Islands of the Imagination. Transformation from Mythical Places in Ancient and Modern Thought

Essay, 2004

28 Pages, Grade: Distinction


Table of Contents


2 Magic Islands: Loci for Transformation
2.1 Anon:The Shipwrecked Sailor(ca 19th Century BC)
2.2 William Shakespeare:The Tempest(1611)

3 Ancient Utopias of Escape
3.1 Hesiod:Works and Days(ca 700 BC)
3.2 Plato:CritiasorAtlanticus(ca 360 BC)
3.3 Horace: “Epode XVI” (20 BC)

4 Modern Utopias of Reconstruction
4.1 Thomas More:Utopia(1516)
4.2 Francis Bacon:The New Atlantis(1627)

5 Utopian/Dystopian Reflections: Island Transformation in the Age of Discovery
5.1 Antonio Pigafetta:Magellan’s Voyage(1522 – 1525)
5.2 Michel de Montaigne: “ On the Cannibals” (1580)




The tradition of island imaginings in European thought existed long before explorers were actually able to reach far away islands and give first-hand accounts of their encounters and observations. Myths of islands are of an extreme age and deeply rooted in European culture, where they were subjected to ongoing transformation by writers of various periods in history. Story telling about islands stretches back thousands of years: from early island myths in antiquity, to explorers, poets and philosophers in the Age of Discovery; from idealizing nature and islanders, to islands that acted as vehicles for social criticism and reflection on social conditions in Europe.

The island setting was originally employed as a site and inspiration for spiritual, emotional, or psychological transformation,as a kind of incubator for the initiation and fostering of an individual’s growth. The specific workings of the archetypal place as an agent of change involved a morally challenging confrontation in a magical setting. Appropriate conduct and prudent behaviour opposite the unfamiliar, followed by the resolve of a potentially dangerous situation or conflict, enabled the shipwrecked to finally leave the island and return to their respective societies.

This essay provides a historical overview of the island tradition in European literature and links it specifically to the islands of the imagination where the writer travels behind or in front of his or her time envisaging a better world – utopias often take the form of a subversive analysis of contemporary society. Islands and island dwellers were often envisaged as superior versions of the countries and peoples who imagined them, an idea that survived and came to the fore in the positivist scientific and rationalist discourse of the Enlightenment. Island-stories are always set distant in time and place and the remoteness and finite dimensions of islands seemed perfect for constructing a compressed and complete universe, a miniature world, solely governed by the poet’s ideals and ideas.

Utopias of reconstruction were responses to the existence of evil in the world by reconstructing and reordering the world itself, from social institutions and class structure to improvements in physical surroundings. Some writings adhered to the classical tradition and described conditions of plenty as paradise re-found with inhabitants that seemed to be both physically and morally exemplary, but this view was contradicted or at least called into question when reports of factual encounters with indigenous culture came back to Europe.

Renaissance literature in the sixteenth century amalgamated explorers’ accounts about their island experiences – where the physical reality of the first contact took place – with Christian elements to form island tales which often reflected the values and preconceptions of Westerners. In fact, it was not unusual well into the seventeenth century for Paradise to appear as an actual location at the fringe on maps of the world.

The social construction and indigenous customs of the population often presented a disturbing enigma to the curious eyes of the white men with the effect that their natural state and lack of propriety was labelled as despicable, or at least inferior in comparison to European culture. Consequently, some explorers and writers came to see the island-condition and its inhabitants in the light of a dystopian primitiveness.

2 Magic Islands: Loci for Transformation

Islands were often represented as the sites for magical transaction or exchange, as unfamiliar places where individuals encountered existential challenges, engaged with different cultures and on return, found that they could no longer relate in the same way to the places and people that they had left. Although the tale ofThe Shipwrecked SailorandThe Tempestwere composed almost four thousand years apart, the image of the shipwrecked sailor, who finds himself isolated from his contemporaries, is at the core of both stories. The essential characteristic of islands, their remoteness, insularity and absolute sovereignty, gave rise to the literary theme of displacement or exile where the island serves as a temporary refuge for the marooned traveller.

2.1 Anon:The Shipwrecked Sailor(ca 19th Century BC)

The tale ofThe Shipwrecked Sailor, written in Egypt in the nineteenth century BC, is the earliest extant account that gives an idea of an enchanted island, which has risen from the waves and will sink again. The description of the richness found on the island could be interpreted as a dream or as a fantasy about utopian conditions; according to Baines, the island is set in “an explicitly fictional location outside the cosmos, time and space; it exists only in the text and will disappear after the narrator's encounter with the snake."[1]

On this imaginary island a magical existential scene takes place which eventually turns the temporary disorder of being shipwrecked back into order. The marooned sailor wanders about his island refuge and survives by discovering abundant food sources of excellent quality. The natural splendour is explained in the encounter with a giant serpent that tells that the island was created by God: “For it is He who has brought thee to this isle of the blest, where nothing is lacking, and which is filled with all good things.”[2] The meeting between serpent and the only surviving member of a disaster at sea takes the form of an awe-inspiring experience, evident in the serpent’s appearance as the island’s ruler in which the body is transformed to resemble the Egyptian pharaoh; he has a pharaonic beard and is covered with royal colours: the serpent "was thirty cubits long, and his beard greater than two cubits; his body was as overlayed with gold, and his colour as that of true lazuli." (39) The serpent subjects the sailor to a moral enquiry testing his truthfulness by asking three times the same question:

What has brought thee, what has brought thee, little one, what has brought thee? I thou sayest not speedily what has brought thee to this isle, I will make thee know thyself; as a flame thou shalt vanish, if thou tellest me not something I have not heard, or which I know not, before thee. (39)

After passing the serpent’s test, the sailor spends some time on the island, and, at the end of his stay, he is purified and showered with precious gifts for his pharaoh before returning to Egypt. Through his prudent behaviour and submissive conduct opposite a frightening superior being, the sailor has earned his credentials, a fortune to take back and the serpent’s promise for a good future.

