficult the climb is, the narrator briefly describes some of the surrounding islands. He then tells the story of how the islands were discovered. For many years, sailors made the journey from Peru to Chile by following near the coast. This was a dangerous route, due to the sea currents. Then a famous pilot, Juan Fernandez, tried sailing further away from the coast to make the journey, and met with great success. In the process of sailing so far out, he discovered the Galápagos Islands. One of the islands is named after him. The narrator describes two islands in particular, Narborough and Albemarle, noting wryly that their population consists almost exclusively of spiders, snakes and lizards.
The fifth sketch tells the story of the U.S.S. Essex, an American battleship during the War of 1812 that sailed near the Galápagos. While there, it encountered a ship that it believed to be one of their British enemy's ships. When they first came close, the ship ran up an American flag, but the Essex captain still thought they were British. The Essex was pushed away by tough sea currents, and when they returned later in the day, the ship was then flying British colors. The British ship then vanished into the sea and was never seen again, according to the narrator.
"The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" walk the fine line between fact and fiction. The sketches are based primarily on Melville's own experiences in the Galápagos Islands. The Galápagos, of course, are the islands made famous by Charles Darwin when he used their wildlife to develop his theory of evolution. There was enormous public interest in these tropical destinations during this period; Melville had already had great success with Typee and Omoo, novels that were both based on his experiences in the tropics (mostly with its native peoples). After the commercial failure of Moby-Dick, Melville returned to a topic he knew he could sell. However, his writing style had changed significantly since Typee, so "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" are enriched with symbolism and contemplation. In spirit, they are closer to Moby-Dick than Melville's earlier novels.
"The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" should not be mistaken for nonfiction. Though Melville is writing primarily from his own experiences, he also weaves in stories and material he has read in other sources, or heard from other sailors. In fact, Melville originally published "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" under a pseudonym. The narrator of "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles," therefore, should not be identified with Melville any more than the first-person narrator of a true novel would.
"The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" is not a short story in the traditional sense, but rather a series of short stories woven together around a common theme: the Galápagos Islands and their "enchanted" nature and which together do tell a sort of unified story. Melville brings together recorded history, folklore, traditions, and firsthand maritime experience in ten "sketches." The poetry that prefaces each sketch is intended to evoke a certain mood, or perhaps even a particular muse. Most of the poetic lines have something to do with the topic discussed in the sketch. For instance, the preface for the first sketch, from Spenser's The Faerie Queen is a speech from a Ferryman describing the "Wandering Islands"—mysterious lands, full of "deadly daunger and distressed plight." The poem makes a link in the reader's mind between "enchanted islands" and the Galápagos Islands that the narrator then describes in the sketch.
The actual Galápagos Islands, the narrator quickly reveals, are hardly a tropical paradise. With a few exceptions, the islands are primarily hunks of ashy, volcanic rock, littered with "clinkers" and populated by lizards, snakes and huge spiders. It is hardly an "enchanting" place—if by enchanting one means charming. (Melville does think the islands are charming, but not in a traditional way.) In this case, Melville means the islands are not "enchanting" but "enchanted"—magical, and not always in a good way. "Enchanted" can also mean haunted.
The first five sketches are primarily concerned with giving the reader an impression of the physical features of the islands, and also some of their history. But some powerful, classic Melville moments appear, such as the memorable scene in which the narrator envisions an ancient tortoise walking past, the word "Memento..." in flames on its back. The meaning of this scene is unclear, but it is a powerful image.
The tortoises also serve as an important symbol elsewhere. Some of Melville's dry humor comes across in the sentence, "[The tortoises'] crowning curse is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a belittered world." This clever line works on two levels. It can be taken literally—the tortoises suffer in the world because they are too dumb to go around objects; and it can be read metaphorically, pertaining to people who are too narrow-minded to overcome the "obstacles" that appear in their own "belittered world." It is a slight, wry nudge to those tortoises of the human world that refuse to go around problems when they can't go through them.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Melville Stories!