Archipelagos and islets

Burgh Island, Devon. © C A Lovegrove

Sharp-eyed followers of my posts will have realised I have a thing about maps, real as well as fictional, and any that are a kind of halfway house too. In addition they may have noted that a few of my reviews have been as much about islands as they’ve been about lands.

In fact I even considered what I might include as my Desert Island Books, should I ever be cast ashore on a sea-girt piece of earth with a climate which didn’t rot the binding, curl the pages, or fade the print.

I was curious about which islands I’d actually visited on this blog, and which if any I’d be happy to be a castaway on. So here is a rapid tour of a selection of some of them, some of which you may have sojourned on yourselves, and I shall end with an attempt to settle on my ideal. (Links will mostly take you to my reviews.)

What set me going was my recent read of Georges Simenon’s My Friend Maigret which was set in the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles. A real place, as I discovered, which sounded idyllic — were it not for the tourists who even in the mid 20th century were arriving in ferry loads. This story reminded me that Agatha Christie set two of her crime novels on islands reminiscent of Burgh Island off the Devon coast where she was in fact residing at the time. Evil Under the Sun was most like Burgh Island with its Art Deco Hotel — where we’ve enjoyed afternoon tea — but And Then There Were None was more sinister, which rather put me off; also Burgh Island itself, though frequently cut off from the mainland by the tide, isn’t much isolated.

Another real island appears in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, namely Dominica in the Caribbean where the author grew up. In the novel the first Mrs Rochester finds married life is as humid and oppressive as the weather, and this matches her worsening mental health. Further north the New England island of Nantucket was purloined by both Joan Aiken for her Wolves Chronicle Night Birds on Nantucket and by Otto Coontz for The Shapeshifters. Both novels captured a sense of otherness that Nantucket appears to have and which even Herman Melville indicated in Moby Dick.

Aiken also had her doughty heroine Dido Twite visit the Maluku archipelago (in disguised form as the Dice and Spice Islands) for the episode in her alternative history saga she entitled Limbo Lodge. In this instalment, set on the fictional island of Aratu, she also alluded to Emily and Anne Brontë’s imaginary Pacific islands of Gondal and Gaaldine, populated by Angrians who’d migrated here from a West Africa dominated by their siblings Branwell and Charlotte’s colonists.

Co-written by another pair of siblings, John and Carole Barrowman’s Hollow Earth is set on the island of Great Cumbrae off the west coast of Scotland, reached from the port of Largs. This supernatural horror tale for teens has a Lovecraftian vibe to it, very different from that I sensed on the island (here called Auchinmurn) which we’d visited half a century ago. I should also mention the speculative novel The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C Clarke which I read some decades ago: this involved in the author repositioning the island of Sri Lanka (formerly known as Serendip, Ceylon, and Taprobane) down on the equator so that it could become the ‘ground floor’ of a space elevator.

Diana Wynne Jones’s posthumous novel, The Islands of Chaldea, also takes us to real places — this time Britain and Ireland — but reinvents them as four separate islands (based on Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England) in a parallel world of magic. But not all fictional islands are based firmly on known locations, as we’ll now see. 

Treasure Island map

Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children took inspiration from legendary fairy islands off the coast of Wales (like Grassholm) for its principal setting, Cairnholm. On the other hand Enid Blyton’s entirely fictional Kirrin Island featured in her Famous Five series, beginning with Five on a Treasure Island, with its ruined castle, beach, coves and tunnels. Its title doubtless took inspiration from R L Stevenson’s Treasure Island which appears to be somewhere in the Caribbean, or possibly near the Amazon estuary. Also in the Caribbean — or possibly not — is Prospero’s Island from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest which drew on reports of the ill-fated Virginia colony but which transposed the action to Caliban’s isle.

The Hattifatteners Island appears in Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson; this, we assume, must be in the Gulf of Finland and was surely inspired by the islands Jansson was familiar with from her sailing expeditions, the kinds she describes in semi-fictional form in her adult novels such as The Summer Book. Just now I’ve temporarily laid aside Zoë Gilbert’s Folk but will soon be returning to Neverness, an island set somewhere in the Irish Sea or off the coast of Scotland (though it matters not where). Here surrealism, folklore and magic realism overlap in a dreamlike collection of fables, very different but not dissimilar to Jansson’s Moomins’ existence. The island’s name recalls J M Barrie’s Neverland in Peter Pan, populated by Lost Boys and Red Indians, and visited by pirates, mermaids, a crocodile and, of course, the Darling children.

So far I’ve mentioned individual islands, isolated from their neighbours — and I’m aware of course that the word ‘isolate’ derives from the Italian isola, ‘isle’, just as ‘insulate’ comes from the Latin for island, insula. Doubtless these solitary patches of earth rising above the sea owe a debt, however slight, to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe on which the protagonist survived for years, a bit like Michaël Dudok de Wit’s unnamed castaway in the Studio Ghibli animation The Red Turtle. I’ve also steered clear of aits, eyots and crannogs, fresh water islands in rivers and lakes, the likes of which Arthur Ransome’s Swallow and Amazons might have visited. But I mustn’t neglect archipelagos, those groups of islands which are neighbours to each other.

