As I'm sure you all know by now, I love recommending books here on Myth & Moor, sharing my appreciation for authors whose work has fired my imagination or touched my heart, and might do the same for you. Every once in a while, though, I read a book that I love so much that I don't know how to talk about it; every description seems inadequate. The Summer Isles: A Voyage of Imagination by Philip Marsden is such a book: it's simply one of the best that I've ever read.
The basic premise of the text is this: Mardsen sails from his home in Cornwall (on the south-west tip of England) to the the Summer Isles (on the far north coast of Scotland), taking in the remote islands of western Ireland and the Scottish Hebrides along the way. He makes the long journey alone in an old wooden sloop -- and while re-counting this thrilling, harrowing adventure he also meditates on the myths, literature, language, and history of Britain and Ireland's western coasts, and the imaginative hold islands have had on us from antiquity to the present.
Here's a taste of Marsden's prose, from the opening of The Summer Isles:
"Long ago -- when the saints had not yet reached these western shores, and heroes were still in possession of superhuman strength, and poets could cut down kings with a single satire, and music could put even the most fearsome warrior to sleep -- another region of the earth existed, another layer to the earth's surface. The Celtic, or Brythonic, otherworld was a magical place where there was no sin or labour, no old age. It was a place of beauty and joy and shimmering palaces, where they trees hung heavy with fruit and blossom, fountains burst with cool water, and cauldrons remained full, however much was drawn from them.
"In the manuscripts of medieval Irish literature are a group of stories known as echtrai -- 'outings' or journeys to the otherworld. Only a few have survived, but what they reveal is the extraordinary hold that the otherworld exerts on the imagination. Magical apples, pure love and strange beasts all feature. In Echtrae Chonnlai, Connlae, son of Conn, is invited by a woman to visit the otherworld, and her description of it is so enticing that he is overcome by longing (éolchaire). He disappears with her in a glass ship, and is never seen again. Cormac was the nephew of Conn, and he too was taken to the otherworld, but returned. He told of two forts surrounded by bronze walls and thatched with wings of white birds, and a golden cup that shattered if an untruth was ever uttered.
"A good deal of scholarly work has been carried out to try and pinpoint the otherworld from literary sources, to unpick Christian elements that may or may not overlay pagan origins, to trace recurring features and examine possible outside influences. But when dealing with such a subject, conclusions have a habit of sliding like sand between your fingers. Reading the stories, letting the images take shape, is a much better way to understand their significance. They grew from the imagination, and it is the imagination that links us to them across the ages. The otherworld might not be the term we still use, but the ability to believe in places that are invisible, to build stories around them and inhabit them, remains the defining attribute of our species. The great Celtic scholar John Carey, who has studied early Irish history as rigorously as anyone, concludes: 'I would suggest the Irish Otherworld's characteristics are, by and large, those of the imagination itself -- more specifically, of the imagination as expressed in narrative.'
"Natural mounds and hillocks, old castles, ancient burial sites, misty hollows or lakes -- these are the sort of places where the passing traveller might encounter the otherworld. But nowhere is more closely associated with its fantastic features than offshore islands. The risk of a sea passage add a certain allure to anywhere across the water, while the coast itself tends to throw up its own visual ambiguities -- refractive tricks of the light, land-like fog banks. Add to that the boundlessness of the ocean, the colourful tales of returning sailors, and it is no wonder that the western sea became such a bountiful playground of imaginary places.
"In those days, when navigation was little more than cosmic speculation, the waters to this side of Britain and Ireland has many more islands -- Tír na nÓg ('and of the young'), Tír na mBeo ('land of the living'), Tír Tairngire ('land of promise'), Emain Ablach, Avalon, Kilstapheen, Imaire Buidhe, Lyonesse, Heather-Bleather. There were islands that appeared once every seven years, islands that drifted around like giant plankton, populated islands beneath the sea. There were enchanted islands like Inishbofin, and longed-for islands like Hinba and the Green Islands of Hebridean lore. There were islands that turned out not to be islands but great sea monsters when the crews of St. Brendan and Máel Dúin lit fires on their scaly shores."
Islands reflect our inner wishes and beliefs, as much now as in the past. He writes:
"We may have purged our charts of the imaginary, but that doesn't mean we do not long for mythical places. Our lives are still shaped not by reason but by hope and fear, by narrative, by projection. We seek to give form to such abstractions by attaching them to the shape of the world: hope is a hill, memory a house, fear is a cliff, disappointment an empty field. For all the pinpointing of every ruckle and molehill on the earth's surface, satellite imagery does not even begin to show the planet as we see it. Our maps may tell us where places are, and what they are, but they do nothing to reveal what they mean. Mircea Eliade suggested that mythical geography is 'the only geography man could never be without'. Oscar Wilde put it rather more graphically: 'A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail'.
"The islands of Britain and Ireland were themselves once regarded by Rome as an alter orbis -- semi-mythical places detached from the three great continents of Africa, Asia and Europe. That they should make their own satellite islands into otherworlds is hardly surprising. 'It would seem that the notion of the otherworld have a very particular resonance for writers in the North Atlantic archipelago,' writes medievalist Aisling Byrne. 'National landscape shapes national literature, as the multifarious Greek islands gave episodic shape to the Odyssey, the unbounded reaches of the North Atlantic informed fantasies of insular travel and discovery'.
"The otherworld is more than just a fantasy island, full of strange creatures, magical trees and time-warps. It is all those places that we imagine, that we long for, that sustain our brief span on this earth. Out here in the far west, along the fractured coastline of Britain and Ireland, lies Europe's dreaming frontier, its open horizon, where the solid becomes fluid, the fixed wobbles a little and the cliffs and seas grow their own elaborate mythology. It has always occupied a certain place in the collective consciousness, and drawn a certain type to its shore."
During this time of global uncertainty, when physical travel is now difficult (and for some of us impossible), I highly recommend this armchair journey through islands real and imaginary....and those shifting, tricksy, liminal places that are neither one nor the other.
This book is pure enchantment.
Words: The passage above is from The Summer Isles by Philip Marsden (Granta, 2019); all rights reserved by the author.
Pictures: Illustrations for "The Tempest" by Edmund Dulac, illustrations for "The Sea King's Daughter" and "The Children of Lir" by Gennady Spirin, two more illustrations for "The Tempest" by Edmund Dulac, "The Enchanter" by Alan Lee, "The Argonauts" by Edmund Dulac, "Becuma of the White Skin" (from Irish Fairy Tales) by Arthur Rackham, and "The Sea King's Realm" by Gennady Spirin. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.