Archive for September 21st, 2012

September 21, 2012

When life gives you Robinsons

As some of you may already know, I now have a monthly column in the new Indian edition of the National Geographic Traveller. It’s called “Paper Trails”, and in the three months that I’ve been writing for it I’ve managed to quote Derek Walcott, not quote Jean-Jacques Rousseau, talk about the Chalet School and inform everyone that travel writing is a lie.

I’ll be putting all the columns up eventually. For now, here’s a slightly longer version of August’s piece on robinsonades and the amazing generosity of desert islands.

 

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The first great shipwreck survivor in Western literature is Robinson Crusoe. In Daniel Defoe’s novel of 1719, the seafaring protagonist finds himself stranded on a deserted island where, with the entire contents of his ship at his disposal, he manages to live for a number of years. The island provides him with goats to domesticate, fruits to eat, and even a native servant for company.

Robinson Crusoe seems to be the book that all future island-dwellers have read. A century later, in 1812, Johann Wyss’s Swiss family jokingly give themselves Crusoe’s name. The men who land on Jules Verne’s L’Île mystérieuse in 1874, meanwhile, seem familiar with Wyss’ work, and mention the Robinsons’ habit of giving various parts of their island fanciful names. The island survival story would draw so much from Defoe’s pioneering novel, that in 1731 (only a little over a decade since Robinson Crusoe) the German writer Gisander named the genre the “robinsonade”.

Robinsonades generally involve people stranded in deserted places who must struggle against nature to survive. Often, the characters in these stories cultivate the land; many of them settle there for good and begin to populate it. All of this sounds as if the shipwreck story were a constant struggle between man and nature. Yet this is not always the case.

At the beginning of C.S Lewis’ Prince Caspian (first published in 1949), four children are magically transported to an island where there appears to be no other sign of life. At first, the children have no idea where they are. Though they realise that they might starve to death, the thought is quickly dismissed. “It’s like being shipwrecked,” remarks Edmund, the younger boy. “In the books, they always find springs of clear, fresh water on the island. We’d better go and look for them.” There is no need to worry; these characters are familiar enough with the robinsonade to know that nature will provide. In fact,far from islands being the site of an intense struggle between man and the environment, many books give the impression that they are among the most benevolent places in the world. To be cut off from human society seems more beneficial than not.

Take Wyss’ Der Schweizerische Robinson (The Swiss Family Robinson). The island upon which the family find themselves stranded immediately provides them with safe harbour and giant trees for building in. Soon afterwards they will discover an astonishing and geographically improbable range of edible plants and animals. When they need shelter the island not only offers up caves but fills them with useful rock salt. So wonderful are the conditions of their exile that when the family are granted the opportunity to go home most of them choose not to avail of it.

R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1858) saw three teenaged boys shipwrecked on an island in the South Pacific. Decades later in 1954, William Golding would write a much less compassionate island book, Lord of the Flies, as a counter to Ballantyne’s novel. The three boys work together in what Golding seemed to think was improbable camaraderie for a group of teenagers cut off from civilisation. Again, the island provides everything they could possibly need – food (coconuts, fruits, fish and wild pigs), fibre from which to make clothes, and candlenuts to provide light. Over and over, the boys compare their island home to paradise, and when danger comes, as it does in the form of sharks, pirates and cannibals, it is always from across the sea. Here human civilisation, rather than nature, is the greatest source of savagery. Wyss and Ballantyne’s books are both steeped in Christianity, so there’s a sense not only of the island as unsullied Eden, but of man’s ownership over all of nature.

The Romans believed in the genius loci, a protective spirit that was associated with a particular place. The protagonists of Jules Verne’s L’Île mystérieuse might well be forgiven for thinking that the islandin question had such a spirit, and one that had their interests at heart. On the surface, Verne’s novel seems more realistic about the difficulties of nature – here there are no convenient caves, and edible wildlife does not fall so readily into the palms of our heroes’ hands. More than most robinsonades, Verne centres the ingenuity of humans; his characters build a foundry and prepare blasting powder with the few resources at their disposal. Yet something seems to be protecting them, lighting fires to guide them home, killing dangerous animals and malevolent pirates, and even providing medicines and tobacco to those who need them. It’s almost disappointing when the reader learns that there is human agency behind all of this. But then, perhaps the provision of a benevolent protector is just another instance of the island’s bounty?

The first island many of my generation encountered in fiction was the one in Kirrin Bay, owned by George of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, and first encountered in Five on a Treasure Island (1942). Kirrin Island has been the site of at least one shipwreck that we know of, but for the Five it is a place of refuge. The island has a convenient way of manifesting exactly what the plot needs at any particular time; when the family are in financial difficulties it produces lost treasure, when the children are hiding from kidnappers it has a hard-to-find cave. At a crucial moment it manifests a system of underwater passages that lead to the mainland. Blyton’s The Secret Island also has children fleeing the adult world for safety. The children escape an abusive aunt and uncle for an idyllic life on a hidden island.

Islands in these novels do pose the occasional danger. Wyss’s family encounter a boa constrictor, and Verne’s island is eventually destroyed in a rather spectacular volcano eruption. And yet, judging by what books have taught me, I’d feel safer on a desert island than in a lot of places.

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