Joanna Biggs: Hello, I'm Joanna Biggs, one of the editors on the London Review of Books, and a month before lockdown I spoke with Mary Wellesley about the idea of the Island, blessed and not so blessed. I should say we had no idea at the time that we were soon to be stranded inside our own homes. She reviewed Islands in the West: Classical Myth and the Medieval Norse and Irish Geographical Imagination by Matthias Egele in the issue dated 5 March 2020, but the conversation ranges from Robinson Crusoe to the Fyre Festival. All the pieces we mention about anchoresses, menageries and Gawain and the Green Knight can be read online at lrb.co.uk.
Mary, why this essay? Why islands?
Mary Wellesley: Well, I suppose that islands have this kind of magical appeal. When you look out over a seascape and you see an island, there's something so inviting about it. I don't know if you remember that moment at the beginning of the Heart of Darkness where Conrad talks about the welded join between the sky and the sea and islands feel like this place of rupture on that joy in this kind of strange, uncomfortable place in this liminal zone. John Keats wrote this really wonderful sonnet called 'To Ailsa Rock', which is about an island in southwest Scotland. He wrote it in 1818 on a walking tour, and he talks about the island as a kind of union between the infinities of sky and sea. And I think that captures a lot of their magical status. There they sit somehow uncomfortably on that welded join.
JB: Specifically the Blessed Island, these kind of magically perfect places that exist or don't exist. And I made a list reading your piece of all the different things that make a paradise island: food, sex, a gentle climate, abundant plants and animals that come back themselves from milking. So basically fewer problems than you imagine. And that made me think, is that what we'd want now in a paradise island? Was that something you were thinking about as you were writing, or was it much more looking to history?
MW: I suppose when I was writing the piece, I was interested in what different cultures can figure as an ideal Island. And so in the medieval imagination, it becomes a much more Christianised place. And the adventuring hero who we find in, for example, the Odyssey, becomes the adventuring monk, or indeed the Peregrinus, this person who gets into a boat and just trusts that God will guide them through the dangers of the sea. And so I suppose that what I was interested in is how the different ages configure it. In the piece I talk about how in some Greek texts you can only reach the Islands of the Blessed if you are of important aristocratic lineage or you’re a hero from the Wars. And the access requirement, as I call it, for reaching islands changes over time.
JB: So it used to be kind of a class thing or a kind of meritocratic thing, that was the thing that changed.
MW: Well, yeah. So in Pindar’s second Olympian ode, the Island of the Blessed – and there it's singular, not plural - is accessible only to those who've completed three cycles of life without abandoning the path of virtue. There is a kind of implication that you can only get – for example, in The Voyage of St Brendan, that it's only by dint of his saintly, monastic status that he's able to reach these places. So I suppose in many of these stories, there's a notion that you have to be pure or good in some way in order to reach them.
JB: Another thing your piece made me think of was the reality TV series Love Island. I guess you do have to be chosen to go on that. It is supposed to be this perfect place where there’s only love – well, there's a lot of alcohol on it – and you're supposed to be able to find love and be undisturbed by the rest of life, you know, this perfect place. But as we've seen it has this darker side. People have really suffered from being on it.
MW: I can't speak with any great authority on Love Island having never seen it, but I think the interesting model here perhaps is to think about the Lord of the Flies and the way in which there is a persistent idea about islands as being places which are microcosms of society, places where you can remake society and you can build a new world, like, for example, Thomas More's Utopia. But they can also, because they're microcosms of society, be the breeding ground for the basest kinds of human instincts, so Lord of the Flies. And I was thinking that maybe Fyre Festival, that amazing documentary on Netflix about the ill-fated festival on a supposedly Caribbean paradise island, how that was a kind of Lord of the Flies for the millennial generation.
JB: It also made me think of it as, reading your piece, like Robin Island and Alcatraz, and so the way islands had been used for the complete opposite to try and banish something that we don't like about our current society.
