The Mind's Isle

Imaginary Islands in English Fiction

by Adrian Kempton (Author)
Monographs XVI, 366 Pages


Taking as its point of departure The Odyssey, Plato’s account of Atlantis and The Voyages of Sindbad the Sailor, this book examines the profound influence of these works on the development of island fiction as a genre specific to English literature. Close readings of island fictions from the past four centuries reveal the many ways in which they adapt, rewrite and refer back to these foundational texts, forming an important and intriguing literary tradition. Examples of the genre include such universal classics as Utopia, The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island and Lord of the Flies.
Islands have always attracted travellers, writers and dreamers. This book leads the reader on a voyage of exploration to understand exactly what lies behind the island’s powerful appeal to the literary imagination. Along the way, it explores the cultural and historical background to Britain’s island status and its legacy of colonialism and imperialism.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of maps
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preliminary charting and orientation
  • Part I: Legend and Myth
  • Chapter 1: Odysseus, Sindbad and Atlantis
  • Part II: Utopias and Dystopias
  • Chapter 2: Blueprints for perfect societies: Utopia, Bacon and Neville
  • Chapter 3: Enlightenment satire: Gulliver’s Travels
  • Chapter 4: Symbol and ideal: Barrie, Warner and Huxley
  • Part III: Mystery and Mastery
  • Chapter 5: The Tempest
  • Chapter 6: Phraxos and Sycorax
  • Chapter 7: Island laboratories and thrillers: Frankenstein, Moreau and Christie
  • Part IV: Solitude and Survival
  • Chapter 8: Robinson Crusoe
  • Chapter 9: Robinsonades: Golding and Spark
  • Chapter 10: Island retreats: Conrad, Lawrence and Ballard
  • Part V: Romance and Adventure
  • Chapter 11: Byron and the Brontës
  • Chapter 12: Marryat, Ballantyne and Lord of the Flies
  • Chapter 13: Treasure Island
  • Chapter 14: Childhood exploration: Jefferies, Ransome and Blyton
  • Gazetteer
  • Select bibliography
  • Index

← xii | xiii →


Queequeg was a native of Kokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down in any map; true places never are.

HERMAN MELVILLE (Moby Dick, Ch. 12)

← xiv | xv →


My thanks to New Directions Publishing for permission to reproduce the map of Muriel Spark’s Robinson Island.

I wish, in particular, to thank both my editor, Christabel Scaife, for her encouragement, assistance and efficiency, as well as the anonymous first peer reviewer of the manuscript for their valuable criticism and advice. ← xv | xvi →

← xvi | 1 →

Preliminary charting and orientation

island: a mass of land (not a continent) surrounded with water; anything isolated, detached, or surrounded by something of a different nature.


Islands are also secret places, where the imagination never rests.


‘Islomania’ is a term coined by Lawrence Durrell to define a passion for islands. Durrell’s own love of islands –‘islophilia’ would better qualify a less maniacal form of this affliction – is apparent in the travelogues he wrote about the three eastern Mediterranean islands where he lived and worked for several years: Prospero’s Cell (1945) for Corfu, Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953) for Rhodes, and Bitter Lemons (1957) for Cyprus.2 In these works, as in so many other descriptions of island life – be it on Crete, in the Orkneys, in the Caribbean, or in Polynesia – what emerges as most striking about the inhabitants of islands is their fierce sense of difference and independence.3

It has frequently been observed that islanders share with mountain dwellers a pride in feeling isolated from the rest of the world, and that this trait forms part of the irresistible attraction of both mountains and islands for those who live in cities, on cultivated plains, or on the mainland ‘continent’. But whereas a fascination for, and love of, mountains is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of Western culture, dating back three or four centuries at most, the siren call of islands has allured mariners, travellers, tourists, writers and dreamers since time immemorial.4

