Fantastic Voyages: By Ship to Nowhereland and Back Part III

The third and final part of Fantastic Voyages… (don’t forget Part I and Part II)


Notions of an isolated, blissful, sacred refuge continued to beguile dreamers as well as religious mystics long after the fall of Rome and the descent of the so-called Dark Ages. The proselytizing monks of Ireland during the epoch of the fabled King Arthur created a rich literature of the Irish seafaring preachers. The so-called Irish Immrama (literally “rowings about”) were first recorded as early as the 7th century by monks and scholars who fled Continental Europe before the barbarian invaders of the fifth century. These monks carried the learning of Western Europe and became the vanguard of the Christianizing of Europe. On this account it is expected that Immrama have their origins in pre-existing Christian voyage literature, pre-existing Celtic legends or classical stories the monks would have known. The origins of these narratives are attributed to three sources of preliminary stories: Celtic myths, Christian genres, and Classic Stories. The most famous of these romances is that of St. Brendan.

Saint Brendan, according to Irish legend, set sail in the sixth century A.D. with fourteen monks from the monastery of Clonfert in Galway. Their boat was “a very light little vessel, ribbed and sided with wood, but covered with oak-tanned ox-hides and caulked with ox-tallow”—what is now called a curragh. It was strongly built—as recent versions will attest—although undecked, and thus leaving the travelers open to the elements, much as was the case with the slightly later and larger Viking longboats. After forty days at sea, they landed on an island where they found a great castle and a table laid for them with bread and fish. During the next eight years Brendan sailed from one magical island to another, met such notables as Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate, and witnessed many marvels but, so far as our records show, left no material trace of his presence on American shores. Their next stop was not so successful; when they built a fire to cook their food they discovered that their landing place was the back of a very angry whale.

Some scholars have argued that the immrama may be embellished recaps of historical voyages. The early Irish, particularly monks, were certainly far traveled, reaching the Orkney, Shetland, Faroe Islands at an early date and perhaps even reaching Iceland or Greenland. Some places and things referenced in the immrama and the Brendan tale have been associated with real islands and real things, for instance Brendan’s crystal pillar has been suggested to refer to an iceberg.

In 1976, Tim Severin, a modern nautical researcher and yachtsman who has made a career out of re-tracing ancient mariners’ tracks, has recreated the Irish monk’s presumed voyages to Greenland, or Newfoundland, circa the mid-sixth century AD in a 36-foot re-construction of the missionary’s curragh—an open boat made of tanned hides stretched over a wicker frame. It does not prove that any of the Brendan legend is factual, but Severin demonstrated that such a voyage in a sixth century sail and oar powered craft was at least possible. The problem with the Brendan saga—as is the case with many such yarns—is that the story wanders into the realms of pretend and allegory without so much as the wink of an eye. But since we know that there were some far-ranging voyages from Ireland to Iceland prior to the coming of the Vikings in the Ninth Century, it is possible that the Irish holy messenger (or recluse) and his crew may have reached Greenland, if not Newfoundland.

It might be that Brendan’s tale incorporates all the renowned various Dark Age Celtic traditions lumped under the immrama. These are hero’s journeys to the”otherworld”, a term used to describe either the land of the gods or a utopia. Some scholars have argued that the immrama may be embellished retellings of historical voyages. The early Irish, particularly monks, were certainly far traveled, reaching the Orkney, Shetland, Faroe Islands and Icleand at an early date and, as noted above, perhaps even reaching Greenland. Some places and things referenced in the immrama and the Brendan tale have been associated with real islands and real things, for instance Brendan’s crystal pillar has been suggested to refer to an iceberg. Tim Severin makes other connections between seemingly chimerical apparitions seen by Brendan and his predecessors, not all plausible, but enough to lend credence to the actuality of some Brendan-like voyages.

Avalon (probably from the Welsh Celtic word afal, meaning apple) is a legendary island featured in the Arthurian legend, famous for its beautiful apples. It first appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 pseudohistorical account Historia Regum Britanniae (“The History of the Kings of Britain”) as the place where King Arthur’s sword Caliburn (Excalibur) was forged and later where Arthur is taken to recover from his wounds after the Battle of Camlann. As an “Isle of the Blessed” Avalon has parallels elsewhere in Indo-European mythology, in particular the Irish Tír na nÓg and the Greek Hesperides, also noted for its apples. Avalon was associated from an early date with immortal beings such as Morgan le Fay. This Avalon has been located by modern seekers as lying within or quite near the British Isles, but others have claimed that it lay somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. It, like many of the Greek and Roman mythical isles, has been conflated with later legendary, albeit mapped, islands.


