Islandia

Map of Austin Tappan Wright’s Invented Country

It’s not often that I will undertake to read a thousand plus page novel. Most of the time, it’s just not worth it. There are some rare exceptions: One of them in Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, published in 1942, more than ten years after its author died in a New Mexico auto accident. During the interval, the author’s two thousand pages of text were edited and submitted for publication. Fortunately for us, they were accepted. The result is a one-of-a-kind classic that will probably remain in print as long as there are literate readers.

Mind you, Wright is no master stylist. What makes Islandia such a great novel is the author’s incredible imagination in creating an imaginary country with its own culture, language, and mores. Add to that what I regard as the most acute study of love in the Western World with some of the most brilliantly drawn female characters, particularly Dorna, Nattana, Stellina, and Gladys Hunter.

The 2001 Edition That I Read

The story tells of an American named John Lang who is appointed as consul to the isolated nation of Islandia (which is actually not an island), where no more than 100 non-consular foreigners are allowed to live at one time. He falls in love with two Islandian women, is reluctantly rejected by both of them, and eventually marries a fellow American named Gladys Hunter, whom he brings to Islandia to live on a farm with him.

When John and Gladys come together in Islandia, there is none of that “and they lived happily ever after” claptrap that destroys so many stories: Gladys does not immediately take to her new adopted country, and John must patiently ensure that her needs are being met before she is wholly at ease in her new situation. This type of extended dénouement is rare in fiction, so I was greatly surprised to find it here.

The Author: Austin Tappan Wright (1883-1931)


I loved this book deeply, and I hope to be able to read it again some day. It made me feel good about my fellow humans, an emotion I do not readily feel during this election year of 2020.

Where English Fails

A Word With Too Many Meanings

It is said that the Inuits have some fifty different words for snow, covering snowflakes, frost, fine snow particles, drifting particles, clinging particles, fallen snow, deep snow, and so on almost ad infinitum. And yet, the English language has this one word—love—which covers a whole host of emotions, from liking an inanimate thing, to strong affection for a person, to to attachment to one’s children, to copulation, to a score of zero in tennis, and so on.

When one tells a woman one loves her, it could mean any of a number of things, ranging from a momentary feeling of affection to a lifetime of devotion.

I became more conscious of this lack while reading a fascinating book published in 1942 by Austin Tappan Wright called Islandia. In it, there are four terms for love, with the Greek equivalents in Italics:

  • Apia, sexual attraction (eros)
  • Ania, desire for marriage and commitment (storge)
  • Amia, love of friends (philia)
  • Alia, love of place, family lineage, and the land (heimat)

It is a wonderful book about a nonexistent country called Islandia in the Southern Hemisphere on the remote Karain continent. In it, the hero, an American called John Lang, keeps falling in love with beautiful young Islandian women with numerous misunderstandings due to differences in culture. It is a thousand-page novel of which I have read only some 600 pages thus far,