In tracing Western civilization back to its primeval roots, it can be seen that mountain and island merge in one of the earliest myths, that of the Flood. The summit of Mount Ararat, with its arkful of stranded survivors ← 1 | 2 → from the first major global cataclysm, constituted the original island in a regenerated world.5 In another prehistoric catastrophe – related for the first time in literature by Plato – the island of Atlantis was engulfed and became the sunken civilization of legendary fame situated somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Thule, a more remote mythical island – Iceland in all likelihood – was believed in ancient times to mark the northern limits of the known world. Other legendary islands were also situated in the Atlantic, significantly located, for those on the western outskirts of Europe, towards the setting sun. These were the Islands of the Blessed (also referred to as the Fortunate Isles and thought by some to be the Isles of Scilly), Avalon (King Arthur’s final destination and resting place), Tír na nOc (Land of Youth) and Mag Mell (Field of Happiness). It was to these last two mentioned islands that the descendants of the Goddess Danu, the Celtic deities of the Tuatha Dé Danann, retired when their long reign came to a close.

Such imaginary islands, idealized as paradisiacal otherworlds or afterworlds, are the foundation of Celtic mythology, in particular as related to Ireland, surely the richest source of Celtic mythology. Ireland – by which we refer to the island as a single geographical entity – still continues to be dubbed ‘The Emerald Isle’ on account of its verdant landscapes. However, for many centuries it was attributed several other honorific titles, namely ‘The Isle of Saints’, ‘The Sacred Isle’ and ‘Holy Island’, titles that were associated with its reputation as a land of saints, monks and skerry-bound anchorites, and the point of departure for St Brendan’s epic seven-year voyage.

As for Ireland’s much larger eastern neighbour – and its former colonizer – the island of Great Britain, insularity has long been one of its most distinguishing national characteristics, though not one notably equated with holiness or saintliness. In this, and in having a more westerly situation, Ireland has a head-start. As the Irish writer and Home Rule politician Thomas Kettle said in his 1910 essay ‘On crossing the Irish Sea’: ‘Ireland is a small but insuppressible island half an hour nearer the sunset than Great Britain.’

Along with the much smaller islands of Cyprus and Malta, Britain shares – or, rather, shared – with Ireland the privilege of being the only insular members of the European Union. A rhetoric of defiant insularity ← 2 | 3 → has marked a number of events affecting Britain’s destiny in recent decades: sending an armada to the rescue of fellow-islanders in the Falklands conflict of 1982; the debate and soul-searching over the desirability of a Channel Tunnel; the recent Brexit campaign.6 All these demonstrate to what extent Britain’s island status is a source of national pride and neurosis. One of the most memorable expressions of this, and one that mentions the dread of infection from outside, is the speech of Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt – composed only half a dozen years after the defeat of the Spanish Armada – in which the Bard’s native island is crowned with a chaplet of complimentary metaphors and analogies:

This royal throne of kings, this scept’red isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England. (Richard II, II, 1)

No less frequently quoted is Winston Churchill’s less florid, bulldoggish declaration in his House of Commons ‘never surrender’ speech of 4 June 1940: ‘We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be’. The defensive stance of such nationalistic discourse and the fear of invasion date back to the earliest periods in English history, to the incursions of the Vikings and the Saxons, to the Roman and Norman occupations, and more recently to the threats represented by Napoleon and by Hitler – not to mention by mass immigration.7 It was a German, the Romantic poet and novelist Novalis who, a century and a half before Hitler’s forces loomed large across the English Channel, is reputed to have said that ‘Not only England, but every Englishman is an island’. Certainly if, as the adage goes, ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’, his homeland is an island.

In its English translation, Novalis’s observation would seem to be either a contradiction of, or exception to, John Donne’s oft-quoted statement ← 3 | 4 → about humankind in general: ‘No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main’ (Devotions XVII).8 Matthew Arnold, on the other hand, reflecting the more existentially despondent side of the Victorian outlook, took a contrasting view:

Yes: in the sea of life enisl’d,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
The islands feel the enclasping flow,
And then their endless bounds they know. (‘To Marguerite’, 1852)

Where Donne’s insistence on our shared humanity is forcefully clear, there is a measure of ambivalence in Arnold’s lines, for the ‘enislement’ would seem to refer as much to humans as corporate bodies (‘us’, ‘we mortal millions’, ‘the islands’) as to isolated individuals. Donne’s image of man as an island is that of a lone castaway, Arnold’s that of a group of native islanders with a shared sense of isolation.9

