By Natalie Lawrence
Caliban, in Shakespeare's The Tempest, tells us that “the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not”. Islands have always been places where magic happens and strange forms spring to life. But they have also been places where monstrosity can have full rein: the island is really Caliban's domain.
There is something profound in the connection between islands and monstrosity.
Monsters are the haunting golems of cultures, both disruptive and formative in their boundary-crossing natures. They are things apart from the norm, existing in the interstices of categories, being the anomalies that prove rules. Like monsters, islands are isolated, until they become connected to networks of travel and knowledge. They remain liminal geographical elements, being places en route to others, stopping points between places, oases in ocean deserts. They are disconnected connection points between cultural centres, creole places of cultural miscgenation, where elements of different realms mix to produce something new and hybrid.
Transgressive things have always been imaginatively sequestered in remote, isolated places. Monsters of classical literature were often island-dwellers. The Minotaur, the half-breed offspring of the wayward queen Pasiphaë and the Cretan Bull, was locked in his labyrinth on the island of Minos, consuming his 12-yearly tributes of young men and women from Athens. In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus sails in his long voyage via the island of the Cyclopes, escaping the cave prison of the hungry Polyphemus only to wind up on the island home of the cannibal Laestrygonians and endure the temptations of the deadly island of the Sirens. It was not only a journey across the Mediterannean, heading back home from war. It might be read as a journey into the psyche, each encounter a battle with some new, internal monster. Sometimes islands themselves have been monsters. The Physiologus, a bestiary of real and imagined beasts written some time between 2nd and 4th century AD, described the Aspidochelene, a giant, turtle-like island that would lure sailors to land, before sinking perilously into the murky depths.
Classical images provided a florid menagerie of monstrous archetypes in later European literature. The Aspidochelene became a Christian morality symbol in medieval bestiaries, representing the treachery of the Devil. Likewise, Pliny described races of “monstrous humans” that lived beyond the ecumene or known world: the one-footed Sciapods, dog-headed Cynocephali or the elephant-eared Panotioi. These peoples had long and illustrious literary careers. The Beowulf manuscript (10th century), for one, detailed the islands full of monstrous Plinian peoples in Africa and the East, such as the blemmyae, with their “eyes and mouths in their chests” or the polylingual, cannibal Donestre. Many a travelogue in the following centuries reported meeting these strange peoples on new islands and land masses — wherever was sufficiently distant and unfamiliar to merit habitation by these familiar freaks.
Images of fantastical island monsters shaped early modern explorers and naturalists' perceptions of the novel things that they encountered. They went abroad expecting to find islands full of lurking, monstrous beasts and bizarre humanoids, and that is what they found. Travellers and scholars shaped their perceptions of things they saw to fit recognisable, classical images of wonderful beasts and monstrous peoples. Their accounts could not be easily disproved, for remote island places were not easy for many people to reach or even find out about. Sometimes travellers even brought back relics of these creatures: ray-dragons, 'unicorn horns' or sawfish rostrums, that could only be from some sea monster. Dragons, cynocephali and mermaids did indeed exist for many people. Nature was seen as sufficiently plentiful, and sufficiently playful (especially in the playground spaces of remote islands), to produce every concievable form, including the uncouth and horrible sorts. It would be stranger if they had not existed.
Take the walrus. When European explorers first reached the cold seas of the Arctic in the sixteenth century, they encountered whole islands full of strange birds and vast marine beasts hauled up on the ice floes. They called these creatures variously 'morses' (from the Lapp and Russian, mor’sa or ‘morsz'), 'sea horses' or 'walrusch' (from the Old Norse, hval-ross, 'horse-whale'). The explorers returned home with tales of terrible monsters with dreadful tusks, small red eyes, bristling whiskers and mountains of blubbery flesh. Encountering these creatures in the fearsome Arctic seas was in some ways no surprise. The Arctic had long been throught a wonder-filled and terrible region full of ice and fire. Maps of the area showed the outlandish and brutal customs of Arctic dwellers and monstrous sea creatures cavorting between scattered archipelagos. The Procopius, Xiphius and 'sea elephants' of classical authors swam amongst younger, neo-monsters such as the 'spouter' and 'grampus'. The hunter-explorers may have been beefing up their profits on walrus skins and blubber with some tall tales, but they were also fitting these new things into an existing mythology about the world far north of Europe.
