Islandia (novel)
Islandia is a classic novel of utopia
Utopia is an ideal community or society possessing a perfect socio-politico-legal system. The word was imported from Greek by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, describing a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean. The term has been used to describe both intentional communities that attempt...

n fiction by Austin Tappan Wright
Austin Tappan Wright
Austin Tappan Wright was an American legal scholar and author, best remembered for his major work of Utopian fiction, Islandia...

, a U. C. Berkeley
University of California, Berkeley
The University of California, Berkeley , is a teaching and research university established in 1868 and located in Berkeley, California, USA...

 Law School Professor. Written as a hobby over a long period of time, it was posthumously edited down by a third by his wife and daughter, and first published in hardcover
A hardcover, hardback or hardbound is a book bound with rigid protective covers...

 by Farrar and Rinehart in 1942, eleven years after the author's 1931 death.1

Islandia is a fully realized world which has drawn parallels to Tolkien's
J. R. R. Tolkien
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, CBE was an English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor, best known as the author of the classic high fantasy works The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College,...

 The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings is a high fantasy epic written by English philologist and University of Oxford professor J. R. R. Tolkien. The story began as a sequel to Tolkien's earlier, less complex children's fantasy novel The Hobbit , but eventually developed into a much larger work. It was written in...

, but it contains no magic, so it is much more a utopia
Utopia is an ideal community or society possessing a perfect socio-politico-legal system. The word was imported from Greek by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, describing a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean. The term has been used to describe both intentional communities that attempt...

 than a standard fantasy.

The original Islandia was conceived by Wright while he was yet a small boy. Creating its civilization became his lifelong leisure occupation. The complete Islandia papers include "a detailed history
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...

 ... complete with geography
Geography is the science that studies the lands, features, inhabitants, and phenomena of Earth. A literal translation would be "to describe or write about the Earth". The first person to use the word "geography" was Eratosthenes...

, genealogy
Genealogy is the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. Genealogists use oral traditions, historical records, genetic analysis, and other records to obtain information about a family and to demonstrate kinship and pedigrees of its members...

, representations from its literature
Literature is the art of written works, and is not bound to published sources...

, language
Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication...

 and culture
Culture is a term that has many different inter-related meanings. For example, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions...

."4. The complete and never published version of Islandia can be found in the Harvard library. A 61 page Introduction to Islandia by Basil Davenport was published along with the original novel in 1942.

The protagonist of the novel is an American named John Lang, who graduates from Harvard in 1910. The setting is Islandia, an imaginary country set in the real world of that time. This remote nation "at the tip of the Karain semi-continent" is near "the unexplored wastes of Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere."2 The citizens have imposed "the Hundred Law, limiting access to Islandia to a bare one hundred visitors at a time."3 Wright may have had in mind both the self-imposed isolation of Siam
Thailand , officially the Kingdom of Thailand , formerly known as Siam , is a country located at the centre of the Indochina peninsula and Southeast Asia. It is bordered to the north by Burma and Laos, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the...

, starting in 1688, and that of Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

, starting soon after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1603. In any case, for the country of Islandia, these two factors have shrouded this nation in mystery.


Islandia's culture has many "progressive
Progressivism is an umbrella term for a political ideology advocating or favoring social, political, and economic reform or changes. Progressivism is often viewed by some conservatives, constitutionalists, and libertarians to be in opposition to conservative or reactionary ideologies.The...

" features. For example, prostitutes are rehabilitated back into respectable society. Another "progressive" feature is the citizens' love of nature, and their rural lives. Everyone, including members of the upper classes, engages in some kind of useful work, especially farming. The word for city in Islandian, "elainry", literally means "place of many people"; all city families have a country home to which they can return.

Like other writers of speculative fiction, Wright decided to imagine a society that differs from ours in one or several key features. One of these is that, while Islandian civilization is technologically primitive, it is far in advance of Western culture in terms of understanding of human emotion and psychology. Wright wrote much of the story in the 1920s, but set it before World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

, providing a particularly stark contrast between Islandian understanding, and the emotionally unperceptive and self-repressive Victorian
Victorian morality
Victorian morality is a distillation of the moral views of people living at the time of Queen Victoria's reign and of the moral climate of the United Kingdom throughout the 19th century in general, which contrasted greatly with the morality of the previous Georgian period...

 world. Immersed in the Islandian culture, John Lang steadily grows in understanding of his emotions and his sexual feelings. He grows accustomed to the sexually permissive Islandian culture. Wright's portrayal may have been intended as a positive comment on the growing sexual permissiveness of American culture in the 1920s.

Another difference between Islandian culture and the West
Western world
The Western world, also known as the West and the Occident , is a term referring to the countries of Western Europe , the countries of the Americas, as well all countries of Northern and Central Europe, Australia and New Zealand...

 is that Islandians determinedly reject the rush of
modern Western life, and most modern Western technology.
It is a rural society with an arcadian
Arcadia (utopia)
Arcadia refers to a vision of pastoralism and harmony with nature. The term is derived from the Greek province of the same name which dates to antiquity; the province's mountainous topography and sparse population of pastoralists later caused the word Arcadia to develop into a poetic byword for an...

 worldview, which at one point Dorn humorously describes as "enlightened Hedonism
Hedonism is a school of thought which argues that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. In very simple terms, a hedonist strives to maximize net pleasure .-Etymology:The name derives from the Greek word for "delight" ....

