Waylaid by Islands

Hy Brasil coverAsked to write about Atlantic crossings, I find myself waylaid by islands. Three of my novels (The Sea Road, Hy Brasil and Voyageurs) involve crossing the Atlantic. Like the protagonists of The Sea Road and Voyageurs I have sometimes arrived safely at the continent on the other side. But, like the heroine of Hy Brasil, I have also stopped at islands, both real and imaginary, in the Atlantic Ocean, and felt myself – contrary to all post-Galilean geographies – to be on the edge of the world, where the only horizon to the west is where the sun sets directly into the sea.

Two books (both bought on the other side — my other side — of the Atlantic) shaped my thoughts about the ontological status of Atlantic islands: geographical, spiritual, textual, imaginary, escapist ... or all of these at once? Babcock's Legendary Islands of the Atlantic (1922) is a scrupulously thorough chronicle of non-existent islands from Plato's Atlantis through to the 'Sunken Island of Buss and other Phantom Islands'. It has a full chapter on 'The Island of Brazil', but includes rock-solid islands which have also been imaginative constructs profoundly affecting the European world view, such as Greenland, Newfoundland, the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. In the absence of an accurate measure for longitude, who was to say what was a geographical entity, and what was another illusion on a tossing horizon? I found Johnson's Phantom Islands of the Atlantic in a bookshop in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where it was first published, in 1994. Johnson's authority lies not so much in his (very useful) bibliography than in the fact that he sailed across the Atlantic five times in a small yacht. The chapter 'Hy-Brazil' begins: 'No other phantom island in the Atlantic is cloaked in so many identities as Hy-Brazil' (Phantom Islands p 151). With that sentence my novel Hy Brasil was conceived.

Hy Brasil interrogates the relationship between real and imaginary islands. I discovered that Hy Brasil only ceased to be recorded on British Admiralty charts in 1865. In a world of calculable longitude, steamships, telegraphs and origin of species through natural selection, the Admiralty chart — there is no higher authority, once out of sight of land — had continued to invest Hy Brasil with full ontological status as a physical entity. Searching further, I found John Yeats' fine painting Horse Racing in Hy Brasil, which confirmed the Irish provenance, and one man's perceived reality, of this mysterious island. Studying Yeats's painting, I realised that, at any date, an artist or writer who treated Hy Brasil as contemporary reality could actually make it so. A mistake on the part of an Admiralty surveyor becomes deliberate irony for the artist.

I bought a National Geographic chart of the Atlantic sea floor, and found Faraday's Mount, the highest point on the North Atlantic ridge. I only had to raise it a few hundred metres — a small liberty, considering what some fiction writers get up to — to create my archipelago (I acknowledge all my sources within the text of Hy Brasil, and Faraday the surveyor is duly mentioned). The exact bearings of the island can be worked out from internal evidence within the text. My heroine, Sidony, muses at one stage on how bearings have been treated in other fictions:

Standing on the jetty at Lyonsness, I thought about the way that islands get moved. Look at Juan Fernandez, for example, which is in the Pacific, at 79 west, 33 4 south, at least three hundred miles west of the coast of Chile. Defoe shifted it without compunction to the mouth of the Orinoco in the Caribbean, to 60 4 west, 9 north. He did this in order to provide a suitable mainland only thirty miles off, and consequently a supply of savages, which he needed for the plot. I call that fairly cavalier behaviour. Swift, on the other hand, is disingenuously vague about bearings, when Gulliver discusses what might have happened if I had not made bold to strike out innumerable passages relating to the winds and tides, as well as to the variations and bearings in the several voyages. Well, indeed, supposing he hadn't, what then? Then if you go back to the old maps, right up to the nineteenth century, real islands keep vanishing because there was no accurate way of determining longitude, and for the same reason unreal ones keep appearing. Also, on old maps, islands are proportionately huge, not the tiny dots they are in a modern atlas. That's not wrong. The maps are meant to be a picture of the islands as they are inside one's head. They're drawn to the scale of their significance. (Hy Brasil p 251)

Mythical Atlantic islands have, of course, existed in European consciousness since Plato, and possibly long before. Observant readers of Hy Brasil have identified literary sources for Hy Brasil ranging from Homer to Joyce via Plato, Pliny, Shakespeare, Swift, Defoe, Melville, Charlotte Bronte, Stevenson, Ballantyne, Barrie, and the anonymous author of the Brendan Voyage, among many others. Hy Brasil is Atlantis, the Hesperides, Tir n'an Og, Lyonesse, Thule, all of which have their origins in European myth and folktale. But behind myth there has to be substance: there are actually islands out there. Pytheas was right about that; so was Tacitus and so was Leif Eirikson. For as long as the sun set into the sea at the unknown western edge of the world, there was the tantalising possibility of yet more islands, yet more wealth, yet more land. [...]

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