To some extent following the ancient and medieval tradition, seventeenth and eighteenth century exploration inspired three broad kinds of travel literature: (1) genuine travel accounts; (2) imaginary or extraordinary voyages; and (3) anecdotes written by travel liars, or pseudo-travelers, whose intention it was to deceive, whether as artists working in a recognizable literary métier, or playful jokesters such as Raspe in his Munchausen tales. The first group has been well-covered in works about exploration and discovery. The last two types are of interest here. The second group, imaginary voyages, was to become almost as popular in its day as authentic travel accounts. The genre included works of a realistic, philosophical, utopian and fantastic nature. While not usually written to deceive, they have, in a few notable cases, done just that. Thus the neat dichotomy between pseudo-voyage journals and the consciously make-believe narratives (the “travel liars” (type #3) is somewhat unnatural. Such anomalies were a product of Charles Garnier’s bewildering taxonomy utilized in his massive landmark compilation.

Near the end of the 18th century, a French “renaissance man” Charles Georges Thomas Garnier organized a thirty-nine-volume anthology, Voyages imaginaires, songes, visions, et romans cabalistiques (Imaginary voyages, dreams, visions and cabalistic stories), considered to be one of the most comprehensive collections of its type. Monsieur Garnier was a distinguished barrister, writer, translator and editor. He wrote on jurisprudence, contributed to the literary journal Mercure de France and edited the works of a number of French authors. As well as writing an introduction to the anthology as a whole, Garnier also wrote an introduction to each volume in which he provided information about the authors and translators, and discussed the stories and their significance in the overall anthology.

Garnier divided the works that he assembled into a number of categories, the main divisions being (1) four types of imaginary voyages, (2) dreams and visions, and (3) cabalistic stories. This categorization has caused considerable disagreement over the years with many critics believing that Garnier’s arrangement is illogical and untidy. For example, I can’t quite figure what to make of the categories “dreams & visions” and “cabalistic stories”. They seem to be classifications that may have been relevant to the 18th century littérateur but which make little sense to the modern reader. What is more, a few of the works included by Garnier are believed to be accounts of true voyages rather than unadulterated literary invention. A number of possible explanations have been offered for this apparent inconsistency. One is that a work may be about a real person but not a real voyage. There is even a suggestion that Garnier may have been unable to find an imaginary story for a particular type of experience and so felt he could legitimately include a real story so as to produce a well-rounded collection. Whatever the reason, it has given the critics something to argue about ever since. Garnier’s original edition was embellished with a three-volume collection of accounts of shipwrecks by Jean Louis Hubert Simon Deperthes (Naufrages) , Histoire des naufrages, ou Recueil des relations les plus intéressantes des naufrages, hivernemens, délaissemens, incendies, et autres événemens funestes arrivés sur mer translated into English in 1833 as A History of Shipwrecks and Disasters at Sea from the Most Authentic Sources. The Deperthes collection included not merely the “authenticated” accounts of shipwrecks, but those that embraced both the fictional and embroidered factual narratives without any clear demarcation between the two types.

Philip Gove, who in 1941 produced a seminal modern academic work on the subject titled The Imaginary Voyage in Prose Fiction, recognized Garnier’s anthology to be ‘the most important single publication in the history of the genre in any language’. Garnier supposed that the works he had chosen demonstrated the entire span and potential of travel to worlds only imagined. However Garnier’s main reason for his choices, eloquently explained in his introduction, is not simply to satisfy the pedant’s craving to enumerate classes, sub-classes, branches, variations, etc. Garnier says: ‘nous comptons parler à l’esprit, pour l’amuser & l’instruire; & au cœur, pour le toucher’ (“we intend to speak to the spirit, to entertain and instruct, and to touch the heart”). It is this lighthearted attitude that inspired this little essay in which I will endeavor to explain my fascination with this literature. In doing so, I aim to reflect on the sensation of whimsy among children young and old, who agree with Emily Dickinson, that “There is no frigate like a book/ to take us lands away”.

There have been surprisingly very few assessments of this field since Garnier’s heavily annotated anthology. Possibly researchers are put off by the difficulty in classifying the works and how the rapid pace of geographical discovery seems to invalidate earlier assumptions about the topic In fact, Philip Gove’s path-breaking book on the theme, noted above, was chiefly concerned with pigeonholing and listing the various categories and only secondarily with describing the tales themselves. Its origin as a PhD dissertation is very apparent. It is a book more about classifying other books than imparting the subjects discussed in the books. In his introduction, Gove admits that he originally set out to write a definitive history of the genre, but then got bogged down in setting the parameters of his subject. As the very scope of the vast literature on the theme proved to be voluminous, Gove saw that he had to first define the boundaries of his investigation. Therefore, he wrote the bibliographical and critical guide instead of furnishing the full-flood literary history he had thought to write. He aimed to write a sequel analyzing the works themselves but regrettably never got around to it.

From the time when Gove ably catalogued the whole genre, there have been a few essays dealing with imaginary voyages tucked away in literary journals, but these are typically concerned with nuances of linguistics, literary cross-references, trendy gender, class and race issues etc. There is a rare, hard-to-find two-volume work, The Extraordinary Voyage in French Literature, by Geoffroy Atkinson, published in the 1920s, with infrequent reprints since. The first volume concerns books published before 1700 and the second from 1700-1720. Both volumes are quite helpful in bringing to light some otherwise obscure albeit captivating travel adventures, much as did Gove’s anatomy of the genre. My mono-lingual limitations prevented me from reading the extensive quotes in the original French, but I still was able to enjoy the plot synopses and critical comments. The French manifestation of the type, including adaptations of foreign works, comprises the vast bulk of the literature seeing as that country was a hotbed for these tales, even though England seemed to have regained the lead with the Gulliver-Robinson phenomena of the early 1700s. This brings us back my treatment in this article, which takes a different tack from the modern literary or ideological “deconstructions”.