Map of the various lands visited by Tom in ‘The Water-Babies’ © C A Lovegrove

C S Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader took Prince Caspian and his passengers on an island-hopping trip east, but their disembarkations were mostly on isolated lands or minor island groups (perhaps taking their cue from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). Charles Kingsley had done something similar with the places visited by Tom in The Water-Babies but these had a more Bunyanesque feel to them.

Meanwhile Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago features in several standalone novels such as The Adjacent and The Gradual, but visiting them is a complicated matter involving time dilation and disorientation. In fact Priest has a collection of stories actually entitled Dream Archipelago.

The Dream Archipelago ferries guide © C A Lovegrove

Perhaps then the most famous fictions about archipelagos are Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea tales beginning with A Wizard of Earthsea: here lie various places in relatively close proximity, islands like Gont, Havnor and Roke, along with several outliers. As much as, if not more than, the islets, islands and archipelagos mentioned above, Earthsea’s lands have the feel of physical entities, such that the reader can sense their climates, terrain and atmosphere as though one were actually there.

For sure, I could add more examples but I’ll call a halt for now having made, I think, my point about the ubiquity of islands in so much fiction. Do I have a favourite place I would want to be? Hard to say, but taking a leaf out of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children I rather fancy the myyhical island of Gwales off the Pembrokeshire coast where, in times past, a group of legendary heroes were feasted and entertained in style for eighty years by the severed head of the giant Bendigeidfrân, Brân the Blessed — until somebody opened a forbidden door. A fairy Elysium it might be, with a mild climate like Tennyson’s Avilion, but in disturbed times such as ours ’tis a destination devoutly to be wished for.

Do you have any favourite stories about islands, particular some which I’ve not included here? I’d be pleased to hear about them!

38 thoughts on “Archipelagos and islets

  1. raddledoldtart

    Oh, Blyton, was very, very, very fond of putting islands in her stories, wasn’t she? If I had time, I’d be tempted to reread, just to count/catalogue them (and perhaps someone already has!). As a child I had considerable difficulty accepting that islands were effectively just mountaintops – for a long time I felt sure they must be disk shapes of some kind, perhaps attached to the seabed by a stalk? You’ve mentioned Studio Ghibli, which I associate more with islands in-the-sky, rather than in-the-water (and remember the moving ‘lands’ at the top of the Faraway Tree?) – think I liked the idea of an island that you’d be able to see the underneaths of?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes, those surreal images in the Studio Ghibli films (as in Laputa, for example) which defy physics but make sense in dreams! I’ve never been attracted to the Faraway Tree stories, though I know they’ve a loyal following, but Blyton showed savvy when she included magical and wish fulfilment elements in her stories, whether one’s own island with a castle, toys which walked and talked, or children who solved mysteries which no grown-ups could.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. We had a nice short break on Guernsey (though we didn’t enjoy the hydrofoil journey there) many years ago, so can imagine your feelings about the place! I also had a day trip to Lundy on my own, with enough time to walk right round the island on my own, and that’s a fascinating location to be on, very different from, say, Hong Kong where I spent my own formative years.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jjlothin

        I remember feeling iller than I’d ever felt before on that hydrofoil! And how amazing it must have been to have grown up in Hong Kong …

        Liked by 1 person

        1. One of these days I’ll get going properly on my memoir of growing up in 1950s Hong Kong, as requested by a son and daughter. I feel I just need a catchy title to act as a focus… And that hydrofoil journey there was in a gale which blew up after we’d left port.

          Liked by 1 person

            1. The journey was delayed because of weather conditions, resumed when there was a lull, but then conditions changed again when we’d gone too far to turn back: it really was horrendous. Never again…

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Brent Stypczynski

    A recent one that comes to mind is Leigh Bardugo’s “Six of Crows” & sequel (a duology sequel to “Shadow & Bones”, with IMO better characters, plot, and style). The title characters are based on the island of Kerch, a fictionalized Netherlands.

    I’m not sure if Avram Davidson did any islands, but his fictional Central American country (British Hidalgo) might have some.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Brent Stypczynski

        Personally, I’ve preferred the Crows books so far. They’re “heist novels” more akin to Leverage (TV) or the Oceans movies. “Shadow” is a more traditional “teen Chosen One” fantasy.

