Fantastic Voyages: By Ship to Nowhereland and Back Part I

By Jim Bloom



O the poor lover of imaginary lands!
Must he be put in irons, thrown into the sea,
That drunken tar, inventor of Americas,
Whose mirage makes the abyss more bitter?

Charles Baudelaire, Le Voyage

“No phones, no lights, no motor cars,
Not a single luxury.
Like Robinson Crusoe, it’s primitive as can be.
So join us here each week my friend,
You’re sure to get a smile.
From seven stranded Castaways,
Here on Gilligan’s Isle.” (TV sitcom theme song, 1964)


Having heard, for the first time, that my adventures have been doubted, and looked upon as jokes, I feel bound to come forward and vindicate my character /for veracity/, by paying three shillings at the Mansion House of this great city for the affidavits hereto appended.

This I have been forced into in regard of my own honor, although I have retired for many years from public and private life; and I hope that this, my last edition, will place me in a proper light with my readers.


We, the undersigned, as true believers in the profit, do most solemnly affirm that all the adventures of our friend Baron Munchausen, in whatever country they may lie, are positive and simple facts. And, as we have been believed, whose adventures are tenfold more wonderful, so do we hope all true believers will give him their full faith and credence.


Sworn at the Mansion House
9th Nov. last in the absence
of the Lord Mayor.
JOHN (the Porter)

From the preface to Singular Travels, Campaigns and Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolf Erich Raspe (3rd edition, 1786)

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe—
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we!”
Said Wynken, Blynken,
And Nod.

By Eugene Field, 1889

The quotes at the head of this article point out the many facets of the “imaginary voyage” as it has enriched our literary heritage and our aptitude to conjure up magical journeys and to envisage wondrous remote isles and sea-girt peninsulas. Baudelaire’s fragment warns us not to overlook the creative sailor-poet for daring to report miraculous beings and places upon the oceans. His marvelous fantasy, so says Baudelaire, makes the lingering emptiness of uncharted seas all the more disappointing. The jingle from Gilligan’s Isle is a testament to the prevalence of the Crusoe myth even at the most vulgar level of popular entertainment. The crafty preface to the Baron Munchausen fable suggests the element of mischievous charade in concocting solemnly told tales of counterfeit travel adventures. Finally the passage from Eugene Fields’ renowned nursery rhyme for sleepy toddlers points up the essential element of childlike awe, and the capability of paranormal dreamships to transport us all to the edges of the known world and back. The connection of this literature with the fairytale has largely been ignored as most critiques concentrate either on deconstructing literary motifs or with political symbolism. But there is a definite interrelationship that has escaped the literary sophist.

For example Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a book that has delighted tens of generations of children as a marvelous journey to miraculous islands. In other words, it’s a kind of fairytale. However, professors of modern literature have deconstructed and reconstructed the tale as a parable of political or philosophical import—which it was, on one level—and its insights into Jonathan Swift’s biography and literary technique. Although pedagogically astute, this reading misses all the fun and awe experienced by the schoolchild’s first discovery of Gulliver and his incredible voyages to fairylands. To miss this fairytale quality is to obscure the child’s wonderment in discovering this tale for the first time. I have to confess, that in my adulthood I still cherish Gulliver’s escapades as escapist adventure.


Since earliest times, men have found, or pretended to find, curious and marvelous things in their travels; hence the fabulous tales of fabulous lands which came to be part of the great stories of antiquity, and got themselves recorded in geographies, encyclopedias, and natural histories—and later in travel books. Not only did the astonishing news from faraway places come early into the written records, but so did the purely fictitious travel story, involving, frequently, the description of a utopian land. They were a wonderful blend of the authentic (or authentic-sounding) and the miraculous. The ancient and medieval readers or listeners did not distinguish between the careful report and the tall tale—they were incapable, unwilling or both. The miraculous always lurked atop the looming cloud covered peaks, along sinister, tangled primeval forest paths, across forbidding trackless wastes or, most often, on the fringes of stormy uncharted seas. If a seemingly scrupulous travel writer reported these expected apparitions as genuine, well then, it must be so.

The appeal of such works of fiction has always been great, but perhaps at no time greater than in the eighteenth century. While that period embraces the apex of the imaginary voyage, there have been many such tales previously and since. Some cynics, like the detractors of the contemporary books written by J.H. Tolkien, Ursula LeGuin and J.R. Rowling, among others, may dismiss them as adult fairytales—daydreams for folks who refuse to “grow up”. It is inadvisable to write off the persistent pervasive appeal of such imaginary voyage literature as idle fantasies that grownups best discard with other “childish things”. The allure of this literature is as enduring as the need to dream.

