- by Carol Standish
Phantoms Islands of the Atlantic - The Legends of Seven Lands That Never Were by Donald S. Johnson (Avon; 220pp; $12.00) " 'In islands men placed their ideal states…to reach felicity one must cross water.' '' This title was chosen for review from the shelves of the local bookstore strictly by its curb appeal. The attractive cover is sufficiently watery and the author's name is vaguely familiar. It turns out that Don Johnson is also the author of the two volume Cruising Guide to Maine which enthusiastic users describe as incredibly detailed and painstakingly thorough. There is no doubt that Johnson has personally and meticulously explored every place he includes in the Guide. A comment on the back of Phantom Islands , " a…deceptively simple volume that is profoundly researched."
How then, has this practised explorer/sailor/researcher investigated "phantom islands—lands that never were?" A lot of the same material evidence is used by both Johnson and Mark Kurlansky the author of Cod (see Feb. book review): ancient charts, maps, portolanos, manuscripts, logs, journals, and reports of the very earliest Atlantic explorers. In Cod, Kurlansky produces a factual, chronological history and commentary on the North Atlantic cod fishery. Adding one more source, a multitude of myths and legends from the Bible to the Celts, Johnson, in Phantoms Islands of the Atlantic presents an equally unique picture of the earliest human ventures on the North Atlantic.
Focusing on the myths, legends, and in some cases liturgy that support the existence of seven different islands which have long since disappeared from the map, Johnson recounts and then examines different versions of the soft "evidence." He then turns to the map makers and the journals of the seafarers themselves, comparing shape, placement, interrelationship, movement, name variations and so forth. His examination demonstrates the power of myth. When the quadrant of the ocean in which the phantom island was thought to exist has been thoroughly explored and mapped, the phantom almost always turns up in a less traveled part of the ocean. Johnson calls this phenomenon "westward migration." The book also eloquently attests to the peculiar combination of uncertainty and faith with which early mariners sallied forth.
The legends Johnson recounts are downright boggling. For instance, in 1540 Jacques Cartier received a commission from the king of France to colonize new lands in Canada, as did Jean Francois de La Rocque, Sieur de Roberval. Cartier eventually became discouraged by the " 'inhospitable climate, savage people and soil barren of gold' " but Roberval, determined to succeed where his rival had failed, sailed on toward the St. Lawrence. On the way, he discovered that his niece, one of the prospective colonists, had committed mortal indiscretions with a young officer of the ship. His religious principles were so offended that Roberval put the fallen woman " 'ashore along with four guns and an old nurse…' " The lover jumped overboard to join them on the Isle of Demons where said demons "at once beset them day and night…'beasts or other shapes abominably and unutterably hideous, the brood of hell, howling in baffling fury,' which tore at the dwelling to get at the lovers." During her stay on the Isle of Demons, the intrepid Marguerite bore a child who died. Both her lover and her nurse also sickened and died. "The demons were unscathed by her bullets but other creatures were 'vulnerable to mortal weapons' and she killed three bears, all 'as white as an egg.' " Two years and five months later Marguerite was rescued by a passing fishing boat and taken back to France where she lived to tell her tale, which has since been largely substantiated…even the demons. (To reveal the factual explanation would be like giving away the ending.) With such a tale to build on is it any wonder that this "land that never was" remained on maps of the Ocean Sea for centuries. The Isle of Demons is referenced as late as 1865 (by Francis Parkman), though no longer visible on maps of his day. Johnson includes six other equally fantastic explorations of "lands that never were" and at the end, the book begs a sequel.
The intricate analysis of maps in the light of their attendant myths make Phantoms Islands of the Atlantic as much a tantalizing series of mystery stories as a solid history. By weaving together and sorting out fact from legend in both manuscript and cartography, Johnson presents a more realistic view of the Age of Discovery than any deed based history. He offers his reader a glimpse into the very minds of the merchant mariners, religious zealots, refugees, and wandering clerics who first explored the "Great Green Sea of Gloom." And their heads were full to the brim with monsters and gryphons and martyrs, angels and legends.