Jun 14

narnian origins: imagined islands in the great green sea of gloom

FT7 comments • 1,712 views

zenoSometimes 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”.

treadermapI 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

monopod*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.


  1. 1
    Kat but logged out in on 25 Jun 2014 #

    Which direction did Gulliver set out in? Was it ever mentioned? I know Odysseus was going West but that was to get home (and ended up going round in circles for some time…)

  2. 2

    Good question! I’m not sure it is ever stated — it’s years since I read Gulliver, in an unabridged* edition my aunt had (has?) which I really coveted for its fab illustrations — but of course he undertakes four distinct voyages in all (Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Land of the Hounyhms and — actually the third one — travels to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib and er Japan). And generally he arrives via shipwreck or marooning via pirates or similar device, which allows a disconnect from a genuine mapped voyage.

    *I recall being startled when it began to discuss poo (in ref the Yahoos)! Grown-ups don’t know about poo!(obvs the word used was “excrement” but I saw through that…)

  3. 3
    Kat but logged out innit on 25 Jun 2014 #

    You’re right – it’s fate rather than exploration.

    (Doesn’t he get arrested at some point for publicly pissing on a fire to put it out?)

  4. 4
    Tom on 25 Jun 2014 #

    I really like the last bits here – about how the (awful) outcomes of the European adventure West and South overshadow its meaning at the time. One of the things that stuck with me reading Tom Holland’s Millennium was the sense of Medieval Europe, especially the further West you got, as a bit of a backwater, and a backwater that knew it – the inheritance of Rome fallen into disrepair, full of squabbling knights, not really on the frontlines of the ‘clash of civilisations’ (and Western Europe’s interventions in said ‘clash’ were generally disastrous) and stuck on the arse end of all the trade routes. The strangeness of the imagined West could probably be contrasted with the splendour of the imagined East – spices and tigers and silks, oh my! And (of course) PRESTER JOHN, the lost tribe of Christianity ruled by a magical good king, i.e. Christian Europe but Not Shit – a fantasy whose peak of cultural popularity coincides with the era of the West’s inferiority complex….

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    I can’t seem to embed the link, which is here: http://johndarnielle.tumblr.com/post/89858886831/dubdobdee-a-post-about-imaginary-islands-in-the — but my friend John Darnielle demurs a little re Lewis at his most potent, citing an extremely powerful passage — viz the White Queen’s speech at the stone table, “the moment when desolation arrives or seems to”. I don’t disagree! My position is that CSL’s strongest moments are generally scenes — tableaux, almost — which when examined closely (as the success of their intensity encourages us to do) often rather undermine and overshadow the larger allegorical narratives he thinks he’s attempting. The Stone Table section of LWW is routinely taken as a retelling of the Crucifixion — my argument is simply that its most powerful elements, which include the witch’s declaration of triumph (which has no non-apocryphal equivalent I can think of), the forces of evil rushing past the hidden girls, and the mice eating through the ropes, seem to me to be elements repurposed either from directly hermetic/pagan/animist roots, or from layers of mediaeval and pre-mediaeval christianity which rub pretty powerfully against modern religious orthodoxy/respectability (for example the use — in a positive sense — of the word “magic”). I also think the suggestion that there are whole peoples — such as off the top of my head the Toadstool People — who are by essence and definition doomed to be irredeemably evil is quite problematic for a straightforward christian apologetics. I’m not going to argue that he wasn’t a christian at all — tho I’m sometimes tempted — but I’m happy to insist he was a better storyteller than he was a theologian.

    Tom: I didn’t think at all about Prester John, even though he’s often mentioned alongside Sciapodae and the like, so that’s a great link. Also I forgot to say anything about another important — and VERY curious — difference, which is that Narnia is literally a flat earth, which nearly none of these seafarers and map-makers would have believed of the world we live in.

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    Jeremy DeVaughn on 27 Jun 2014 #

    Another aspect to this is Reepicheep’s quest for the sweet water at the End of the World. I believe the historical antecedent to this may be sailors going down the coast of Africa, who would find sweet water out in the ocean which had it source in … the Congo River I think.

  7. 7
    mark sinker on 21 Jun 2018 #

    a nice realisation of the concept: http://andrewpekler.com/phantom-islands/

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