Various commentators who describe these tales chiefly deal with their implied meaning: the doctrine or philosophy obliquely promoted or satirized by the author. The other prong of writing about these fables concerns the medium: their handling of language, symbolism, imagery and the like including the fashionable attribution of subconscious or coded gender and imperialist themes. Scrutinizing philosophical undertones and philological subtexts is important to literary academics as are the tinges of colonialism, racism and sexism. But to concentrate on these aspects is to miss the sheer fun and fascination of these books.

I am mostly interested in the creativity and vision involved in crafting the journey and the imaginary islands, not so much the ex-post facto connotations. Perhaps one must shut the professor out of the classroom, lock the door and recapture the credulous vantage of the child in order to re-enter this alluring domain in the proper spirit. The grim academic would probably find some tedious metaphor concealed in Eugene Fields’ famous late 19th century bedtime ditty about the herring fishermen Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailing in their dream-like little ship in the night-time sky. But for the child enjoying this reverie as a passage to idyllic slumber, as well as the parent reciting the tale to his drowsy offspring, it is simply a journey to Neverland. It is in this spirit that I embark on my inquiry. This approach reflects Garnier’s underlying aim to “speak to the spirit, to entertain and instruct, and to touch the heart”.

From the time of my youth—many decades ago—I’ve been captivated by the synthesis of fantasy with realism in these stories. When I first read about the adventures of Gulliver and Robinson in my parents’ leather-bound “essential books” collection at around age 10, I was transported to ethereal dominions in wondrous vessels. It makes no difference to me whether the novels were intended as a good-natured practical joke, or were clever allegories satirizing the political shortcomings of the day and suggesting their possible remedies in some ideal society or reflecting the misery of those cultures already existing. Whatever their ultimate intention, they are beguiling passages into otherworldly realms satisfying both the reveries of youth and adulthood alike.

In order to fully appreciate the thinking behind Swift and Defoe’s creations, one must first consider their French, Dutch and German prototypes of the late 1600s. And those tales were, in turn, a refinement of a multi-millennial tradition that may have even preceded Homer’s Odyssey, long considered the archetype of the genre. In the aftermath of Rome’s fall and the descent of the dark ages, superficially characterized as a purging of the ancient wisdom and literary achievements, the imaginary voyage persisted.

Those tales have been described in detail by Geoffroy Atkinson in a hard-to-find two volume study, The Extraordinary Voyage in French Literature before 1700 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1920); and The Extraordinary Voyage in French Literature: From 1700 to 1720 (New York: Burt Franklin, 1922). Atkinson has provided an apt description of these romances.

The term Extraordinary Voyage is used to designate a novel of the following type: A fictitious narrative, purporting to be the veritable account of a real voyage made by one or more Europeans to an existent but little known country or to several such countries together with a description of the happy condition of society there found, and a supplem tccount of the traveler’s return to Europe.

He asserts that the Extraordinary Voyage, his term for the imaginary voyage, is distinguished by its “realistic setting” and “its geographic realism.”

More accessibly, the entire genre has been described in three studies by David Fausett. In these he provides details of such obscure works as Joseph Hall’s Mundus Alter et Idem (1605, Our World, Nonetheless the Other), Thomas Artus’s L’Isle des hermaphrodites (1605, a political satire on the court of Henri III), the anonymous Le Grand royaume d’Antangil (1616), Richard Brome’s play The Antipodes (1640), Henry Neville’s The Isle of Pines (1668), and Henry Schooten’s The Isle of Giants, of uncertain date. Individual chapters consider The Sevarites by Vairasse, Krinke Kesmes (the short title of a 1708 Dutch imaginary voyage written by Hendrik Smeeks), and La Terre australe connue by Foigny. Fausett considers Foigny’s work as ultimately a dystopia, not a work anticipating the Enlightment, but one that Fausett characterizes as “precriticizing” Enlightenment ideals.

Whether or not these tales had profound political implications is beside the point. They are marvelous evocations of enchanted journeys to uncharted seas, where magnificent—sometimes perilous—sights and experiences may be found, without leaving the comfort of one’s hearth. After all, isn’t this the essence of the fairytale?

James J. Bloom began writing on military history as a consultant to the Historical Evaluation and Research Organization. His contributions have appeared in The International Military Encyclopedia and 100 Decisive Battles from Ancient Times to the Present. He lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

His latest book, The Jewish Revolts Against Rome, A.D. 66–135, A Military Analysis published by McFarland Publishers, is due out in late Spring, 2010 while his book on the ancient Roman Empire as a sea power is under contract with McFarland. He has written over 100 journal and encyclopedia articles on history and seafaring. He writes bedtime stories with a nautical twist for his five young grandchildren.