Notes & Maps


Come on a wild, weird clime,
That lieth, sublime,
Out of Space — out of Time.

Welcome to Power Encantadas, a hypertext, annotated edition of Herman Melville’s work The Encantadas; or, Enchanted Isles (1856) that aims to create a simple, direct reading/teaching interface that equips any reader at the high school level or above with all the tools necessary to understand the text. The website was built as a senior English thesis project at Vassar College, and is devoid of advertisement, as multimedia as possible, free, and full of useful accompanying materials and sources for further reading.  The annotation aims to make accessible Melville’s often esoteric vocabulary and obscure 19th century allusions that leave many would-be readers flustered, exhausted, and reaching for the remote.  My hope is, rather than guessing at vocabulary words in context, or overlooking these frequent allusions, a reader using these annotations will instead be equipped to appreciate Melville’s unique and unprecedented style of writing, his technique of building composite, multifaceted symbols and ideas through conglomerated, diverse references to analogous worldwide phenomena that eludes any attempt at simple categorization.  Instead, Melville asks us to take an imaginative journey with his allusions and references (and even etymologies) to foreign lands, cultures, arts, and invites us into a world of contemplative imagination — this is the central delight of reading Melville, which I hope this website makes more accessible.

Publishing History

The Encantadas comprises a series of ten short “sketches,” each no more than 12 or so pages (the shortest being hardly over a single page) about the Galapagos Islands or “Las Encantadas” as they were called by the Spanish in the 17th century. It is but one short story in a greater compilation called The Piazza Tales (1856), which contains other stories such as Bartleby the Scrivener, Billy Budd, Sailor, and Benito Cereno. Before The Piazza Tales, however, Melville published The Encantadas in three installments of Putnam's Monthly Magazine, from March - May 1854.1 He used the pseudonym "Salvator R. Tarnmoor," a deliberately constructed name combining the Spanish first name "Salvator" (meaning "savior") with the compound last name "Tarnmoor" (tarn: "a small lake or pool," from the Old Norse root terne; and moor: meaning "marsh" as well as recalling the Moors of North Africa and Spain).2 The middle initial 'R' is perhaps a nod to Salvator Rosa (1615-1637), an Italian Baroque painter whom Melville admired.3 The pseudonym racially yokes the Spanish first name with the compound Scandanavian and Arabic last name, mixing both the idea of mountain pools and marshy swamps, white and black, conquest and imperialization.

It is of note that Melville in his early letters called the sketches "Tortoise Hunting" or "Tortoise Hunters," revealing to some extent the weight and importance the Galapagos Tortoise would hold as a symbol in The Encantadas.4 At the time of publication in 1856 (and even earlier in 1854) Melville's was in dire financial straits. It was a dark time for him as he wrestled with his own looming depression, which was exacerbated by the fact that his recent books (Moby-Dick, 1851; and Pierre, 1852) had been met with little fiscal or critical success.5 Unfortunately, by August of 1856, he had yet to sell enough copies of The Piazza Tales to cover the initial cost of printing.6 The reviews from the critics, however, were rather good, often comparing Melville to Edgar Allen Poe and debating which of the short stories was the best of The Piazza Tales and which of the sketches was the best of The Encantadas.7 One anonymous reviewer lauded Melville as "a kind of wizard; he writes strange and mysterious things that belong to other worlds beyond this tame and everyday place we live in."8 Generally speaking, contemporary readers of Melville loved his early works of exotic, daring sea adventure, like Typee (1846)and Omoo (1847) but could not contend with the profound, metaphysical philosophy that permeates his later works.


Why The Encantadas?

Melville is so well-known for Moby-Dick that his short stories often fall by the wayside. Even within curricula that do include his short stories, The Encantadas so often is overlooked in favor of Bartleby the Scrivener, Benito Cereno, and Billy Budd, Sailor. I find this puzzling, because much of the form and content of this short story is so distinctly representative of Melville’s genius, and also simultaneously lends itself to teaching. Each sketch is engaging, dynamic, brief, and forces one to approach the text in a different manner from the previous sketch — this provides for a wide range of what can be taught and learned from any given reading. The Encantadas echoes so many of the themes and issues that Melville struggled with throughout his entire literary career, his sense of the dark side of nature, the duality of the universe, the unknowable, inscrutable, and unspeakable. In Hunilla (Sketch Eighth), we see the silence of Bartleby, the unspeakable grief that resides in the realm of the infandum. In the monster Oberlus (Sketch Ninth), we see the darkest, bestial side of human nature which would enslave and control the very thoughts of another human being. In the Dog-King (Sketch Seventh), we see the power-hungry avarice that would turn an empty island into a tyrannical autocracy, and later, a "riotocracy". The text is dense—as all Melville’s works are—and rewards infinite reading and rereading; yet simultaneously The Encantadas possesses a merciful brevity that allows it to be easily divided and paced appropriately for any reading group. And best of all, with the help of this website’s annotations, teachers and students alike can spend less time thinking “what on Earth does is ‘Aracama’ mean?” and more time considering “how is this comparison fitting? what is Melville getting at?”

