By Paul Cooper
‘Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs’
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
Islands have always been irresistible for storytellers. Since the first poets wrote their epics, we’ve envisaged the island as a wild, regressive place where mythic creatures roam. We imagine islands as places where time stands still, where heroes find themselves separated from society and face incredible challenges. Jules Verne, Robinson Crusoe and Daniel Defoe all wrote about heroes stranded on desert islands. Shakespeare reached for the island too, in his 1611 play The Tempest. William Golding used an island as the setting for his Lord of the Flies, where a group of stranded children explore their darker natures. Conan Doyle’s The Lost World even depicted an island where dinosaurs still roam. For all these writers, islands are enclosed worlds that encapsulate stories in their geographical boundaries. When the hero sets foot on an island, we know a story has begun.
One of our most fundamental island heroes, Homer's Odysseus, sails home from the battle of Troy through the Peloponnese archipelago. Scholars believe The Odyssey was composed near the end of the 8th century BCE. Here the form of the literary work mimics the geography of the island chains: on each island, Odysseus encounters a new story. It is an archipelago of stories. Each one teems with mystical characters: cyclopes, mysterious ‘lotus-eaters’, or the witch-goddess Circe. Islands have formed the basis for a rich storytelling tradition in the West. But in less Western-centric traditions, the story of the island has been synonymous with arguably literature's first: Sri Lanka.
This island nation in the southwest Indian Ocean makes its first literary appearance in the epic Ramayana, or the tale of Rama. Written around 500 BCE by a sage known as Valmiki, the Ramayana is a poem of some 24,000 verses. It survives across several thousand manuscripts around the world, some complete, some only fragments. The story first appeared as a shorter episode in the Mahabharata, a much larger epic that comes in at a whopping 1.8 million words. That’s ten times The Odyssey and The Iliad put together, or about twice the length of the complete works of Shakespeare. Experts believe the origins of the Mahabharata to be in the 8th and 9th centuries BCE, making it a competitor in age with The Odyssey.
In the Ramayana, Lanka is the island kingdom of a demon King called Ravana. He rules over a population of rakshasas, fierce demons with sharp teeth. He lives in a golden palace in the heights of Lanka's mountains. King Ravana gains terrible power after he impresses the god Brahma with a penance. Ravana cuts off his own head ten times. Each time, the god reattaches his head, until the tenth time, when Brahma relents and grants Ravana the power he seeks. This includes having all his ten heads reattached at once, and gaining control over a marvellous flying machine.
Enter our hero, Rama, and his beautiful wife Sita. When the demon King flies to the mainland and kidnaps the princess, it’s up to Rama and his companions to travel to the island and rescue her. But the island-ness of Sri Lanka is their first obstacle. How can they cross the ocean without any ships? With the help of his half-monkey friend Hanuman, Rama builds a bridge over the narrow sea to the island, and meets the demon king in battle. According to the legend, this bridge, the Rama Setu, was built using stones that floated because they had Rama’s name written on them. Today a narrow spit of land and sandbars joins the northern tip of Sri Lanka with the mainland of India, which believers contend is the remains of the bridge constructed by Rama. Certain secular scholars have also argued that a land bridge might once have existed between the two landmasses, and has left its mark in story as well as geography.
The Ramayana is the story of an Indian prince adventuring to a mysterious island. But the Sinhala people of Sri Lanka also tell their own stories about intrepid heroes venturing to Lanka. In the Sinhala national creation myth narrated in the epic Mahavamsa, an Indian Prince called Vijaya first arrived in Lanka after being exiled from his home kingdom for rowdy behaviour. Here the adventurer meets a fearsome army of demon-spirits called Yakkha. When he encounters the beautiful Yakkha Queen Kuveni, he tricks her into marrying him. After this, he drives the demons into the forest. It's likely that these ‘demons’ were the ancestors of the Vedda people, the true indigenous population of Sri Lanka, communities of which still live in some areas much as they did then.
Like these first Sinhala settlers, explorers have always been keen to depict islands as backwards, their citizens often portrayed as being not-quite-human. This is a trope Shakespeare employed in The Tempest. On Prospero's island, the animalistic and ‘poor credulous’ Caliban is the spawn of the witch Sycorax and the devil, ‘not honour'd with a human shape’.
