Sometimes you’re reading a book for purely aimless diversion and it strikes you that someone — some book-burrowing Arne Saknussemm — was there before you. I can’t really claim that C.S. Lewis ever read Donald S.Johnson’s Phantom Islands of the Atlantic: the Legends of Seven Lands that Never Were (since he died some three decades before its 1994 publication), but I am morally certain he had visited some of Johnson’s sources, long before Johnson.
Johnson’s seven mythical islands were waystations in the European mapping of the Atlantic, from the “Sea of Darkness” (or “Great Green Sea of Gloom”) as early Arab seafarers termed it, through to the post-Tudor era of confident imperial cartography, culminating in Greenwich deemed the world-agreed degree zero of longitude and Royal Naval charts of every last coast, reef, plumbed shallow and the like, right up and down the Atlantic and off into other (for Brits) more distant seas.
Johnson’s chapters are primarily about the myths told as current fact by actual working sailors, as they entered the official historiography of the gradually unveiled ocean. So while he briefly mentions (for example) Tir-n’an-Og, Drogeo, Podanda, Neome and Heather-Bleather, the seven islands he picks are Frisland, Buss Island, Antillia (aka the Isle of Seven Cities), Hy-Brazil, the Isle of Demons, the Islands of St Brendan, and the various archipelagos associated with St Ursula and her 11,000 (orig.11) virgin companions.
Now plainly some of these names have ended up adorning real places: Antillia has since become the Antilles, the “various archipelagos” are now the Virgin Islands, and the (absolutely circular) mystical island of Hy-Brazil is today (no longer circular, nor indeed an island) actual real Brazil. And in the Azores there really is a “Lake of the Seven Cities”. But in the age before seamen cracked longitude, when ocean-travelling was still gap and guesswork and dodgy schemes to ensure funding (generally involving the alleged discovery of gold), the tales that attached themselves to these pre-moored places were a curious mix of the quotidian and the fantastic, the practically political and the religiously symbolic, and it’s these that Johnson organises his book around: tales that were once routinely part of standard faith-based European geopolitical discourse, if you like.
Such as the well known fact that, sometime between 714-34 AD, as the Moors burst up through Spain to displace the Visigoths, a refugee band of seven Bishops and a multitude of followers fled Porto in many ships, to found Antillia, wherever it was. Or that in 1541, Jean-Francois de La Roque — en route to Newfoundland (then known as Baccaloas, or Codfishland) and beyond that to the not-quite colonised territories of “New France” — had cause to maroon, on the notorious Isle of Demons, his niece Marguerite de la Roque, with four guns and her old nurse, and (because he leapt overboard and swam ashore) her lover, one of the ship’s young officers. The Isle of Demons was notorious because — as the chronicler André Thevet would describe in a witty and highly implausible volume entitled The Peculiarities of Antarctic France, Otherwise Called America — it was simply stiff with all manner of demons, whose clamour one could hear from miles across the sea. Marguerite survived — unlike nurse and lover and the child Marguerite bore to him — to be rescued two years and five months later, to tell Thevet her tale: which included attacks from “beasts or other shapes abominably and unutterably hideous, the brood of hell, howling in baffled fury”, and also three bears, “vulnerable to mortal weapons” and “as white as an egg”.
I read both these — as well as the rather less fabulous tales of Frisland and Buss Island, which Johnson adeptly demonstrates to be muddled accounts of various coasts, icebergs and mirages visited or mis-sighted between the Faroes and the tip of Greenland — without thinking of The Voyage of The Dawn Treader. And also of the fact that (the perfectly circular) Hy-Brazil was a blessed kingdom under the sea six years in seven. The point where I suddenly realised I was pre-reading some of Lewis’s inspirations came during the complicated (and often frankly boring, because highly allegorical) travels of St Brendan, to various islands with distinct qualities. On one, he and his monks land and find an uninhabited city, with a great meal laid out for them; another has huge sheep on it; on another those who drink too greedily of a well, as some do, are overcome with sleep; on one tiny island Judas is tormented forever by demons; on another St Paul lives out his days as a hermit; and so on. They encounter a sea-monster which is killed by a fire-breathing monster; and set a little fire themselves on what transpires the back of the great fish, which swims off with them for a while; they are becalmed for a time in a “Congealed” sea. They circle backwards and forwards between some of these places for six years, until the Blessed Land is revealed to them, and return home in the seventh year.
Allegory and all, this really did remind me of The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, and I started thinking back: it’s a royal voyage undertaken to track down the seven Telmarine lords who flee Miraz, and to map any land beyond the Lonely Islands; such as the “Dark Island”, with its demons and the man they rescue, who turns out to be one of the lost seven lords; they face sea-monsters and dragons and temptations; there’s the seemingly deserted island of the Dufflepuds*, and the lovingly described meal they get there; the underwater shepherdess that Lucy glimpses, and the war-like royal mer-court they all see a little later; and of course the sea of lilies (lilies is a kind of congealed). Caspian on return is known as King Caspian the Seafarer.
Religion isn’t the link here; nor is religiosity. As ever, Lewis is generally at his most potent in scenes which have little or no strictly Christian content: the story of the Magician and the Dufflepuds, for example, or the Star People on the isle of food and restful sleep. There are illustrational if not allegorical elements to the trials of Eustace (condemned to being a dragon for a chapter) and Lucy (creeping through the silent, enchanted house and lifting the spell); but the moral truths have universal application (basically “don’t be a dick and courage will see you through”). As with Prince Caspian, the quest in Voyage of the Dawn Treader is “how to become the best kind of adult”; and what it is that your sojourn in this imaginary world can do to enable that, in terms of endurance and encounter. The Dawn Treader of course sails east; the revealed geography of the Atlantic sits to the west, and was as often as not associated with the Devil (another legendary island was named Satanaxio or Satanazes or Santana): St Brendan actually arrives in the Blessed Isle by returning from the West. It’s all too easy with hindsight to bundle Europe’s early Atlantic adventures into its end state; the landings in South and North America, and the land-grab, mass looting and near-genocidal killing that followed (the war of the Telmarines under thuggish Miraz on the ‘Old Narnians’ is a very pale echo). Europe’s encounters did not teach it not to be a dick — but nevertheless the quests in the various maps and tales Johnson bundles together precede the landing in the New World, or anyway its colonisation and subjugation, and their import deserve to be teased out separately. For all it gradually emerges into the real — and the treasure-grubbing and the invasive — it begins much more quizzically; a not-quite-grown-up continent’s explorations of its own curiosities, fears and potential for redemption, in travels, encounters and perils still tenderly and usefully make-believe.
Phantom Islands of the Atlantic: the Legends of Seven Lands that Never Were, Donald S. Johnson, Souvenir Press, 1994
*The Dufflepuds themselves are of course also found described in Aristophanes, Pliny and St Augustine, where they are called respectively the Monopodes, the Monocoli/Sciapodae and the Skiopodes: they are located in Ethiopia.