Saturday, May 22, 2021

Hy Brasil - Margaret Elphinstone

Hy Brasil is an island in the Atlantic, somewhere over the horizon from Ireland, Iceland and the Azores, that has been sighted several times since the Middle Ages and has given rise to many legends. Said to have towns with towers of gold, thought to be often shrouded in mist, it has been identified with the Fortunate Isles that the Celts believed lay in the sunset regions to the West, and with the fierce, fair and free lands that Viking voyagers discovered.

It continued on nautical maps and atlases into the late 19th century, but was eventually removed, along with other islands that had once been seen and plotted but now cannot be found. This is a very beguiling subject and there are a small number of books on the theme, including Raymond Ramsay's No Longer On the Map (1972), Henry Stommel's Lost Islands: The Story of Islands That Have Vanished from Nautical Charts (1984) and Donald S Johnson's Phantom Islands of the Atlantic (1994). Who could resist such alluring titles?  

Scottish author Margaret Elphinstone published one of the best modern novels with an island setting in her splendidly-imagined novel set on Hy Brasil and its smaller sister islands. In her Hy Brasil (2002), she creates a many-dimensioned version of the realm, with its mixed heritage from all the lands of the North Atlantic littoral, its obscure, half-mythic origins, its colonial pride yet independent spirit, and its modern dilemmas as a new nation.

A skillful story-teller, she brings in many relishable themes; spying, smuggling, conspiracy, a volcano, rebellion, exile, roads taken and not taken. Through the travel notes of a self-aware, but still learning, young woman, the charmingly-named Sidony Redruth, we discover the eminently convincing history, legends and culture of the island: but we are also drawn to understand the human qualities and foibles of the island characters.

This is indeed a highly plausible Hy Brasil that might have been. The author also slyly includes enjoyable references to other literary islands and seafarers. On her website she says: ‘My island of Hy Brasil is also Caliban’s, Robinson Crusoe’s, Gulliver’s, Long John Silver’s, Peter Pan’s, Ralph’s, and a host of other more or less fictional characters.’

Most deftly of all, she invites us to think about the nature of imagined worlds and their relationship to lived experience.  She describes her book as: ‘a game about islands, and representations of islands.’ A work in which a fantastical premise is given fine substance, it will linger with the reader long after.

 With the author's permission, I issued a stamp based on her Hy Brasil in my Strange Stamps series. It was designed by SF artist Colin Langeveld and depicts the discovery of the island by Viking voyagers (it is now out of print). 

At Ringwood Publishing there is an interview with Margaret Elphinstone by Beth Whitelaw about the author's fascination with islands and with the Viking age, as well as on her writing. 

(Mark Valentine)

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