". They're not interested in building railroads for quick travel. But they do not blindly reject all Western technology; they use a few Western inventions that they judge to be worthwhile, such as modern rifle
A rifle is a firearm designed to be fired from the shoulder, with a barrel that has a helical groove or pattern of grooves cut into the barrel walls. The raised areas of the rifling are called "lands," which make contact with the projectile , imparting spin around an axis corresponding to the...

s, and Singer
Singer Corporation
Singer Corporation is a manufacturer of sewing machines, first established as I.M. Singer & Co. in 1851 by Isaac Merritt Singer with New York lawyer Edward Clark. Best known for its sewing machines, it was renamed Singer Manufacturing Company in 1865, then The Singer Company in 1963. It is...

 sewing machines.

Among John Lang's discoveries, he finds that the Islandians use four words for love
Love is an emotion of strong affection and personal attachment. In philosophical context, love is a virtue representing all of human kindness, compassion, and affection. Love is central to many religions, as in the Christian phrase, "God is love" or Agape in the Canonical gospels...

  • alia: love of place and family land and lineage,
  • amia: love of friends,
  • ania: desire for marriage and commitment, and
  • apia: sexual attraction


While an undergraduate at Harvard, John Lang becomes friends with an Islandian fellow-student named Dorn, and decides to learn the Islandian language (of which there are very few speakers outside Islandia). Once he has graduated, his uncle, a prominent businessman, arranges his appointment as American consul
Consul was the highest elected office of the Roman Republic and an appointive office under the Empire. The title was also used in other city states and also revived in modern states, notably in the First French Republic...

 to Islandia, based primarily on his ability to speak the language. Gradually John Lang learns that his tacit mission as American consul is to do whatever is necessary to increase American trade opportunities in Islandia. He does not undertake this mission right away, preferring to take a little time first to get to know the country and the people.

John Lang meets and falls in love with Dorn's sister, Dorna. They spend some time together alone, which John finds unnerving at first, since they are not chaperoned. When Dorna comes to understand John's feelings, she tells him that she does not love him in return in that way (though he wonders whether she means "cannot", or "will not"). She accepts the hand of the King instead, a handsome young man who has been courting her for some time.

One of the culminations of the plot is the decision by the people of Islandia to reject the aggressive overtures of the Great Powers for unrestricted trade and immigration, choosing instead to maintain their tradition of isolation. As this political struggle comes to a head, John Lang follows his conscience and sides with the Islandians,
to the great disappointment of many American businessmen who were looking forward to new lucrative trade opportunities, including John Lang's uncle.

Near the end of the novel, John Lang is allowed to become a citizen of Islandia as a reward for heroism in an attack by a neighboring group. By this point he has fallen in love with an American friend with whom he has maintained steady correspondence. They decide to marry, and when she arrives in Islandia she, too, is granted citizenship.


There are also three sequels, all written by Mark Saxton
Mark Saxton
Mark Saxton was an American author and editor. He is chiefly remembered for helping edit for publication Austin Tappan Wright’s Utopian novel Islandia, and for his own three sequels to Wright’s work.-Life:...

, the same man who edited the original Islandia manuscript. All three of these were written with the permission of Wright's estate.
  • The Islar, Islandia Today - A Narrative of Lang III. This book is set in then-modern times in 1969. The plot concerns a coup attempt in Islandia that takes place while the national government is debating whether to join the United Nations
    United Nations
    The United Nations is an international organization whose stated aims are facilitating cooperation in international law, international security, economic development, social progress, human rights, and achievement of world peace...

    . The protagonist, as indicated in the title, is John Lang's grandson.

  • The Two Kingdoms, published in 1979, is a prequel set in the 14th century. The plot concerns the events surrounding the reign of the only female leader in Islandian history, and the dynastic change that ensued from this.

  • Havoc in Islandia, published in 1982, is yet another prequel, set in the 12th century. At this time in Islandian "history", the Roman Catholic Church
    Roman Catholic Church
    The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the world's largest Christian church, with over a billion members. Led by the Pope, it defines its mission as spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, administering the sacraments and exercising charity...

     attempted to overthrow the government of Islandia, and, having failed, was itself expelled from the country forever. Sylvia Wright, Wright's daughter and the executrix of his estate, died shortly before this book was completed, and there have been no additional books since.

Reviewers describe these books as entertaining and self-contained. The prequels concern events that are mentioned in passing in the original novel, and evidently are based on Wright's unpublished notes.


1 In the Introduction to Islandia, Austin Tappan Wright, 1942, Introduction by Sylvia Wright, 1958.

2 p. v in the Introduction to Islandia, Austin Tappan Wright, 1942, Introduction by John Silbersack, 2001, ISBN 1-58567-148-7.

3 p. vi, Ibid.

4 back cover, Ibid.

External links

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