This mystical serpent figure was probably an exaggeration of the sailor’s mind, whereby he could cleverly bypass an intermediate superior and gain direct access to the ruler of Egypt. On his return, he states his intentions to the middleman: “And I shall go in before Pharaoh, I shall bring the gifts which I have brought from this isle into the country" (44). During the four months spent on the island, the servant-sailor metamorphosed into a ‘wise man’, who wants to present the accumulated riches to the pharaoh as a message from the serpent-like mystical ruler.

2.2 William Shakespeare:The Tempest(1611)

The idea, as implied inThe Shipwrecked Sailor, of utopia having an affinity with islands where transformation into something better takes place through a moral test of some kind is also evident in Shakespeare’s playThe Tempest.A pattern emerges from stories such as these whereby storm, shipwreck, and landfall lead to eventual transformation. Garagnon explains the mechanics:

During the storm the sailors do not know where their ship is going and lose all sense of direction; during the shipwreck they nearly drown and lose consciousness; and then they are thrown into a new world. Storm and shipwreck can therefore be described as the equivalent of a temporary nowhere, followed by the arrival to an elsewhere; temporary disorder followed by the emergence of a perfect order; a temporary death followed by the rebirth to a new life; a kind of no man’s land where a rite of purification is performed (the travellers are ‘washed’ ashore), before the higher truths can be revealed.[3]

In Shakespeare’s play, an enchanted island is the setting for a moral allegory about physical and emotional transformation. When Prospero arrived on the island, he found it in a state of barbarity; the good spirit Ariel was imprisoned and the wild man Caliban ran free. The marooned Prospero metamorphoses into a magician who exercises control over the island and those within for twelve years. At the close of the play, Ariel is liberated and Caliban returns to the bondage he briefly evaded. Ariel and Caliban are essentially allegorical characters, representing human possibilities: Ariel embodies potential spirituality, Caliban the human propensity to waste that potential in materialism or sensual pleasure. Focussing on these two islanders, the overall theme can be characterized as one of juxtaposition, made evident in “[t]he contrast of ‘Art’ and nature [which] is furthered by the comparison of Prospero […] and the ‘natural’ Caliban.”[4]Shakespeare represents Caliban as barely human, an "ignoble savage", and Prospero as a symbol for European colonial power and civilisation; his position on the island is a European fantasy of omnipotence and domination. Caliban is the barbarian stubbornly resisting Prospero’s attempts to transmute him into a ‘higher’ being. The play underlines Prospero’s view that “Nature is insufficient and must be built upon by civilisation” (Boyce 633).

It could be argued that for Shakespeare, “Caliban represents that ‘natural man’ that enthralled Europeans as the New World was opened up and its natives became known” (Boyce 634). Shakespeare seems to have been reluctant to perpetuate the general admiration of ‘natural man’ viewed “as a healthy counter to the ills of civilisation”, which had been put forward by Michel de Montaigne and other contemporaries (Boyce 634). Some of Gonzalo's lines espousing an ideal commonwealth come directly from Montaigne’s

essay “On the Cannibals”[5]: “Letters should not be known; riches, poverty […] No occupation; all men idle, all; And women too, but innocent and pure; No sovereignty.”[6]At the end of the play, not only is the good spirit Ariel – the antithesis of Caliban – converted from slavery to freedom, but everyone, including Prospero, is transformed. Boyce summarizes the play’s underlying motif of a purging experience, evident in Prospero’s journey from seeking revenge on his enemies to achieving final reconciliation: the play is “about the inner nature of human beings revealed in circumstances of crisis and change. The characters are subject to startling personal transformations” (635).

Similar to the Egyptian sailor, who managed to impress the serpent-ruler and earned his reward, Prospero had to face a challenge on the island by confronting the strange and unfamiliar. After order was systematically restored, Prospero was able to give up his occult powers, leave the island and resume his former responsibilities and rightful position as the Duke of Milan.


[1]John Baines, "Interpreting the Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor,"Journal of Egyptian Archaeology76 (1990): 55-72, at 63.

[2]Anon. “The Shipwrecked Sailor”inEgyptian Tales, Translated from the Papyri: First Series, Fourth to Twelfth Dynasty,1895 (Toronto: General Publishing Company, 1999) 41.

[3]Jean Garagnon, “French Imaginary Voyages to the Austral Lands in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” in Helen Wallis et al.,Australia and the European Imagination(Canberra: Humanities Research Centre, 1982) 94.

[4]Charles Boyce,Shakespeare A to Z. (New York: Dell Publishing, 1991) 633.

[5]The anagram ‘Caliban’ is also an echo of Montaigne’s essay.

[6]Amanda Mabillard, ed.The Tempest,Act II, Scene I.Shakespeare Online,2000.

Excerpt out of 28 pages


Islands of the Imagination. Transformation from Mythical Places in Ancient and Modern Thought
James Cook University  (James Cook University)
Strangers in the South Pacific
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ISBN (Book)
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Marker's comment: Excellent survey and very well researched.
Magic Islands, The Shipwrecked Sailor, Shakespeare, The Tempest, Hesiod, Works and Days, Plato, Atlantis, Horace, Epode xvi, Thomas More, Utopia, Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis, Dystopia, Pigafetta, Magellan's Voyage, Montaigne, On the Cannibals, transformation, Collective fantasy, islands
Quote paper
Dr Sabine Mercer (Author), 2004, Islands of the Imagination. Transformation from Mythical Places in Ancient and Modern Thought, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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