Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Most islands in fantasy or supernatural fiction are Polders, enclaves of heightened Reality.

In stories set in this world, islands almost always contain a person or relic or society which is in some way estranged from the world. Islands are often to be found in regions previously unknown. Robinsonades – like Daniel Defoe's original Robinson Crusoe (1719) – normally take place on islands, out of the heart of which noble savages may emerge. Lost-Race stories are sometimes set there. Secret Masters – like the aged scientist in T H White's The Master (1957) – may make attempts from an island to dominate the known world. The constricted and isolated territory of an island permits a Magus like Prospero – in William Shakespeare's The Tempest (performed circa 1611; 1623) – to play his Godgames more effectively, as also in John Fowles's The Magus (1965). An island can be the setting for the kind of story, like the Circe sequence in Homer's Odyssey (circa 800BC), in which the protagonist's grasp of Reality is under another's control. Utopias – like Island (1962) by Aldous Huxley – are frequently island-set, far from the corrupting complexities of the social world. A Posthumous Fantasy like William Golding's Pincher Martin (1956) may use an island as the encompassing stage within which the drama of a soul is enacted. Islands are way-stations for Fantastic Voyages like Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), but tend (as in this tale) to be one of several ports of call; they are probably part of an Archipelago.

Islands are equally common in stories set in Otherworlds, perhaps most frequently at the heart of things, like the island kingdom of Númenór in various prequel volumes to J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). They may – as in Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea sequence – house the centre of either government or learning or both. They may be protected by a Labyrinth or other barrier through which the protagonist(s) must penetrate, perhaps to discover within an Edifice or Dark Tower where the secret – or the Sleeping Beauty, or the wise Magus who knows how to recover the Land from desiccation – may be found. Islands in fantasy are usually immune to Thinning, though they may be threatened at the Last Battle. They may contain a Time Abyss or a Garden. Liminal Beings may guard a Portal at their heart. They may be Little Big, larger inside than could be imagined from the surrounding water.

Either in this world or another, islands are almost always significant. They must be escaped from or arrived at. They contain that which must be reviled, or that which must be found and revered. [JC]


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.