We see islands in the oldest literature we know, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Prospero’s Island) to Homer’s The Odyssey (Circe’s Island) to Jason and the Golden Fleece (Lemnos, Doilones, Cius etc).
A well-known island from Greek mythology is Ogygia, considered ‘navel of the sea’. This island is mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey as the home of the nymph Calypso. This isn’t your typical rugged island where inhabitants must fight for survival — Ogygia is more like Calypso’s own English country estate where Calypso is an upper class maiden who spends her days singing while she weaves. The island is her house and she is a little housewife.
Desert islands, along with underground hideouts, are classic locales of romance, seen in stories such as Peter Pan. J.M. Barrie returned to the island setting in a later and lesser known work, Mary Rose. This was based on old Scottish legends Barrie heard as a child, in which mortals are stolen away to fairyland and return days or years later with no memory of where they have been.
- Island stories often involve a shipwreck.
- They also generally involve fire building. Fires are a sign of culture, dividing humans from other animals (who cannot deliberately make fire).
An island without a fire is a waste of a good island.
Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1932
- Although an island setting is often also escapist, characters are not let off the hook when it comes to work. Living on an island means intensive work, in fact: Now you are completely reliant on yourself and you must grow your food from scratch. Characters often take delight in the fruits of their labour. Crusoe really enjoys his bread. This plays into the Protestant idea that hard work brings good things.
- Islands in fiction are often depicted as liminal sites. (Liminal = relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.)
- Islands are “fertile spaces for the exploration of the shifting sands of identity”. (Mary Thompson)
- Island exploration could be a metaphor for childhood and adolescence itself. Island metaphors have made it into English idiom: ‘feeling unanchored, adrift’, being swept away on ‘the rising tide’, ‘turbulent waters/adolescence’.
- Islands envisaged in characters’ imagination before they take their full form in the novel’s reality are a recurrent device in children’s fiction.
- On islands in children’s stories, the division between fantasy and reality is frequently erased. The island itself is a portal as well as a destination.
- To use Foucault’s terminology, the island is a heterotopia.
- Islands are, by their definition, separate from the land-mass termed the ‘mainland’. Codes of behaviour acceptable on an island can be viewed as ‘outside’ the norm. This results in a different kind of community and different attitudes about in-group and out-group individuals.
- Characters can often feel very possessive about their own island and hostile to newcomers. This makes the island a good setting for exploring themes about homogenous communities and their attitudes to outsiders. Island settings often explore sameness/difference, power/control, order/chaos.
- This is why the island setting is often an arena of imprisonment rather than liberation.
Be careful about falling into stereotypes, especially when it comes to tropical islands.
The separate, abstract quality of the island is why it is often used to depict a utopia or dystopia. And even more than the jungle, the island is the classic setting for showing the workings of evolution. Tropical islands, with boggy marshes, humidity and jungle lifeforms are often associated in fiction with rogue scientists, carrying out experiments with life.
R.L. Stine did this in How I Got My Shrunken Head. Stine tells us only that the story takes place somewhere in ‘Southeast Asia’, and then the guide has a Spanish name, which makes the setting completely ambiguous.
Lisa A. Koosis also makes use of a tropical island setting in her book about cloning and bringing the dead back to life, Resurrecting Sunshine. Here she includes some details of the surrounding landscape, including native people who have a strong tradition of ghosts and prayer — putting me in mind of a Catholic Hispanic milieu.
Making The Most of Island Settings
In many ways, the island has the most complex story possibilities of any natural setting. Let’s take a closer look at how to get the most out of the island world in your story. Notice that the best way to express the inherent meaning of this natural setting is through the story structure.
- Take time in the beginning to set up the normal society and the characters’ place within it.
- Send the characters to an island. This plays into a widely shared wish fulfilment of self-sufficiency (also at play in reality TV shows such as Doomsday Preppers.)
- Create a new society based on different rules and values. For a standout example of that see Lord of the Flies. The children are now in charge instead of the adults, in a dystopian carnivalesque tale.