As noted, my interest is not with the remote utopias as expressions of political or philosophical doctrines, but as wonderlands, which are reached via extraordinary though meticulously documented nautical passages. The sea served the as the travel medium in the classic imaginary voyage tale much as deep space does for contemporary science fiction. It is not coincidental that the science fictional craft used to explore the universe are dubbed “spaceships” and their commanders are referred to as admirals. The ocean continues to embrace empty spaces that are grist for modern practitioners of imaginary sea-girt isles that may possibly exist. Our science tells us that there are no longer any unknown patches of ocean, but the persistence of the Bermuda Triangle mystery and other maritime lacunae tells us otherwise.

The vital element of the recipe is whimsicality. Twenty-first century readers (or viewers) of all ages have not lost the sense of wonder enjoyed by 18th century booklovers. High adventure to and from fantastical realms may be embarked upon by a sail-borne ancient Greek or Roman merchantman, a galleon or frigate, a small steamer, a medium sized tramp freighter, a motor coaster/short-sea trader, a tanker, container ship, or even an immense cruise ship or “residential vessel” that fulfills the living travel fantasies of its well-heeled passengers.

Although the term ‘imaginary voyage’ was first used as a generic designation in 1741 by Francois Augustin Paradis de Moncrif, the genre itself appeared much earlier. One of the most influential writers of fantasy travel from classical antiquity, is the Greek Lucian (2nd century AD.), whose collection was titled (perhaps tongue-in-cheek) as the “True Histories”. But we can go back further to Homer’s Odyssey which may well be considered to epitomize the characteristics of the imaginary voyage. More likely the tradition persisted with the treasure stories of Eastern antiquity, like the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor. And medievalists will skip directly to the fantastic journey of Brendan and his companions or the wonderful, largely fabricated, journey of John Mandeville.

On the renowned globe of Martin Behaim, prepared in the exact year when Columbus first sailed in search of Cathay, there is a large island far to the west of Madeira, near the equator, with an inscription declaring that “in the year 565, St. Brandan (i.e., the semi-legendary Irish missionary Brendan) arrived at this island and saw many wondrous things, returning to his own land afterwards.” Columbus heard this island discussed at Ferro in the Canary Islands during his last stopover in the known world as he embarked upon his great “Cathay” discovery voyage. While he was provisioning and repairing his vessels in the Canary Isles harbor, men declared to Columbus that they had seen Brendan’s mystifying land mass in the distance, after which it was carried south again, and was supposed all the time to change its place through enchantment. Even for a sober navigator like Columbus, magic and mystery were part of the normal discourse about the watery fringes of the known world. So he likely accepted such tales to be by and large factual.

When Emanuel of Portugal, in 1519, renounced all claim to this island supposedly discovered by the Irish monk, he described it as “The Hidden Island.” In 1570 a Portuguese expedition was sent which claimed actually to have touched the mysterious island, indeed to have found there a gargantuan human footprint—supposedly that of the baptized giant Mildus—and also a cross nailed to a tree, and three stones laid in a triangle for cooking food. Departing hastily from the island, they left two sailors behind, but could never find the place again. Later, the chart of Ortelius, in the sixteenth century, carried it to the neighborhood of Ireland, where it might be reached if only it were not so capricious.

Again and again expeditions were sent out in search of this “St. Brandan’s island”, usually from the Canaries—one in 1604 by Acosta, one in 1721 by Dominguez. Several sketches of the island, as seen from a distance, were published in 1759 by a Franciscan priest in the Canary Islands, named Viere y Clarijo, including one he himself made. Where do these migrating or disappearing islands originate? Are they merely the creations of a con artist? Are they fantasies concocted by a pseudo-traveler’s fevered brain? Was there ever a Brendan or Brandan who explored deep into the unknown Atlantic, or was this a bit of Irish blarney? Are these reports lies, delusions, mistaken sightings, fairytales, or a combination of these elements? Brendan’s atoll was merely one of myriad such islands that dotted maritime charts right up to the middle of the 19th century. This phenomenon touches on a deep vein of literature, folklore, exploration narrative and whimsical fable which has become known as the “imaginary voyage”.

Brendan’s supposed island is but one of hundreds of such ocean land-falls that seem to emerge out of legend, but yet deceived even the most clear-headed map-makers for quite a few centuries before they finally receded into the misty dominions of myth. Their derivation is unclear, whether folklore, fiction, allegory, actual, but murky, observation, or clever deception. Some, like the cult-like Atlantis-seekers, search for them yet.

The focus of this article is on the `imaginary voyage’, a genre of European fictional literature often set in the Antipodes—the Southern Ocean, only really explored during the voyages of James Cook in the latter half of the 18th century. This literature used a similar mode of imaginative projection as the speculative fantasy maps. Like the maps, imaginary voyages allow writers and readers to travel in their minds from known points to geographical spaces as yet out of reach;

Scholars, charlatans and puzzled laymen alike all hypothesize on the scraps of real voyages that may lie embedded in Homer’s dreamlike itinerary for his sailor hero Odysseus amidst mythical deities and creatures. When Homer composed (or collected) his tales, the Phokian Greeks had already breached the Atlantic gate, the frightening Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar) and ventured upon the Great Western Sea that Homer’s romance may have depicted. The very fact that the same motley assortment of researchers and mystics continue to seek out Plato’s fabled Atlantis is further evidence of the spell that journeys to imagined lands have cast upon us.

