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Huw Lewis-Jones on Archipelago: An Atlas of Imagined Islands

Posted on 8th October 2019 by Mark Skinner

It is three hundred years since Daniel Defoe’s trailblazing novel Robinson Crusoe first set minds dreaming. In Archipelago: An Atlas of Imagined Islands, Huw Lewis-Jones has worked with some of the world’s leading book illustrators to create maps and stories of their own invented islands.

Warm seas and white sands. Coconuts and palm trees. With such things do your island dreams begin? What about a bearded castaway named Crusoe dressed in his goatskin trousers? Maybe not. My dreams of islands, real and imagined, began with books and with maps. I grew up on an island whilst longing to be on others.    

Islomania. Lawrence Durrell described his passion for islands as a kind of affliction. There are other words for the island enchantment too. Nesomania, an obsession; islophilia, a deep affection; and enisled, as if isolated and encircled by the very thought of an island.   

Islands have captured the imaginations of writers and artists for centuries. Islands may indeed be a paradise, but they might also be a hell. In folklore, philosophy, religion, and myth, they are forever there, exerting a grip on our psyche.

Venetian sailors were the first to make collections by drawing maps of the islands they visited in their isolari – literally the ‘island books’. At a time when mariners of many nations were taking to the sea, exploring the farthest reaches of the world and returning with remarkable tales of their own, phantom lands and appealing unknowns were still inked in promise all over their charts.

The most famous island book of all, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, first appeared in 1719. Inspired by the story of the sailor Alexander Selkirk, Defoe’s tale transformed an island into an endless and enticing creative landscape, an infinite archipelago. In celebration of its threehundredth birthday, I asked some of the world’s leading illustrators to create with me for the first time the contours and coastlines of their own islands, and I ventured with them to help describe what their strange histories are. Some of these maps locate us, others confound. Many raise more questions than answers, while a few are just bonkers. With imagination and creativity, our journeys went in many directions.

Growing up, long before I actually got down to reading the original Crusoe, I travelled through books and films to all kinds of islands: with Gulliver to Lilliput, to Stevenson’s Treasure Island, or dodging dinosaurs on Isla Nublar and giant apes on Skull Island. Years later, I found famous islands in literature that I’d first missed, sailing with Odysseus, or underwater with Jules Verne, or joining Ged in the boat Lookfar to summon the wind and reach the edges of Earthsea. Wonderful Ursula Le Guin for example made beautiful maps, drawing out her archipelago first in 1966 in a house full of children; finding her story, finding the words, as she traveled with her pencil. ‘The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northwest Sea, is a land famous for wizards.’ Her islands are as spellbinding now as the day she first sung them into being. 

Guernsey, the island where I lived as a child, is often no more than a tiny dot on maps. On my tin globe it wasn’t even there so we marked it on in felt pen. Other islands became the home for our stories: Iceland, a land of volcanoes and Vikings; Australia, with the great wild desert in its centre; or my favourite, just off East Africa, look, it’s Zanzibar. What a magical word. 

A map is so often the starting point for journeys into the unknown, reassuring to travellers, inviting to readers. Most stories don’t need maps, but many are the better for them. The features of a map lend authenticity to an invented world. So, this little atlas is an archipelago gathered in tribute. One important legacy of Defoe’s book, as I see it, is not tied to the original text but to the idea of encouraging new creative responses. A cultural footprint. The power of Crusoe lies in the imaginative possibilities of islands. They are worlds in miniature. They are places we conjure stories.

Think for a moment that you too are castaway, washed upon a distant shore. What does it look like? And what can be found there? Take a blank sheet of paper and begin. Draw a line and see where it goes. Each of my artists did the same, and their islands have never been seen until now. Here are coastlines, beasts and botanicals; the landscapes and the peoples a castaway might encounter. From AyeAye’La to Zungeland, Atozatoll and Insectulam, and much more between. Ever been to Cosgrave and Caligo? Kyklos, Kess, or Korutar? Let’s go. Perhaps these creations may also encourage you to have a go at inventing one yourself? What better in life for a writer, not just a room of one’s own, but a whole island. The cycle of Crusoes continues.

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