- Make the relationship between the characters very different from what it was in the original society. (Plan)
- Through conflict, show what works and what doesn’t. (Opponent)
- Show characters experimenting with something new when things don’t work. (Revelation or anagnorisis)
Well-known Dystopian Island Settings
- Lord Of The Flies (not written as children’s fiction — it was never originally written nor marketed for a young audience. )
- Jurassic Park
- Cast Away
- The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
- Shutter Island
- The Bridge To Terabithia
- The Shipping News
- The Martian (with a planet instead of an actual island)
Well-known Utopian Island Settings
- Utopia by Sir Thomas More, the book which gave English the word ‘utopia’ in the first place. Unfortunately for the author, he was executed by King Henry the eighth.
- Anne Of Green Gables/Anne Of The Island — Prince Edward Island removes Anne completely from her former life, to the point where in the classic story she suffers no PTSD (unlike in a proposed remake).
- Robinson Crusoe — The most iconic of all island books, and an example of desert island fiction, in which a remote and ‘uncivilised’ island is used as the venue of the story and action. It has a particular attraction because it can be placed right outside the ‘real’ world and may be an image of the ideal, the unspoilt and the primitive. It appeals directly to the sense of adventure and exploratory instinct, and to a certain atavistic nostalgia. This novel from 1719 marked the beginning of this universally popular literary genre. However, there is a good case to be made that this is a dystopian story.*
- Treasure Island — R.L. Stevenson published this in 1883. This is probably the most popular island book ever.
- The Lie Tree — Frances Hardinge created a snail under the leaf setting in her award winning children’s novel.
*According to ethnologist and literary expert Susan Arndt from the University of Bayreuth … Defoe’s novel has not been properly examined. “Actually, you have to ask the question how a system of violence and enslavement could be portrayed so harmlessly,” said Arndt, whose research focuses on racism in English literature.
- The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society
- Five On A Treasure Island/Five On Kirrin Island Again
- The Light Between Oceans
- To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf — a modernist, stream-of-consciousness novel about the Ramsay family. An example of a psychological novel.
- The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader — by C.S. Lewis, part of the Narnia series.
- The Old Man And The Sea — by Ernest Hemingway, set in Cuba and the Gulf Stream. A man against nature tale with biblical themes, about a man who tries to catch a fish.
- Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome — the islands where the children summer are islands in a wider sense; apart from the fact their father is away they are totally shielded from news of the war.
The farm at Holly Howe had all turned into foreign country. They were quite different places now that you came to them by water from an island of your own. They were not at all what they had been when you lived there and saw the island far away over the water. Coming back to them was almost the same thing as exploration. It was like exploring a place that you have seen in a dream, where everything is just where you expect it and yet everything is a surprise.
Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome, 1932
Stories set on islands often feature a map at the beginning of the book. Geography is important.
Stories set on islands often feature significant birds.
At its most metaphorical, the island features a lone or significant tree.
ISLANDS IN PICTURE BOOKS
The Island by Armin Greder
The Swiss-Australian writer and illustrator Armin Greder’s picture book The Island (2007) focuses on the arrival of a stranger, who washes up on an unnamed island only to be confronted by the townspeople’s harsh and prejudicial treatment. The illustrations explore this dynamic in a particularly harrowing manner, with Greder’s expressionistic drawings referencing, in one haunting frame, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893). The picture book explores fear and hatred of the Other, and collective behaviour in relation to island communities. Perhaps inevitably, there are also potential discussions stemming from this work in relation to migration and the treatment of refugees, and it has been used as a text to facilitate such dialogues in classroom contexts in both Australia and the UK. The theme of prejudice is particularly pervasive in this book, and even individuals who, we might assume, would be figures of decency, for example, the priest and teacher, become complicit in the cruel treatment of this stranger on the island. Not a single islander decides to break rank and come to the aid of the stranger, who is taunted, bullied and, in the final sequence, rejected fully and banished, once again into the ocean.Ben Screech
Tanglewood by Margaret Wild and Vivienne Goodman
Tanglewood is a tree who lives on an island far away, visited only by the wind. One day a bird shelters from the storm among its branches and a precious bond is formed. But Seagull belongs to the sky and, too soon, must leave.
Note the white space on this first page — the white space itself connotes loneliness.
