Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Melville, Herman

(1819-1891) US writer best-known for The Whale (1851 UK; vt Moby-Dick 1851 US), a vast, emblem-ridden allegorical novel. It was preceded by several book-length tales in which heightened travelogue – as in Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846) – gradually turned to the metaphysical fantasy of Mardi and a Voyage Thither (1849), in which realistic narrative, Satire and outright fantasy intermingle. Mardi itself is an Archipelago which, as the tale progresses, becomes indistinguishable from and co-extensive with the world. The story begins as two sailors leave their ship and rescue a white woman from Human Sacrifice; after she disappears, they start an ornate Quest for her. The protagonist takes on godly qualities, and the girl increasingly seems to combine prelapsarian virtues with the Lamia-like allure of a Double who haunts her seekers. Eventually five comrades become involved in the quest, visiting at least 13 allegorically conceived islands (one clearly the USA) in the great archipelago; but they never reach their goal, and the tale slingshots (> Slingshot Ending) the heroes into further travels.

Moby-Dick contains little fantasy per se, though it is imbued with such an intensity of Story that its every incident glows with mythic doubleness, and each character seems doubled by (or embodied into) mythical roles. This intense doubling of effect, plus the metaphorical immensity of Melville's sea, the preternatural hubris of Captain Ahab's damnation-bound quest and the potent image of the white whale itself have all made the novel into an extremely rich source of imagery and plot for fantasy writers ever since. Philip José Farmer's The Wind Whales of Ishmael (1971) is an unsuccessful sequel.

The eponymous shyster in The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857) once again seems doubled by a supernatural ambience; but in this pungent fable the supernatural becomes explicit, for the Confidence Man who visits the greedy passengers on a Mississippi riverboat is a godlike Trickster, and he changes his identity not only to confuse and mock his victims but also radically to undermine their – and the reader's – trust in mundane Reality. At the end of the tale he shuts the day down and leads the cast in a Dance of Death darkwards.

The stories assembled in The Piazza Tales (coll 1856) tend to hover between Horror and fantasy. "Bartleby the Scrivener" (1853 Putnam's Monthly Magazine) describes the eponymous clerk's refusal to do his duties or leave the office where he is employed; the surreal Belatedness of the tale prefigures much in US literature, including Gene Wolfe's "Forlesen" (1974). "The Encantadas, or The Enchanted Isles" (1854 Putnam's Monthly Magazine) as by Salvator R Tarnmoor comprises 10 connected sketches which fantasticate the Galápagos Islands. But, in most of HM's works, it is more the ambience than the plot itself that gives them their extraordinary generative power. Even when obscurity renders it unintelligible, his work has the chill, electrifying taste of Myth. [JC]

see also: American Gothic.

Herman Melville


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.