This perception had its clear uses. When European settlers arrived in the Caribbean islands, its effects caused their imaginations to run wild. Stories of cannibalism and murderous rituals among the Carib people were widespread, and formed an important part of colonial expansion.
In 1503, Queen Isabella of Spain ruled that only people who were 'better off' under slavery could legally be taken as slaves. This included societies where cannibalism was allegedly practised. Spaniards used these stories to identify various Amerindian groups as cannibals in order to enslave them and take their lands away. In his Myths and realities of Caribbean History Basil, A. Reid concluded: ‘No evidence, either archaeological or from firsthand observations by Europeans, conclusively proves that Island-Kalinago ever consumed human flesh.’
In Sri Lanka, colonial adventurers dined on similar stories. The most famous example is that of Robert Knox, an English sea captain in the service of the British East India Company. Knox's ship ran aground on the shores of Sri Lanka in 1659. He was captured by troops loyal to the King Rajasinghe II and held captive for 19 years. Knox was able to establish himself as a farmer, moneylender and pedlar. He contracted malaria more than once, and wrote about seeing criminals executed under the feet of elephants. Knox eventually escaped with one companion. The two men were able to reach Arippu, a Dutch fort on the north-west coast of the island. From there they made their way back to England and arrived in 1680.
On his home voyage, Knox wrote his famous book An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon. It caused a sensation, and has been credited with influencing the development of the English novel. It fired the imaginations of later writers who too reached for islands as settings for their adventures.
One curious aspect of this story is that Knox seems to have encountered, like more than a few contemporary gap-year students in Sri Lanka, the properties of cannabis indica, a plant unknown to Europeans of the time. His friend Robert Hooke presented samples of the plant to the Royal Society in 1689. He commended its possible curative properties and noted that Knox ‘has so often experimented it himself, that there is no Cause of Fear, tho possibly there may be of Laughter.’ It is not known whether other members of the society experimented with the substance.
Our word ‘serendipity’ also derives from Sri Lanka’s position as a locus for island stories. It comes from the tale The Three Princes of Serendip, which came to English through French, Italian and Persian. 'Serendip' was the Persian and Urdu name for Sri Lanka. The story tells of how three princes arrive on the island and get accused of stealing a camel. Through a mix of wisdom and luck, they exonerate themselves and go on many other adventures on the island.
Horace Walpole, an English author and earl, coined the term in 1754, after reading the story. He wrote to a friend:
'I once read a silly fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right – now do you understand serendipity?'
Islands, then, are not just outside of time and human society, but outside a regular chain of causality. They are places where coincidence and chance rule.
Sri Lanka’s role in literature isn’t only as a place where the past comes alive. It has also formed the settings for some of the great futuristic novels. In his Hugo and Nebula Award-winning 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise, science fiction giant Arthur C. Clarke chose Sri Lanka as the location for the construction of a space elevator in the twenty-second century. Clarke, who lived in Sri Lanka for much of his later life, contrasted the construction of this project with the ancient Sinhala King Kashyapa I, who built the great fortress of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka’s North Central Province. This King’s story is told in Sri Lanka today as a cautionary tale: he killed much of his own family to gain power, and eventually died for his hubris. Clarke uses the history of Sri Lanka to interrogate ideas about the hubristic nature of technological advancement. When Clarke became a household name for his run of television serials investigating paranormal phenomena, Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World (1980), Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (1985) and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe (1994), he chose Sri Lanka as his filming location – and once again the island came to mean a place of magic and mystery.
Sri Lanka would be well placed, then, to claim the title of literature’s first island, but also the one with the most enduring impact. In his novel Running in the Family, Sri Lankan-born Michael Ondaatje's wrote: ‘Ceylon falls on a map and its outline is the shape of a tear. After the spaces of India and Canada it is so small.’ Small it might be, but its cultural significance has been huge.
Paul Cooper was born in South London and grew up in Cardiff, Wales. His debut novel River of Ink is published by Bloomsbury. Paul was educated at the University of Warwick and the UEA, and after graduating he left for Sri Lanka to work as an English teacher, where he took time to explore the ruins both ancient and modern. He has written for magazines, websites and also worked as an archivist, editor and journalist. View the publisher's page for River of Ink.
Cover photograph by YoTuT, CC 20.