Monday, 16 May 2016

Tortoises in "The Encantadas"

Reading Moby Dick, a newbie (at least this one) is likely to wonder if Melville, like Ishmael, is obsessed with whales. But no. In these short stories and novellas I’ve been reading, whales are only mentioned in passing, or not at all. In “Cock-A-Doodle-Do” for example, the narrator writes about a rooster the way Ishmael writes about whales, showing that Melville’s able to read meaning into everything and elevate all creatures into something higher, something philosophic and symbolic. 
In “The Encantadas”, he focuses on tortoises. 

(photo source)
The short story, in the form of travelogue, comprises of 10 sketches. Sketch 1st is an overview of the Encantadas or the Enchanted Isles—here tortoises are mentioned for the 1st time: 
“Little but reptile life is here found: tortoises, lizards, immense spiders, snakes, and that strangest anomaly of outlandish nature, the iguana.” 
Melville, as Salvator R. Tarnmoor, mentions the superstition that wicked sea captions are at death transformed into tortoises, and remarks:
“Doubtless, so quaintly dolorous a thought was originally inspired by the woebegone landscape itself; but more particularly, perhaps, by the tortoises. For, apart from their strictly physical features, there is something strangely self-condemned in the appearance of these creatures. Lasting sorrow and penal hopelessness are in no animal form so suppliantly expressed as in theirs; while the thought of their wonderful longevity does not fail to enhance the impression.” 
Gertrude Stein would say, a tortoise is a tortoise is a tortoise. The narrator would laugh. He dedicates the whole sketch 2nd to tortoises and turns meditative: 
“In view of the description given, may one be gay upon the Encantadas? Yes: that is, find one the gaiety, and he will be gay. And, indeed, sackcloth and ashes as they are, the isles are not perhaps unmitigated gloom. For while no spectator can deny their claims to a most solemn and superstitious consideration, no more than my firmest resolutions can decline to behold the specter-tortoise when emerging from its shadowy recess; yet even the tortoise, dark and melancholy as it is upon the back, still possesses a bright side; its calipee or breastplate being sometimes of a faint yellowish or golden tinge. Moreover, everyone knows that tortoises as well as turtle 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 dark and light/ black and bright issue he has explored in other works (in Moby Dick and “The Fiddler” especially), Melville now brings to the tortoise. 
Earlier, the narrator speaks of tortoises as haunting reminders of mortality: 
“… often in scenes of social merriment, and especially at revels held by candlelight in old-fashioned mansions, so that shadows are thrown into the further recesses of an angular and spacious room, making them put on a look of haunted undergrowth of lonely woods, I have drawn the attention of my comrades by my fixed gaze and sudden change of air, as I have seemed to see, slowly emerging from those imagined solitudes, and heavily crawling along the floor, the ghost of a gigantic tortoise, with ‘Memento * * * *’ burning in live letters upon his back.” 
Now in sketch 2nd, they’re embodiments of stubbornness, inflexibility and obsession with a hopeless toil:   
“As I lay in my hammock that night, overhead I heard the slow weary draggings of the three ponderous strangers along the encumbered deck. Their stupidity or their resolution was so great that they never went aside for any impediment. One ceased his movements altogether just before the mid-watch. At sunrise I found him butted like a battering ram against the immovable foot of the foremast, and still striving, tooth and nail, to force the impossible passage. That these tortoises are the victims of a penal, or malignant, or perhaps a downright diabolical, enchanter, seems in nothing more likely than in that strange infatuation of hopeless toil which so often possesses them. I have known them in their journeyings ram themselves heroically against rocks, and long abide there, nudging, wriggling, wedging, in order to displace them, and so hold on their inflexible path. Their crowning curse is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a belittered world.” 
That inflexibility also reflects the characteristic lack of change on the isles: 
“… But the special curse, as one may call it, of the Encantadas, that which exalts them in desolation above Idumea and the Pole, is that to them change never comes; neither the change of seasons nor of sorrows. Cut by the Equator, they know not autumn, and they know not spring; while, already reduced to the lees of fire, ruin itself can work little more upon them…”  
From the tortoise as a species he goes to 3 individual tortoises that he comes across, the way Ishmael goes from whales in general to Moby Dick: 
“…behold these really wondrous tortoises […]. 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. With a lantern I inspected them more closely. 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.” 
Mystic? Venerable?
“…. next evening, strange to say, I sat down with my shipmates and made a merry repast from tortoise steaks and tortoise stews; and, supper over, out knife, and helped convert the three mighty concave shells into three fanciful soup tureens, and polished the three flat yellowish calipees into three gorgeous salvers.”
Nothing is holy. Everything goes down the stomach. Don’t people eat whales—the magnificent, mysterious creatures, the largest beings on earth? Go ask Stubb. 
After being eaten, tortoises are absent in the next 2 sketches, leaving space for birds and other animals, and reappear in the last 6 sketches: 
- As food—a delicacy as well as a means of survival
- As an economic good (tortoise oil) 
- As a kind of currency (“It was arranged that the expenses of the passage home should not be payable in silver, but in tortoises -- one hundred tortoises ready captured to the returning captain's hand”)
- As a trap/ a kind of destruction/ a cause of death (it’s for tortoise-hunting that Felipe and his brother-in-law Truxill are lured to an island and then drown, and Hunilla is stuck on the island, waiting for a ship that never returns) 
- As a present/ token of gratitude (from Hunilla to the captain that rescues her)
- As signs of life in a dreary and desolate, even hellish, place 
- As companions 
Tortoises are all over “The Encantadas”, even if they’re not always in the foreground. In a way, they’re what holds the sketches together. 
And in the end, they would be the survivors, the victors, when the runaways, castaways, buccaneers… have perished. 


  1. Di,

    Fascinating--whale and tortoises. I guess it's time to dig out my Melville and reacquaint myself.

    1. Yup. I second that.
      Melville makes me rather interested in reading Darwin now. Hmmm.

    2. Di,

      You might consider reading Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle," the account of his journey, based on his journal. His observations of the Galapagos takes up Chapter XVII.

    3. All right. For the time being there are 2 books I must read 1st.

  2. the Enchanted Isles=The Galapagos, of course; i wonder if Terry Pratchett picked up on Melville's reference to the oriental legend re the creation of the world, to fuel his invention of Discworld being transported through space, supported by four elephants standing on a giant tortoise... informative post; tx...

    1. Oh, no idea. I haven't read Terry Pratchett.