The early modern exploration of new regions was both a process of discovery, of new places and their inhabitants, as well as a process of making them palatable, eliminating their differences and anomalies. Monsters have always been imagined in the regions of the unknown and unreachable, the long ago and the far away. As Europeans ventured further afield, they encountered monsters but they also pushed them back beyond the bounds of the known. The empty spaces on maps were filled in by geographers, and the monsters retreated ever further away. Yet islands often retained their monsters and their mystery: island monsters did not seem quite so keen to leave as the continental types when their stomping grounds had been invaded.
This is perhaps not surprising. Through human history, islands have been places where the last remnants of the global menagerie of monstrous giants have sheltered, the ancient beasts that perhaps still haunt our collective consciousness. In prehistory, during the Pleistocene age, Britain was home to giant elk with wide-spreading tines, spectacularly horned elasmotheria, cold-loving woolly rhinos, cave bears and heavy-shouldered aurochs, hunted gradually up into Scotland and eventually into the human imaginary when there was nowhere northward to go. Australasia was inhabited by elephantine marsupials – including gigantic kangaroos and marsupial lions, the towering moa birds and Megalania lizards seven metres long. The moa reigned the New Zealand avifauna until humans arrived some time before 1300, but took only a century to succumb to overhunting. They are now hunted avidly only by cryptozoologists.
Within the last 500 years, we have lost Steller's sea cow, a giant that lived around the Commander Islands in the Bering Sea, the Arctic cousin of the tropical manatee and dugong. It was simply knocked on the head or harpooned as it curiously approached hunters, and lasted not 28 years after it was first encountered in 1741. The remaining large animals that still exist today are but glimmerings of the fantastical global menagerie that once was.
Given this legacy of lost giants, perhaps it is no surprise that islands are focal points for strange cryptozoological observations. The plesiosaurus-like 'Stronsay Beast' that washed up in the Orkeys in 1808, for example, was reported to have a bristly mane, rough skin and six 'appendages'. It even earned its own very proper scientific name, Halsydrus pontoppidani. This 55 foot-long creature was, perhaps, an especially large basking shark carcass, and was one of many sea serpent-like creatures as well as mermaids, documented in the Orkneys until the end of the ninenteenth century. On the other side of the world, the Hawaiian islands boast a population of pygmy humanoids, called the Menehune, who are masters of mimicry and craftsmanship; a pet-mauling 'Maui Mystery Cat' and giant water lizards, the Mo'o or Moho that become part of the landscape when slain. The boundary between cryptozoology and myth in these cases is almost impossible to draw.
Islands harbour ghosts, but they are also places of evolutionary ferment, generating bizarre and shocking endogenous species that challenge taxonomies. They are geographical anomalies full of biologically anomalous things, ripe for discovery. The first description of the aye aye of Madagascar in 1782 was thought to be a flight of fancy, a figment of the superstitious Malagasy imagination. Another aye aye was not seen by a European for 70 years, but this strange, spider-like lemur has hardly lost its devilish aspect with further biological scrutiny. Likewise, the first platypus brought to Europe in the late 18th century was believed to be an elaborate hoax, prodded and poked by scientists in London intent on finding out how this fish-otter-bird had been constructed. It was believed to be clever composite, like the 'mermaids', 'basilisks', 'cockatrices' and other tongue-in-cheek evidences of mythical beasts made out of organic and inorganic parts that were so popular in curiosity collections well past the nineteenth century. When more platypus descriptions and bodies arrived, the confusion was hardly assuaged.
