We have heard the Typhoon sing in our first verse. We are on the quarterdeck, where Starbuck would turn the ship toward home, but Ahab, "Old Thunder", has appeared to sing with the storm. At this very moment, the action pauses briefly, and we have a short discussion on lighting rods. Rods have been fixed to the masts, but they attach to chains which must be thrown over-board to ground the boat. These chains, on the Pequod, have not been thrown overboard.
Starbuck, seeing mad Ahab lit up by lightning, yells to the crew to drop the chains. To this, Ahab cries to let them be. Ahab is looking to wage an old war here, not a modern one; the ancient Ahab is engaged in a primal quest. In the prior chapter, he crushed his Quadrant, choosing to steer by the old arts; here, he refuses the lightning rods. He is pulling the Pequod into an id of time.
And at this moment, before any chains have gone over, the flames appear: St. Elmo's fire. The boat's masts mystically light up, and now Melville weaves magic. Watch the two pages after the fire lights. There is so much here.
The crew falls silent, free of oaths; Melville notes that while for sailors oaths are but a common part of speech, he has
seldom heard a common oath when God's burning finger has been laid on the ship; when His "Menne, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" has been woven into the shrouds and the cordage.The phrase is from the book of Daniel, which reads:
And this is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.In Daniel, God writes these words on the wall at a banquet at Belshazzar's Feast, where the nobles are sacreligiously toasting to other gods from Jewish sacrimental vessels. Note that Melville, or Ishmael, seems to have seen God send this message to whalers on more than one occassion. The art shows Rembrandt's depiction of the "writing on the wall" scene in Daniel, from the National Gallery.
This is the interpretation of each word. MENE: God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it;
TEKEL: You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting;
PERES: Your kingdom has been divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.
During the silence, Queequeg's tatoos light up "like Satanic blue flames"; as the corposcants die, the Pequod is "wrapped in a pall". Finally, the silence is broken with Starbuck looking to Stubb for his read of the meaning of the corposcents, and while Stubb tries to read them as a good omen (as lit up spermacetti candles), Stubb quickly pleads for mercy on their souls as they light up once again. A moment of very dark humor at Stubb's expense.
At this point, Fedallah is lit up fitting out Ahab for the next coming strange ceremony; stepping on Fedallah, beside the Doubloon, Ahab gives a speech to the storm and the crew, telling of his prior wounding by lighting on these seas, his prior dismasting, when he "as a Persian once did worship". He calls to the fire, "Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee." This is the third great sermon, preached from on high, of the book, following Father Mapple's sermon in Nantucket and The Reverend Cook's sermon to the sharks. It is worthy of a close reading and comparison, though I will not do so now, since we are looking for a broad overview of this critical chapter.
Now, as you might imagine, Franklin with his Osiris myth has a field day with this chapter. There is no shortage of references that fit the myth including the anticipation of a pall for Ahab. However, other commentators, with different favorite myths, also see much in this chapter. Myths come together. In particular, many have focused on the Zoroastrian theme that sits right on the surface obvious to all: from the "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" reference to Fedallah's role as Ahab's alter-boy and footstool to Ahab's statement that he "as a Persian once did worship". You will find fire imagery throughout this book, and fire is a key symbol in Zoroastrianism. The sun is a character all its own in Moby-Dick, whether beating down on poor Pip or floating in the upper half of the Doubloon. Here in "The Candles" is where you will best gain insight into the role of fire. Watch closely; it is a mighty force, and closely associated with Ahab. In Christian mythology, first is most often associated with hell, but in Moby-Dick fire does not play so clear or simple a role.
Ahab's speech is answered by yet more lightning and flame, and, in particular, the corposcents now light up his harpoon, which sits on his boat, just as it has lit up the masts. The lighting of the harpoon is magnificent and awe-inspiring. The crew is completely panic stricken. References to "The Forge" and earlier chapters involving fire abound. And, at this critical moment, Starbuck knows what he must do: he tells Ahab, in no uncertain terms, that God is against him and it is time to set the sail for home or face God's wrath. As the crew comically prepares to set sails that have been shredded to rags, Ahab reminds them their oaths to hunt the Whale are binding, as is his. We end the chapter with all in terror, with Starbuck and Ahab opposed, and with the crew in dismay at Ahab's orders.
In unpacking this chapter, I would focus you on two truly exquisite strands, recognizing there are others: first, the pivot to a fast-paced action-adventure and the movement into the final part of the book is a masterful exercise in writerly craftsmenship; and, second, the way in which many different mythological strands are brought together is a phenomenal set-up for our grand finale, with first the drama among the sailors and then the chase of the White Whale. The Book of Daniel melds both Judaic/Old Testament and Persian/Parsee mythological streams; the use of fire sets up an opposition of Parsee/Pagan and Christian themes (watch all the pagans in this chapter: they each receive a mention); the Typhoon captures it all in the ancient Egyptian myth. Suddenly, Ahab's central role in each different mythology seems to be coming together, even though the role he plays in each does not seem to allign. Is this song contrapuntal? Is Ahab simultaneoulsy a hero of a Parsee, a God to the Egyptians, and a Blasphemous Rebel to the Jews?