MW: Yeah. So I think that's very well recognised, and it's not simply a trope, but, it's a reality, places like St Helena in the middle of the Atlantic, it's a British overseas territory. Some people will know that Napoleon was imprisoned and died there, but he wasn't the only prisoner who went there. There were prisoners from the Boer Wars, prisoners from the Zulu Wars and latterly Bahraini dissidents in the 1950s. So this paradise island has been this, as you say, place of incarceration, where the sea is not this romantic surrounding but actually a kind of fence or wall.
JB: That makes me think also of other pieces you've written for the London Review of Books, this amazing piece you wrote about anchoresses, and also, I think your first piece was about menageries and zoos. So we have this kind of, I don't want to say obsession, that seems a bit strong, but some sort of interest in places that are kind of enclosed and can be controlled and can be ideal in a certain way.
MW: I suppose in the simplest way, what I find fascinating about medieval history in particular is the way in which the strangeness of the medieval world as we perceive it is actually an invitation to us to think about the strangeness of our own world. And if we think about incarceration or enclosure, we think about the proportion, for example, of the American population that is incarcerated. And yet that's an accepted fact of life. And I suppose, thinking about enclosure, there are all kinds of different forms of enclosure in our modern world. There's a wonderful moment in one of the Lives of St Cuthbert – St Cuthbert was a seventh-century English Saint from Northumbria – and he retreated from the monastery of Lindisfarne to Inner Farne Island where he had a Hermitage. And what's very interesting is that there's this moment in the Life where it says that one of the first things he did was to build a high wall, so that his eyes would be focused constantly on the celestial realm, and he wouldn't be distracted by, presumably, the elemental landscape around him. And I've always thought that's quite interesting, because to me part of the appeal of some kind of spiritual retreat on an island is about the beauty of the landscape. But of course, that's a very romantic notion of the power of landscape. And actually building the high walls is an integral part of the spiritual exercise that figures like Cuthbert were undergoing, and it's the same as shutting off the wi-fi, I suppose.
JB: Another thing when I was going through making lists of things that make up a blessed island, I noticed – it's not surprising, just because of the way history has been – that it's often men looking for a blessed island, and women are found there. And it made me think, what sort of blessed island would there be when women were looking for it? Like what would women want it to be? 'What do women want?', as Freud would say, but what would be that perfect island? Would it be different?
MW: I suppose what's interesting is that you take, for example, Circe in the Odyssey and she has her own island and she has dominion there, but it seems to be a very kind of male idea of what female dominion is about, because she turns the sailors into pigs and ultimately she's practicing some kind of dubious witchcraft. What would a female paradise island look like? I don't know. Perhaps the Wonder Woman film!
JB: It made me wonder if men will be on it at all. I mean, one hopes so, right? If the men want women to be on it, then you'd want them to, but sometimes things seem so complicated, and you think maybe women would say a retreat from the world would be a retreat from men. I don’t know.
MW: There's a wonderful 13th-century poem called The Land of Cockaigne, which was probably produced in Ireland, and it survives solely in a manuscript in the British Library. And it's definitely a satire of a lot of these medieval stories about the transmarine paradise. Specifically The Voyage of St Brendan, it seems to be a parody of that, but it's really wonderful because the houses are made of pies and the roof tiles are made of little cakes. And there are monks and nuns there, and they have orgies all the time! I think they may even splash around in a river of milk. So it's a wonderful kind of inversion of those paradise narratives.
JB: The other thing that comes through in your piece so beautifully, the way you draw it out very gently towards the end, is this idea of how much the idea of the Island plays into imperial thinking and colonial thinking. How islands could corrupt our political thinking by offering this perfect idea that obviously could never exist.
MW: Yeah. I suppose if you think about a lot of those 18th-century narratives about islands, like for example Robinson Crusoe, it strikes me that those stories are about man's dominion over this little place which can be completely controlled, and that even the people on it can be completely controlled. You think about Crusoe's mastery over Friday who he enslaves.
