Where are the ‘Isles of Wonder?’
By Anthony Bale
Danny Boyle’s spectacular opening ceremony at the London Olympics on 27 July 2012 was entitled Isles of Wonder. As many will have noticed, it was shot through with references to the medieval and early-modern past. Mike Oldfield’s performance of In Dulce Jubilo, a 1970s reworking of a late-medieval German-Latin carol, provided one of the most exuberant moments. In Stratford, dancing nurses accompanied it. There were many references to and quotations from Shakespeare as well. The focal point of the ceremony was a copy of Glastonbury Tor, the Somerset hill identified with the Arthurian Isle of Avalon, home of the magical sword Excalibur and King Arthur’s final resting-place. Boyle’s ceremony may have looked very contemporary, and certainly had a redeeming dose of postmodern irony, but the medieval and early-modern past is never far away in England. Even an Olympic mascot has a medieval name: Mandeville, named after Stoke Mandeville Hospital where the Paralympics originated. Mandeville is also an Anglo-Norman place-name (magna ville, large town) and the surname of one of the main writers of medieval wonders, Sir John Mandeville whose Book of Marvels and Travels I have just edited and translated.
The idea of ‘isles of wonder’ has a long history indeed and we can trace some of the allusions used in the Olympic Opening Ceremony.
It is perhaps the very title of Danny Boyle’s extravaganza, Isles of Wonder, which evokes a vanished olde worlde of prodigies, monsters, marvels, and miracles. This allusion was made clear in Kenneth Branagh’s turn; the actor took his words from the monster Caliban from Shakespeare’s romantic play of discovery, The Tempest (1611). Branagh started the ceremony by quoting Caliban, “Be not afeard, be not afeard.” These are the words Caliban, a ‘savage’ inhabitant of an island settled by Europeans after a shipwreck, says to explain the “noises, sounds, and sweet airs” that appear marvellously on his foreign island. It has been reported that Boyle wanted to frighten the audience at the opening ceremony. When the Olympic flame entered the stadium, the accompanying music by Underworld was called “Caliban’s Dream,” as fright turned to wonder.
Shakespeare’s isles of wonder were not British isles. Instead, most scholars agree that The Tempest seems to combine the Mediterranean with elements of Bermuda or the Caribbean. Shakespeare was writing in the era of Atlantic discovery, Bermuda having been settled by the Virginia Company in 1609. The play contains a reference to the “still-vexed Bermoothes,” calling this frightening novelty of an island to mind. The Tempest can be seen as staging the encounter between the Europeans and the native inhabitants, not least in the way the Europeans (shipwrecked in exile from Milan) try at once to flee, to tame, and to understand the various wonders on the island.
Shakespeare’s play variously describes Caliban as “legged like a man” with “fins like arms,” a “monster of the isle with four legs,” “no fish but an islander” with “a very ancient and fish-like smell,” a “moon-calf,” “a most perfidious and drunken monster,” and “a savage and deformed Slave.” Caliban, a misspelled Caníbal who can be read sympathetically as a fantasy of the Europeans, is a wonder, a marvel, a thing that fascinates the Europeans but one they struggle to identify. Gonzalo, one of the Europeans, says, “All torment, trouble, wonder and amazement inhabits here: some heavenly power guide us out of this fearful country!” Caliban, on the other hand, utters the lines repeated at the Olympics by Branagh: “be not afeard.”
Boyle’s ceremony made many clever connections, not least between Caliban’s ‘isle of wonder’ and Glastonbury Tor — the original British ‘isle of wonder’ said to be the site of the Isle of Avalon. The legendary Avalon was largely invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. c. 1155), who was also responsible for the stories of Arthur and Merlin as we know them today. Geoffrey described Avalon as “The Fortunate Isle” which “produces all things of itself” : growing it owns food, especially apples, so it’s not dependent on anyone else and so people who live there enjoy long, healthy lives. It is, then, a northern Paradise.
Glastonbury’s cone-shaped ‘tor’ became identified, thanks to the fanciful historian Gerald of Wales (d. c. 1223), with Avalon. Glastonbury Tor was a kind of ‘island’ surrounded by marshes, with a community of monks who sought to put themselves at the centre of an invented tradition of national origins. But, in the best medieval tradition, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s description of Avalon wasn’t original; it was actually taken from the writings of the godfather of marvels, Isidore of Seville (d. 636). Isidore described ‘isles of wonder’ (thought to be the Canary Islands), blessed with good fortune, growing their own food, and this passage was clearly Geoffrey’s source for his description of Avalon.
In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history and in Shakespeare’s play, as in Danny Boyle’s Olympic ceremony, isles of wonder look marvellous, magical, and sometimes frightening but upon examination, isles of wonder turn out to be fantasies of home and nothing to be afraid of.
Anthony Bale is Professor of Medieval Studies at Birkbeck College, University of London. He has recently edited and translated Sir John Mandeville’s Book of Marvels and Travels for Oxford University Press’s Oxford World’s Classics, a text which deals with many wonders.