Are the islands figments of the imagination, or were they once there and have simply vanished? Poets and spiritualists may long for their actuality, their re-appearance to the right persons at the right moment. But these lost lands may remain, like heaven, or nirvana, a quest to be fulfilled only at life’s end.


The author of the sworn statement at the head of this article solemnly affirms the authenticity of the very remarkable travels of the specious Baron Munchausen. It is a clever piece of self-parody, conveying the sense of merriment in crafting such roguish tall tales. Consider the identities of the signatories: they are none other than three famously fictitious characters, themselves principal players in other unreliable fantasy voyages. These illusory creations avow, with some accuracy, that their own tales are far more fantastic than that of their patron, the devious Baron Munchausen, but nonetheless have been widely accepted as true.

Further, we see that the grounds-keeper or caretaker is absurdly empowered to act in the absence of the mayor. As if these hints weren’t enough, there is the pun, substituting “the profit” for “the prophet”—the mercenary motive. As we observe, in his own preface to the tale, the mystifying baron guilelessly acknowledges that he bribed the affidavit’s contributors three shillings each for their kind words vouchsafing his sincerity. Finally, the annotated subtitle of a late 18th century edition gives the game away to any obtuse soul who, in spite of everything, might consider the tale a genuine travelogue: Gulliver Revived; or, The Vice of Lying Properly Exposed.

Munchausen’s audience would at once appreciate the joke. The traveler’s tall-tale motif was very familiar to readers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The type of anecdote being mimicked—taken to the margins of reason—is a daydreamer’s delight, mixing the patently absurd with realistic details. This brings us to Gilligan, whose tri-syllabic cognomen is a clever adaptation of Gulliver.

At first glance, the Gilligan’s Isle jingle just above the Munchausen testamentary seems out of place in this discussion of an ostensibly scholarly topic. Not really. The telecast sit-com is only a kitsch 20th century expression of the classic “lost island” theme. I am referring to a class of fiction called the Robinsonade, named, of course, for the early 18th century archetype, Robinson Crusoe. Will the Gilligan Isle castaways’ relentless attempts to alert passing, maddeningly oblivious planes or ships, and the efforts to construct an escape vehicle, succeed? Or will the blundering, well-intentioned Gilligan continue to thwart them? Do they really want to leave this pristine, blissful wilderness retreat? Alas, the hope of rescue remains tantalizingly close, nevertheless fruitless.

In the 1400s, Sir John Mandeville compiled (essentially plagiarized) a book of fantastic wonderlands which he claims that he visited personally. He was taken seriously by genuine explorers, Columbus among them. Welcome to the marvelous world of the Imaginary Voyage!

In Garnier’s pathbreaking anthology, he labels Denis Veiras’s 1681 Histoire des Sévarambes (History of the Sevarambes) as an “imaginary voyage,” classing it “among our best philosophical and moral novels”. Veiras’s own introduction to his utopia, however, begins with an interesting caution:

Those who have read Plato’s Republic or the Utopia of Thomas More or Chancellor Bacon’s New Atlantis, which are in fact nothing more than the ingenious inventions of these authors, may think perhaps that this account of newly discovered countries, with all their marvels, is of a similar type. (Vol 5, xi)

Here we see that instead of situating his own work in the lineage of these classic predecessors, Veiras attempts to distinguish it from that tradition, insisting that, unlike those “inventions,” his account is in fact true, and that it will fill in the general lack of knowledge about the “austral lands” (Vol 5, xv). Pointing out that it has “all the characteristics of a true story,” Veiras then turns to an explanation of how he came by the document relating the tale—another characteristic of the would-be authentic imaginary voyage. Fortuitously discovered documents, or maps, guide the narrator and his or her readers to fabulous undiscovered islands. These elements are found in many imaginary voyages: claim of veracity and proof of same through faux documentation.


Over the centuries, myriad schoolchildren have been delighted by the amazing journeys of Lemuel Gulliver, Robinson Crusoe, Sinbad the Sailor, and even the gawky Gilligan, to bizarre unidentified islands that are situated at remote locations in uncharted waters beyond the fringes of familiar maps. Recall, as well, another modern incarnation of the lost island theme, the menacing Skull Island of King Kong fame (the 1933 original film and the 1976 and 2005 re-makes), stumbled upon by the tramp steamer S.S.Venture, whilst lost in a fog. The protagonist knows about mysterious reports of such an island, but the geographical details were vague until the island emerges from the mist to present itself to the dumbfounded crew and passengers of the old rust-bucket Venture. Skull Island is tantalizingly “off the map”. Some might argue that Kong has no relationship to the Contes de Fées and Féeries, but is more akin to Jules Verne’s proto-science fictional creations of mysterious islands or Arthur Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard’s lost worlds. My own sense is that even these lost civilizations, where the science is as incredible as the setting and the journeys thence and back, are more like Narnia and Alice’s wonderland than the strange worlds of science fiction.

