HAWTHORNE in his Wonder Book has described the beautiful Greek myths and traditions, but no one has yet made similar use of the wondrous tales that gathered for more than a thousand years about the islands of the Atlantic deep. Although they are a part of the mythical period of American history, these hazy legends were altogether disdained by the earlier historians; indeed, George Bancroft made it a matter of actual pride that the beginning of the American annals was bare and literal. But in truth no national history has been less prosaic as to its earlier traditions, because every visitor had to cross the sea to reach it, and the sea has always been, by the mystery of its horizon, the fury of its storms, and the variableness of the atmosphere above it, the foreordained land of romance.
In all ages and with all sea-going races there has always been something especially fascinating about an island amid the ocean. Its very existence has for all explorers an air of magic. An island offers to us heights rising from depths; it
exhibits that which is most fixed beside that which is most changeable, the fertile beside the barren, and safety after danger. The ocean forever tends to encroach on the island, the island upon the ocean. They exist side by side, friends yet enemies. The island signifies safety in calm, and yet danger in storm; in a tempest the sailor rejoices that he is not near it; even if previously bound for it, he puts about and steers for the open sea. Often if he seeks it he cannot reach it. The present writer spent a winter on the island of Fayal, and saw in a storm a full-rigged ship drift through the harbor disabled, having lost her anchors; and it was a week before she again made the port.
There are groups of islands scattered over the tropical ocean, especially, to which might well be given Herman Melville's name, "Las Encantadas," the Enchanted Islands. These islands, usually volcanic, have no vegetation but cactuses or wiry bushes with strange names; no inhabitants but insects and reptiles--lizards, spiders, snakes,--with vast tortoises which seem of immemorial age, and are coated with seaweed and the slime of the ocean. If there are any birds, it is the strange and heavy penguin, the passing albatross, or the Mother Cary's chicken, which has been called the humming bird of ocean, and here finds a place for
its young. By night these birds come for their repose; at earliest dawn they take wing and hover over the sea, leaving the isle deserted. The only busy or beautiful life which always surrounds it is that of a myriad species of fish, of all forms and shapes, and often more gorgeous than any butterflies in gold and scarlet and yellow.
Once set foot on such an island and you begin at once to understand the legends of enchantment which ages have collected around such spots. Climb to its heights, you seem at the masthead of some lonely vessel, kept forever at sea. You feel as if no one but yourself had ever landed there; and yet, perhaps, even there, looking straight downward, you see below you in some crevice of the rock a mast or spar of some wrecked vessel, encrusted with all manner of shells and uncouth vegetable growth. No matter how distant the island or how peacefully it seems to lie upon the water, there may be perplexing currents that ever foam and swirl about it--currents which are, at all tides and in the calmest weather, as dangerous as any tempest, and which make compass untrustworthy and helm powerless. It is to be remembered also that an island not only appears and disappears upon the horizon in brighter or darker skies, but it varies its height and shape, doubles itself in mirage, or
looks as if broken asunder, divided into two or three. Indeed the buccaneer, Cowley, writing of one such island which he had visited, says: "My fancy led me to call it Cowley's Enchanted Isle, for we having had a sight of it upon several points of the compass, it appeared always in so many different forms; sometimes like a ruined fortification; upon another point like a great city."
If much of this is true even now, it was far truer before the days of Columbus, when men were constantly looking westward across the Atlantic, and wondering what was beyond. In those days, when no one knew with certainty whether the ocean they observed was a sea or a vast lake, it was often called "The Sea of Darkness." A friend of the Latin poet, Ovid, describing the first approach to this sea, says that as you sail out upon it the day itself vanishes, and the world soon ends in perpetual darkness:--
Nevertheless, it was the vague belief of many nations that the abodes of the blest lay somewhere beyond it--in the "other world," a region half earthly, half heavenly, whence the spirits of the departed could not cross the water to
return;--and so they were constantly imagining excursions made by favored mortals to enchanted islands. To add to the confusion, actual islands in the Atlantic were sometimes discovered and actually lost again, as, for instance, the Canaries, which were reached and called the Fortunate Isles a little before the Christian era, and were then lost to sight for thirteen centuries ere being visited again.
The glamour of enchantment was naturally first attached by Europeans to islands within sight of their own shores--Irish, Welsh, Breton, or Spanish,--and then, as these islands became better known, men's imaginations carried the mystery further out over the unknown western sea. The line of legend gradually extended itself till it formed an imaginary chart for Columbus; the aged astronomer, Toscanelli, for instance, suggesting to him the advantage of making the supposed island of Antillia a half-way station; just as it was proposed, long centuries after, to find a station for the ocean telegraph in the equally imaginary island of Jacquet, which has only lately disappeared from the charts. With every step in knowledge the line of fancied stopping-places rearranged itself, the fictitious names flitting from place to place on the maps, and sometimes duplicating themselves. Where the tradition itself has
vanished we find that the names with which it associated itself are still assigned, as in case of Brazil and the Antilles, to wholly different localities.
The order of the tales in the present work follows roughly the order of development, giving first the legends which kept near the European shore, and then those which, like St. Brandan's or Antillia, were assigned to the open sea or, like Norumbega or the Isle of Demons, to the very coast of America. Every tale in this book bears reference to some actual legend, followed more or less closely, and the authorities for each will be found carefully given in the appendix for such readers as may care to follow the subject farther. It must be remembered that some of these imaginary islands actually remained on the charts of the British admiralty until within a century. If even the exact science of geographers retained them thus long, surely romance should embalm them forever.