        I need to look in Davidson more myself. I’ve only read one short story, but he came back on my radar recently.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I love maps too, so this post was right up my street! I think Tove’s island is rather appealing in its isolation, but frankly any one would do – Burgh Island would be fun, or of course any of Blyton’s islands – as long as there was lashings of ginger beer!!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Isn’t it interesting how popular islands are in fiction. I’ve long wanted to visit Burgh Island, such a great setting for a murder mystery. A few years ago I went to an event marking the tenth anniversary of The Island by Victoria Hislop, a book I associate with holidays. The map and the islands visited by the Dawn Treader bring back happy memories too. The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge uses an island setting to excellent claustrophobic effect I think. Have you read that, Chris? Although a book for teens it has an appeal for adults too. A lovely post that’s made me realise how many “island books” I’ve read!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’d forgotten I’ve got The Lie Tree, still unread, waiting for goodness knows what occasion to claim my attention. Perhaps now’s the time?

      Burgh Island’s quite pricey to stay at, but their cream tea is well worth enjoying if they’re still doing them! Not read any Hislop—is this a good place to start? Anyway, I’m glad this post awoke pleasant memories for you, Anne. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Wow, what a wonderful post, I was thinking of Swift’s island in the sky hovering over the island in the sea, so inventive but I can’t remember the name off the top of my head!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Jane! Laputa is the floating island, a name Studio Ghibli used in one of their animates films. Incidentally, this appears to be Swift indulging in questionable punning as la puta in Italian means ‘the whore’ — not sure why he thought it was relevant to his satire.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What a fascinating post! I certainly love those Agatha Christie books that are set on remote islands – they are just perfect for mysteries! The two other books that come to my mind are Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island and The Island of Doctor Moreau by Wells.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Do you know, I meant to refer to the Wells novel, even though (like a couple of the other titles I mentioned) I haven’t gone back to it since my teen years. I don’t know the Dennis Lehane book but shall certainly look into it now! By the way, the islands in the two Christie novels which I reference aren’t all that remote — one is linked by a causeway to the mainland while the other, although a couple of miles offshore, is hard to access when there are rough seas. But there may be other mysteries by her, also set on islands, which I’m unaware of but which you may be referring to. I’m pleased though that you liked this post! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  7. My family spent a summer on Oahu, one of the Hawaiian islands, when I turned 11, and one of my favorite books was Tales of the Menehune, about the magical “little people” of the Hawaiian islands.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I must admit I had to look up Menehune, about whom there seems little consensus, any more than there is about the fairies of European tradition; slightly disappointing, but the fact that there is persistent interest in them is interesting in its own right, along with the varied descriptions and depictions of what they are/were supposed to look like.

      I must say that my favourite ‘little people’ depiction from the Pacific are the little tree spirits, Kodama, in Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, whose heads wobble like a doll with a wire spring for a neck.


  8. I love maps too and especially creating maps of islands. (It’s a go-to doodle.) Nothing like a one-inch ordnance survey to give you the lay of the land – the stone circles and post offices and pubs and steep hillside and all the rest that is revealed.

    I always thought Blyton modeled the castle on Kirren island on Corfe Castle and that the island was on the Purbeck coast with some extra water added to cut it off from the mainland. I was born in Swanage so this may have been something I chose to believe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right about Kirrin being modelled on Corfe, Josie, but in some research I did I found there was another mysterious island that could have contributed, as I mention in a review: (a link takes you to the source).

      And maps are fascinating things—again I write possibly a blog post every year or so because I find them mesmerising, for all the reasons you give. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Astrid Lindgren’s Seacrow island is set in the Baltic Sea and is a title I would like to revisit soonish, I don’t think I have read it as an adult. Otherwise I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the island of Jan Mayen lately, but that’s because I have some geological data from there I’ve tried to make sense of.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jan Mayen Land is volcanic, isn’t it. In the same Arctic region as Jan Mayen but way over to the east is the imaginary Sannikov Island, supposedly seen in the 19th century. In the 1960s my father brought me back from one of his visits to Shanghai an English version of Sannikov Land, an early SF novel by Russian author Vladimir Obruchev. I wish I still had it to reread but a classmate borrowed it and I never got it back. 😦

      I believe you (and also another blogger) recommended Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart and you may like to know I finally got round to buying a copy, and may even read it soon for Readers Imbibing Peril! I’m looking forward to it now.

      Your men

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I certainly did recommend Brothers Lionheart, I really look forward to hear what you think of it (whether sooner or later), there’s so much to discuss in it and I have way too few people to discuss it with. It’s certainly not to everyone’s taste but it is one of my all time favorites.

        Jan Mayen is indeed a volcanic island, active too, it had its latest eruption in 1985. It’s basically just one big mountain, the primary volcano, and then a small tail of lower-lying land sticking out from it towards southwest. Similar type of landscape as Iceland, but of course much smaller and with much fewer people.

        Sannikov Land sounds intriguing, the real Russian arctic islands are so cool, I’ve long wanted to visit some of them. In the unlikely event that I stumble upon the book I will make sure to grab it.

        Liked by 1 person

            1. Yes, but I shall also add it in with September’s annual World Kid Lit Month when, like last year, I aim to read at least one children’s novel in translation (last year it was the Tintin classic L’île noire along with Trollkarlens hatt).

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