In psychology, the notion of the island-self is prevalent in any view of the Self and its relation to the Other. Indeed, the foetus floating in the amniotic fluid of the womb can be seen as a form of island, albeit one that is both tied to, and surrounded by, the mother continent, in the same way that the aptly named Mediterranean serves as an inland sea.10 Once born, though, each individual assumes their own separate self-contained existence in the ocean of life. Our fascination for islands is doubtless in part a reflection of this notion of the self as an island. Islands represent different things to different people: autonomy, knowledge of one’s limits, solitude, escape from the world (‘Many a green isle needs must be / In the deep wide sea of Misery, / Or the mariner, worn and wan, / Never thus could voyage on.’11), mystery, discovery (an island is the naturalist’s and ecologist’s ideal spot for studying isolated species), adventure, appropriation, exile, smuggler’s hideout, pirate base, tax haven, quarantine station, immigration checkpoint or detention centre, and even – for many unfortunate miscreants, misfits or political prisoners serving penal sentences on Devil’s Island, ← 4 | 5 → Robben Island, or St Helena – incarceration. One person’s island paradise is another’s prison.

John Fowles, whose essay on ‘Islands’ provides the epigraph to this chapter and whose second novel The Magus is set on the imaginary Greek island of Phraxos, considers his own novels as islands, or as ‘islanded’:

I remember being forcibly struck, on my very first visit to the Scillies, by the structural and emotional correspondences between visiting the different islands and any fictional text – the alternation of duller passages, ‘continuity’ in the jargon of the cinema, and the separate, island quality of other key events and confrontations – an insight, the notion of islands in the sea of story, that I could not forsake now even if I tried. This capacity to enisle is one I always look for in other novelists; or perhaps I should say that none I admire lacks it. (pp. 346–7)12

The same analogy is hinted at by J. M. Barrie at the beginning of Peter Pan, when he says of the island of Neverland: ‘Of all delectable islands the Neverland is the snuggest and most compact; not large and sprawly, you know, with tedious distance between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed’ (p. 7). Gillian Beer, in one of her articles about the literary representation of islands, concludes by associating reader and Crusoe-like first-person narrator of island stories in a joint exploratory venture:

The reader and the first person of the narrative are twice incomers, singletons, moving between island and native land. Reader and narrator explore the island bounds of the book but can never be its permanent inhabitants or establish there a founding population. That sense of exile corrects the reader’s hope of possession.13

More explicitly, Kevan Manwaring applies the comparison not only to a book’s content but also to its material form:

Arguably all works of fiction are kinds of lost islands, for the writer creates something that does not exist in the real world. It may be a fictionalised amalgamation of personal experience and research, but the unique configuration on the page – the author’s particular depiction of realty – exists nowhere else. It is an island confined by the binding of the book, although one with semi-permeable borders, as it bleeds into the reader’s mind and even invades reality, if influential enough.14 ← 5 | 6 →

So far, in this discussion of islands and their significance, mention has been made of islands that are real (Cyprus, Ireland), fictional (Neverland, Phraxos), and legendary (Thule, Atlantis). Given that the latter, according to Plato’s account in the Critias, is almost the size of a small continent and contains a rectangular plain almost as big as Great Britain, some definition of what constitutes an island seems called for.


XVI, 366
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (August)
Island fiction Utopia and dystopia Traveller’s tale Robinsonade English fiction
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. XVI, 366 pp., 6 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Adrian Kempton (Author)

Adrian Kempton was formerly a lecturer in French, English and Comparative Literature at Queen’s University Belfast, University College Cork and the University of London Institute in Paris. He specializes in comparative eighteenth-century studies, with particular interests in epistolary writing, robinsonades, early children’s literature, salon art criticism and gardens. Retired since 2011, he lives between Paris and Chartres and is a frequent visitor to the Îles du Ponant – the islands of the setting sun.


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384 pages