Sunday, October 5, 2008

Islandia By Austin Tappin Wright

This book was published in 1942, eleven years after Wright's death. I first read it in 1946.
I was nineteen and had just arrived in Bad Kissingen, Germany when a good friend sent it to me. I reread it and share it with special people and I always wondered how many others have found the novel to be as fascinating as I found it. I hope that you will induldge me .

The novel made quite an impression on me; I would imagine myself as John Lang meeting and making friends with Dorn, a person from a strange foreign land, learning his language and talking about his country and becoming good friends, and then accepting a post as Consul to his country where new mores´ and customs must be learned. I throughly enjoyed the story, the imaginary world and the strong characters. Wright's women characters are those that, probably, he and certainly, I, would want to meet and know. He was many years ahead in his attitude toward women. It is an adventure, and there is war and politics and unrequited love. Wright spent most of his life creating his Islandia; too bad it existed only in his mind. I would have liked to visit there.

Lang's uncle was instrumental in his getting the post because he and a group of major business players wanted to get trade going with Islandia in spite of the fact that the Islandian people for the most part, do not want trade and do not welcome foreigners. Lang will find himself being pulled in different directions by the pressure that his uncle and various visiting business people put on him and his loyalty to his friend and his growing understanding of the people and the land of Islandia. I thought it interesting that A.T. Wright created for his country the " Hundred Law" which limited access to Islandia to one hundred visitors at anyone time. He also expressed concern for the exploitation of timber and resources, over population and pollution - this was back in the 30's or even earlier!

It may have been 20 years ago when I last rereread the novel but I read it again recently; I am still captivated by the places and the people. The Fains, The Hyths, The Dorns, The Somes, exclusionists all, the conservative Westerners that are opposed to a pending treaty which would open the country to foreigners. These folks have been on their farms for more than 400 years (one, a thousand years). No telephones no telegraphs; people wrote letters! They made do without what was considered modern conveniences back then; why, I am not sure because Wright was from a wealthy family and did not lack for luxuries.

Then there are the Moras of the East, strong political factions that want trade and argued vigorously for it in council. The possibility of a Trade Treaty was one of the main themes of the novel.

Wright made no mention of a formal religion except that the people of Islandia must have had some bad experiences with Christian missionaries because they were banned from the country. They had several words for love: "alia" for love of place and lineage, "ania" for commitment and desire for marriage and "apia" for sexual attraction and another word, "linamia" to designate a strong affection for a person of either sex.

I became John Lang and lived the story; Dorn and Dorna , his sister ,were very real persons to me. The intrigues , the passions and the dialog were mine to savor; happiness and sadness, hope and despair. I sometimes, tried to fit real life people into the various roles, I often wonder about "linamia", I think, that in these times, it is, sadly, very difficult to really get to know someone well enough to find the strong affection that the term denotes.

It is a very long story and Wright often goes too far in his detailed descriptions of everything. He is the kind of guy if you asked what time it is he would tell you how to build a watch. But it was a labor of love and he cared deeply for every place and every person in Islandia and I count it among my most favored novels.

1 comment:

PRB said...

I want to echo your sentiments about this wonderful book. I first read it as a teenager during the post-Tolkien "fantasy boom" when Ballantine Books and other companies brought out paperback editions of Lovecraft, Dunsany, Eddison, etc. Some editor (happily) thought Islandia fit the fantasy mold, and brought out a trade paperback edition. I now have three copies (including a hardcover first edition) and reread the story at least once a year. The meticulous care he has taken to build a historically plausible society and a set of vivid, dynamic characters is all the more amazing in that he could not have expected to see the story in publication. I could go on forever ...