Such island species are peculiarly vulnerable to transience, as Stellar's sea cow demonstrates: a global Ice Age denizen erased in the blink of an eye by hungry sailors. Their ephemerality adds to their monstrous charm- they are creatures both far away and long ago. Island oddities are the real-life cousins of island-dwelling Godzilla and King Kong, behemoth revenants that awaken to turn the havoc wreaked by humanity back on its own civilisations. Monster Islands, Skull Islands are places where Earth's vast, ugly valkyries erupt into action.
Traditions of monstrosity change, in response to the anxieties of the societies creating them. Extinctions, wars and other anthropogenic horrors over the past 150 years have caused the inalienable monstrosity of humanity to become inescapable. Monsters have become internal, much less things projected into distance, or back into the past. But islands still play a key role here as the id's playground. They are places where the monstrous parts of the human psyche can come to the fore, or are forced to do so in controlled explosions kept apart from the rest of the world. These have, on occasion, been crystallised in the most concrete of ways: we demonstrated our ability to destroy all life on Earth at the push of a button in the Marshall island nuclear tests.
In literature, islands have long been stages for the monstrous. In Mary Shelley's 1823 novel, Viktor Frankenstein sequesters himself away on a remote Scottish island to complete the grisly mission of creating a female companion for his monster. Why does he do this? It seems obvious: the island is both a place of protection from the outside world and a bounded space to containg the transgressive work. The island is the ivory tower of isolated genius, an echo chamber for the dark and brilliant creations of his mind. Island laboratories provide fragmented realities, where the boundaries between animal and human, monster and creator can be imaginatively explored and ultimately dissolved. It is entirely unclear whether scientist or creation is the more monstrous..
Likewise, the 'Beast People' of H.G Well's The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) are some of the most disturbing entities in gothic science fiction, the mutilated quasi-human products of horrific vivisection experiments by a fanatical doctor on an unknown, secluded island. The book follows the shipwrecked Edward Prendick who encounters Doctor Moreau playing inverse Circe: humanising beasts in order to overcome the darker elements of both human and bestial states. Prendick witnesses the unravelling of Moreau's power over his hybrid 'children' and eventual death at their hands, as their proto-humanity falls away, before making his escape. The story's claustrophobic quality and deeply unsettling oddity could only be set on an island, or in some extremely isolated place. Such places are where the miracuous can be brought into being, but also where 'monsters manufactured' embody the abhorrent elements of humanity.
These various eyots of monstrous island imagery and connection are less scattered than they might appear. Islands are places where boundaries between things are blurred, even between the island and the monster in the case of the Aspidochelene. So they are places where we can come to better understand the world and ourselves. The monstrous scientist is hunted by their monster, an inextricable Ourouboros of mutual flight and pursuit, reflection and rejection. There is nothing to break up the endless chase between monstrous maker and monster on islands - nowhere, really, to hide. Insulated from the outside, they force introspection, observation of dark and foetid interiors and their denizens, whether literal or metaphorical. Conversely, this is why we imaginatively banish monsters we wish not to face to remote, isolated places. Biologically, islands encourage evolutionary play, sheltered from continental complexities, blank ecological space to be populated with new, unconstrained forms. These are also bound in a cycle of discovery and elimination: novel, challenging oddities are soon made familiar, their monstrosity diminished, or they are eliminated altogether, monsters are always somehow erased from the familiar. The cycle continues, until there is no more world to discover, nowhere untouched bu humans, leaving imaginary isles the only places in which monsters might, potentially, still roam.
Natalie Lawrence is a freelance writer with a PhD in History of Science (specialising in exotic monsters in early modern natural history) and a MSc in History of Science, MCantab in Zoology from the University of Cambridge. Her work has appeared in BBC Wildlife, Aeon Magazine, Public Domain Review, The Learned Pig, as well as on her blog.