And it seems to me that this is a metaphor for a lot of 18th-century thinking about man's relationship - and I gender it specifically – man's relationship with other people and with the natural world. And I think that's the darker and more frightening implication of these Island mythologies, the way they offer this promise of some little world that can be completely controlled and contained.
JB: Yes. All the plants grow infinitely. They're abundant and fertile, and there's no problems with harvests. And so nature is completely —
MW: Yeah. So I think definitely in the earlier texts there's a notion that nature doesn't need to be subject to dominion. But definitely in later ideas about islands, there's an idea that Robinson Crusoe – so much of it is about the drama of this man trying to overcome his circumstance and try to overcome the challenges of the natural world as he experiences it.
JB: It seems so foolish when you think about it that way, because you start with the garden of Eden at the beginning of the Bible, and of course that isn't perfect either, and we get cast out, so this idea that the Paradise Island could ever be a paradise island – didn’t you?
MW: Yeah. I'm interested in this idea, I wrote about this a while ago in the paper, in the piece about Gawain and the Green Knight. I was talking about how the poem Pearl, which is this extraordinary Middle English dream vision, and describes this beautiful garden, where the narrator of the poem wakes in this incredible place with a stream that has jewelled rocks at its bottom. And I was interested in the fact that the description of that landscape is about a place that is suggestively manicured. It's not a wild landscape. And one of the things that I was interested in in that particular piece was talking about Gawain and the Green Knight, which seems to have been written by the same author as wrote Pearl. There the wild landscape, as we would understand it through the kind of prism of the Romantic imagination, we think about the wild landscape as a poetic place, a magical place, a place of possibility. But for Gawain a wild landscape is a place of threat. And it's interesting that, if I can make a massive generalisation, before the Romantic period so much of our conception of the perfect ideal landscape is one that is suggestively tended by man. It's a garden, as you say, like a paradise, and the word ‘paradise’ itself means ‘garden’, it means a tended place.
JB: There was another interesting hermit you were telling me about.
MW: Oh, yes. Fernando Lopez, so I probably am pronouncing that wrong because he was Portuguese. He was marooned, if that's the right word, probably not, but he lived on St Helena for a very long time. He was initially part of an expeditionary force of Portuguese colonialists that went to Goa in the early 16th century. And he was left in charge of Goa when Albuquerque, who was his superior, went off to go and fight some kind of war, I think, and when he returned he discovered that Lopez had converted to Islam and led a mutiny against the Portuguese settlers, and Lopez was then imprisoned and brutally tortured and he had his left thumb and his nose and his ears and his right arm all cut off. And he languished in prison there until 1515. And then at some point the ship was returning to Portugal and it stopped off at St Helena on the way. I should also add that the accounts describing his life are conflicting and not necessarily completely reliable. So we're pulling together fragments like little islands in an archipelago here. It's not clear whether he then escaped from the ship and went to go and live on St Helena, or whether he asked to be allowed to settle on St Helena. But at this point, there was no population on St Helena and he lived there. And it strikes me as this very moving story that is something like a medieval anchorite - here he is retreating from this place, retreating from society, retreating from the brutality of man. He's hideously disfigured, psychologically scarred. He's been through a religious conversion. And he lives there for some time, until eventually he decides to get on a boat and travel back to Portugal. And he then is granted an audience with Pope Clement VII, who pardons him of the sin of apostasy because he had converted to Islam while he was in Goa, and he spent some time in Lisbon. But then he eventually decides that he wants to return to St Helena. And so he's taken back by a ship and he lives there for around another twenty years and dies in about 1545. And I find this such a wonderful meeting point of all of many of the themes that we've been talking about in terms of islands, the Island as a retreat, as a paradise, a place of threat.
JB: It's a lovely place to end. Thank you so much, Mary Wellesley.
MW: Thank you.