Literary Arcadia Literature and other things

Penguin Island, or An Allegory for Civilization

Is the novel about an island inhabited by penguins?  Yes and no.

In early Christian times a pious and learned abbot leaves his monastery somewhere on the Northwest coast of Europe on a mission to spread his faith.  He is blown far off course and eventually lands on a polar island.  He finds that the island is inhabited, and in a fit of religious fervor, performs a group baptism.  Unfortunately, due to poor eyesight, he did not realize that he was baptizing the island’s resident penguins (and yes, I realize penguins only live in the southern polar region).

Upon seeing the mess that the holy abbot has created, God debates with many learned saints and theologians residing in heaven over what should be done with the now Christian penguins.  It is decided to transform them all into people so that they can become true Christians.  And this is only the first part of the book.

Anatole France writes a satire of Western Civilization, especially his home country of France (discussing this could get confusing, with the author’s name and origin being the same).  He uses the Penguins, now in human form, to follow the path forged by civilization, from ancient through modern times.  France uses his story to comment on social history, industrialization, war, etc.  He even included a small part at the end, to speculate on the future of the Penguins, and what will happen to their (i.e. our) civilization.

Penguin Island is a small book and a quick read.  Students of history will have fun picking out stories about the Penguins that actually occurred in our own history.  It gets a bit bogged down in the middle (“Modern Times”) when France is obviously trying to make a statement about recent French politics/society (He does not have to stretch far to make events seem ridiculous for his readers).  It is satire, but not scathing or mean-spirited.

My favorite parts include Oberosia, one of the original Penguins turned into a woman.  Her tale is interesting to begin with- a heroic epic complete with a dragon.  Eventually the Penguins forget her original tale and begin to revere her as a saint, especially ironic as she did not behave in a very saintly fashion.  It is also the perfect example of how facts become history and, as we move forward in time, eventually become distant legends.

One Thought on “Penguin Island, or An Allegory for Civilization

  1. Wow, a Penguin Island post! I did a week on A. France last spring. Why do I write about these books no one else reads? Because sometimes I find someone who does read them!

    I am enjoying browsing around in the blog.

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