Island Boy by Barbara Cooney (1988)
Barbara Cooney (August 6, 1917 – March 10, 2000) was an American writer and illustrator of 110 children’s books, published over sixty years.
The story is about a pioneer couple who move to an island and populate it with six boys and six girls. This is basically an American Western story — about world building.
The focal character is the baby of the family, Matthais (not to be confused for Matthias). The name apparently means ‘Gift from God’. As the runt of the litter, Matthais is drawn to a lone gull, and manages to tame it somewhat. It seems to be lame, but manages to fly off.
When he grows up, Matthais goes to work at his uncle’s shipyard like all of his older brothers. (The girls are married off.)
Matthais travels the world as a cabin boy, finds a wife called Hannah and brings her back to the island where the story takes a bit of a feminist turn, and Hannah produces three daughters — the youngest of whom ‘can’t sit still inside’ — the designed ‘tomboy’ of the group. Matthais calls her his ‘little wild bird’. (You just know that childhood bird is going to be significant.) The youngest daughter is compared to a bird with her ‘flyaway hair’. When she grows up she even marries a ‘sail maker’ — the closest you can get to a human bird, I guess.
Matthais’ wife dies and Annie sends her grandson back to spend time with the grandfather every weekend. He resists the urge to sell to townsfolk moving in, building houses that they call cottages. The author’s disapproval of this development is clear. “They called themselves rusticators.” The stoic and pious nature of Matthais is underscored when he says to his older daughter, “But our wants are so few now…And this is our home.”
Despite warning his grandson not to go out in the bad wind, the old man sails to the mainland, gets overturned in a storm, and drowns.
But we see the cycle of life continue when the young Matthias stands under that tree that his grandfather is buried under.
The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry (ie. by us)
In our picture book app, The Artifacts, the main character’s loneliness is depicted via island symbolism.
A small planet in space does the same thing as an island at sea. In a SF story, space is metaphorically the same as an ocean.
ISLANDS IN MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS
The Silent One is written by one of New Zealand’s most loved children’s writers, Joy Cowley. My teacher handed it to me when I was about ten and I still remember it’s about a boy called Jonasi who is deaf. The island setting is a perfect match for the theme of isolation brought about by an inability to fully communicate with others.
In pulp fiction for kids islands are a recurring setting.
The Girl Of Ink And Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave — Forbidden to leave her island, Isabella Riosse dreams of the faraway lands her father once mapped.
When her closest friend disappears into the island’s Forgotten Territories, she volunteers to guide the search. As a cartographer’s daughter, she’s equipped with elaborate ink maps and knowledge of the stars, and is eager to navigate the island’s forgotten heart.
But the world beyond the walls is a monster-filled wasteland – and beneath the dry rivers and smoking mountains, a legendary fire demon is stirring from its sleep. Soon, following her map, her heart and an ancient myth, Isabella discovers the true end of her journey: to save the island itself.
Beyond The Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk — This story is set on a very small imaginary island within the real-world Elizabeth Islands, near where the author lives. The islands are described as beautiful — a snail under the leaf setting, except when you live there you know that there are social rifts, and one of the islands was used as a leper colony. The same social problems as anywhere else. However, apart from the interpersonal issues, the islands are more utopia than dystopia. There’s an endless supply of food from nature (from the sea, from the garden), and mainland problems like the build-up to war don’t touch the inhabitants.
- There are bears and coyotes on the mainland, what Crow calls ‘real wilderness’. People holiday on the islands ostensibly to get out into the wild, but they’re actually protected.
CITIES AS ISLANDS
The examples above are examples of literal islands, but a metaphorical island can be something else entirely.
It can be a city.
The skyscrapers of cities are really no more than modern manmade mountains. The streets symbolic of rivers. The gardens symbolic of that ancient image of an earthly paradise first symbolized in the Garden of Eden. And even the city itself, really no more than the symbol of an island surrounded by the vastness of the ocean of nature.Symbolism of Place
- Films set on islands, a Wikipedia entry
- Island Dreams from Jerry Griswold
- Islands In Fiction For Young People: A Brief Introduction by Ben Screech