It is difficult to classify The Encantadas as a literary work, as the sketches vary in their relationship to one another, and the approach of the narrator shifts from sketch to sketch; thus Melville gives us short stories, travel journals, poetry, legends, taxonomies, and pure description. The scattered variety of writing within the sketches reflects the islands themselves, like "five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there...and magnified into mountains." The islands—we can be sure—are a microcosm of the universe, not unlike the Pequod or the Neversink; the multitude of styles Melville uses to describe the islands begs for analysis and interpretation. To the student interested in American Transcendentalism, see Howarth's excellent article "Earth Islands" and consider whether or not the Hermit Oberlus can be considered as a Melvillian parody of Thoreau's Walden.9 To another interested in evolution and Darwin's visit to the Galapagos a mere six years before Melville, consider to what degree Melville is responding to Darwin, perhaps even mocking him.10 One might wonder how the first edition differs from later editions, or want to know more about the pirates, whalers, and buccaneers Melville references. The urge to parse out and analyze the unity of the ten sketches has generated numerous excellent scholarly essays that consider the idea of evil, a fallen world, and hell on earth.11 There is much to be considered with regards to Melville's source material (see the annotated bibliography), in comparing Melville's Spenserian epigraphs to their originals, indeed in comparing Melville's rhetorical axioms to the scientific and historic facts about the Galapagos (see Porter's travel journal in particular)—how much is he imagining and how much is surprisingly real? The sketches open themselves for comparison to Shakespeare (particularly The Tempest), Spenser's The Faerie Queen, Milton's Paradise Lost, Dante's Divine Comedy, the works of Emerson and Thoreau, the Bible, and any of Melville's other works. In short, The Encantadas is the perfect short story for any teacher forced by time constraints to teach a single, representative work of Melville’s oeuvre that fits into a greater curriculum of American literature.

How to Use the Sidenotes

To meet these ends (both of teaching and of learning), I have focused my annotations on those many, tangential allusions that sprout out of any given paragraph. Generally, I try to avoid imposing my own interpretation on any reference in favor of simply providing concise, relevant information from which the gentle reader can draw his or her own conclusions. Take, for example, Melville’s second sketch, “Two Sides to a Tortoise,” in which Melville creates a universal symbol out of these famous Galapagos denizens:

These mystic creatures, suddenly translated by night from unutterable solitudes to our peopled deck, affected me in a manner not easy to unfold. They seemed newly crawled forth from beneath the foundations of the world. Yea, they seemed the identical tortoises whereon the Hindu plants this total sphere... Such worshipful venerableness of aspect! Such furry greenness mantling the rude peelings and healing the fissures of their shattered shells. I no more saw three tortoises. They expanded — became transfigured. I seemed to see three Roman Coliseums in magnificent decay...The great feeling inspired by these creatures was that of age: dateless, indefinite endurance. And in fact that any other creature can live and breathe as long as the tortoise of the Encantadas, I will not readily believe. Not to hint of their known capacity of sustaining life while going without food for an entire year, consider that impregnable armor of their living mail. What other bodily being possesses such a citadel wherein to resist the assaults of Time?
These three tortoises become a point of prolonged meditation for Melville’s narrator, who imagines them in many forms: as some sort of primordial, Cthulu beast from the “foundations of the world”; as Kurma, a turtle reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu; as three, miniature Roman Coliseums; as three-walled cities—and that is just to start. The very fact that there are three tortoises in the first place calls for a Trinitarian interpretation (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), that is juxtaposed with the comparison to the pagan, foreign, mysterious, exotic, Hindu faith. We must further consider the story of Kurma, the turtle reincarnation of Vishnu, who saved the world from destruction by supporting it atop his shell (one thinks of Atlas, too). Yet understanding these tortoises within the context of religion (be it Christianity or Hinduism) is not enough — Melville also sees them as warriors, as walking, miniature coliseums with shells like the battered shields of gladiators; as if this is what would become of Achilles were he to live into old age. We are meant to understand their lives as long, brutal, and in a state of unceasing battle; these are immortal tortoises — tortoises of “dateless, indefinite endurance.” As the narrator goes to sleep he hears them scratching around the deck and he considers their stubbornness, their “strange infatuation of hopeless toil,” the way they struggle “heroically” against boulders and wedge themselves against rocks. Their struggle is both Sisyphean in its pointlessness, yet also venerable by dint of fierce determination and — to some degree — pathetic. The narrator recalls an old sailor’s yarn about tortoises being the imprisoned souls of evil sea captains and commodores (Sketch First), which forces us to reconsider these “enchanted” inhabitants of the Encantadas. If we take the Galapagos islands as a vision of hell on earth, then we must understand the tortoises, “hardly of the seed of the earth,” as the devils populating it, as the enchanted souls of dead captains, as Sisyphuses among the boulders, as Tantaluses without water, as Ixions eternally strapped to their shells, smoldering among the cinders, as purposeless Kurmas, doomed to roam eternally without a world to support. Time is a prison from which there is no escape.