Crusoe’s island is supposed to be encountered somewhere in the Atlantic, southeast of Brazil, but this heretofore unknown outpost does not appear on contemporary nautical charts. Some say that they found the origin of this invented desolate island in the Pacific, to the southwest of Chile where the pirate Selkirk was marooned and rescued in 1704-7. Swift/Gulliver’s whimsical lands are located somewhere to the southeast of Australia—or so the meticulous feigned maps tell us.

The dim-witted Gilligan’s misplaced isle seems to lie several hundred miles southeast of Hawaii, incredibly eluding 20th century navigational and chart-making expertise not to mention the interlacing paths of mid-1960s airborne and maritime traffic. It is an enigmatic uncharted paradisiacal isle in the midst of well-mapped modernity. The theme song’s contention that there were no luxuries and the living was harsh is not borne out by the easygoing ambiance revealed on the show—every need seems to be well provided for by ingeniously adapting objects from nature. Even the show’s pampered millionaires have nothing much to complain about. It’s as if a posh cruise line arranged this “primitive chic” stopover for its pampered passengers.

The tales seem at once real and surreal—down-to-earth trips to incredible domains. The cloak of realism is often buttressed by detailed maps of the extraordinary discovered lands. Alike in their straightforward expressions of flights of the imagination, the vast bulk of these archetypical yarns were published from 1650 to around 1750. Although Sinbad’s tale was first translated into French, then English around that time, it is most likely based on a Medieval Persian text. Nevertheless, the Sinbad saga cross-pollinated the European and English romances. Sinbad, Munchausen, Swift and Defoe (even the blundering Gilligan) represent somewhat different approaches to the imaginary voyage romance, which reached its apex during that epoch

Millions of readers are captivated by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, published in the mid 1950s, and countless more are mesmerized by the films made from them half a century later. The series describes an extended seemingly unachievable mission entailing a lengthy slog through somber, desolate, sometimes sinister, enchanted landscapes. Tolkien devotees are likely aficionados for the 17th and 18th century forerunners of his quest journey into faerie realms. Note that Tolkien, like all creators of possible albeit imaginary dominions, includes detailed maps delineating the grueling expedition of his champions and the battles fought to free Middle Earth from the evil foe. Tolkien also offers his careworn heroes the promise of a peaceable ocean passage to the heaven-like isle of Tol Eresa. This is an echo of the ultimate sea voyage, a trip to the otherworld epitomized in the Viking funeral, sending the remains of the deceased out to sea in a pilotless burning drakkar (longship). Thus, while most of his tale involves strenuous land-locked travels, the promised eternal reward lies across fabled seas. Crossing Tolkien’s Western Sea leads to tranquility and solace in a sort of Elvin paradise.

This Norse saga’s “ultimate sea voyage” motif is prefigured by Gilgamesh (Sumerian-Babylonian), who, seeking the secret of eternal life is taken to Utnapashtim’s island by a boatman. Also, in Greek mythology Charon the boatman was the only one who could ferry dead souls (and venturing heroes) across the poisonous River Styx in return for payment. Odysseus (see below) will also encounter Charon. Most obviously in Tolkien’s contemplation was the Arthurian legend (circa 7th century AD) when, after his final battle, Arthur is ferried by ship to Avalon, a mystical isle, a quasi-paradise not unlike Tolkien’s Tol Eeresa, where he awaits re-birth upon the return of his sword to his possession. Avalon may lie just offshore to the west of Ireland, or it may be situated between the Faeroes and Greenland—accounts vary. The quest for Arthur’s island retreat, like the pursuit of Atlantis, persists into the 21st century.

We also note the present-day cult classic Lost, a desert-island castaway adventure, likewise belongs to that genre at least as old as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719. Television producers had already exploited its possibilities in 1970s melodramas such as The Swiss Family Robinson, based on an 1812 German novel adding a plucky family into the castaway mix, relocated it beyond the stars, as in Lost in Space, reconstituted it as the abovementioned inane Gilligan’s Island and translated it into the 21st century insipid “reality” challenge Survivor.

Whereas the shows, films and novels depicting travels to imaginary worlds allow one to voyage without leaving dry land, the cruise ship experience lets you actually tour these extraordinary lands by means of a sea-going palace—which itself can be a pipe dream come true.

(read on to Part II…)

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.