Yet all this interpretation is subverted by Melville’s Manichean understanding of the tortoise-symbol:

Moreover, everyone knows that tortoises as well as turtles are of such a make that if you but put them on their backs you thereby expose their bright sides without the possibility of their recovering themselves, and turning into view the other. But after you have done this, and because you have done this, you should not swear that the tortoise has no dark side. Enjoy the bright, keep it turned up perpetually if you can, but be honest, and don't deny the black. Neither should he who cannot turn the tortoise from its natural position so as to hide the darker and expose his livelier aspect, like a great October pumpkin in the sun, for that cause declare the creature to be one total inky blot. The tortoise is both black and bright.

The duality of the tortoise is a microcosm of the universe — all good things have a bad side, and all bad things have a good, just as tortoises have a bright side and a dark side. These creatures are both heroic and pathetic, their struggle is a testament to the power of life to endure and also the curse of immortality. However—and here's the twist—in order to see the bright side of a tortoise, one must flip it on its back, an uncomfortable, vulnerable position that is rather cruel and reflective of Melville’s occasionally dark sense of humor. When Melville compares these tortoises to miniature coliseums, it is easy to overlook that the only way for a tortoise to resemble such structure is if it is flipped on its shell; Melville seems to be tricking his readers.12 

At the end of this scene, the narrator is cut short as he drifts into a dream where he sits, flanked by two Brahmins (also on tortoise-back) supporting “the universal cope.” This Christian liturgical garment is put right alongside Hindu Brahmins to form an image of meditative enlightenment. Our narrator has shifted away from acherontic imagery into a dream of heaven—a hybrid Hindu-Christian stupa of sorts—as if somehow these creatures are in cahoots with God as part of a divine imagining of the universe. The final irony strikes hard on the shell: Melville’s narrator wakes up to find his shipmates eating the tortoises; all this meditation is for not; it is absurd. These creatures, holy or damned, for all practical purposes are nothing more than a delicious dinner that comes conveniently packaged with bowl and platter.


John Ruden describes Melvilles technique of building these diverse symbols, such as the tortoise, as a "montage effect", though I like to think of it as a "conglomerated" or "aggregative" symbolism.13 Regardless of what you call it—perhaps "universal symbol" fits our purposes best for now—his genius as a writer is founded upon his ability to create these enormous, complex metaphors, whether it be the white whale and the Pequod or the Galapagos Tortoise and Rock R0dondo. Melville simply does not lend himself to easy answers, "for consider the vacillations of a man", he muses in Sketch Sixth. The world of Melville is not easy, it is not for the faint-hearted; yet, while he demands close attention and careful reading, he also rewards meditation and rereading. Hawthorne once described him as one who "can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other."14 Would that we all were of such a mind, of one mind good! It is the struggle, the toil of the tortoises, not just within the text, but within life itself that makes reading Melville so worthwhile. I can only hope that this annotation makes this reward (or "guerdon," to use Melville's word Sketch Eighth) available to a wider audience.

I'll close with a concession Melville made in a letter he wrote to a friend in 1877 which, I feel, embodies a wonderful, universal, confounding sort of wisdom that can only come from a man of monumental genius who has long tortured himself with the great questions of existence:

Life is so short, and so ridiculous and irrational (from a certain point of view) that one knows not what to make of it, unless—well, finish that sentence yourself.15


See Annotated Bibliography for more information.

1 Melville, Herman, Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, G T. Tanselle, and Merton M. Sealts. The Piazza Tales: And Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1987) p. 601.

2 Margaret Yarina, “The Dualistic Vision of Herman Melville’s ‘The Encantadas,’” (The Joural of Narrative Technique 3, 1973) p. 142.

3 Jonathan Beecher, "Variations on a Dystopian Theme: Melville's 'Encantadas,'" Utopian Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2 (2000), p. 89.

4 Merrell R. Davis and William Gilman, eds., The Letters of Herman Melville, (New Haven, Conn., 1960), p.164.

5 Yarina, p. 141.

6 M. M. Sealts, Jr., "The Publication of Melville's Piazza Tales,"(Modern Language Notes, LIX, 56 Jan., I944) p.58.


7 Higgins, Brian, and Hershel Parker. Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) p. 467-483.

8 Watson G. Branch, Melville, the Critical Heritage. (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1974) p.355.

9 William Howarth, "Earth Islands: Darwin and Melville in the Galapagos," (The Iowa Review,
Vol. 30, No. 3, Winter, 2000/2001), p. 110.

10 See especially William Howarth's and Denise Tanyol's articles in the annotated bibliography.

11 See especially Margaret Yarina's and Isle Newbery's articles in the annotated bibliography.

12 William B. Stein, "Meville's Comedy of Faith," English Literary History, XXVII, (Dec., 1960) p. 322-23; argues that Melville here ironically and somewhat cruelly tricks his readers.

13 John Paul Runden, "Imagery in Melville's Shorter Fiction"(unpublished dissertation, Indiana University, 1952), p 130.

14 Letter from Nathaniel Hawthorne, 12 November 1856.

15 Letter to John C. Hoadley, March 31 1877.