Saturday, May 26, 2007

Floating Island at Hawkshead

In 1188 Gerald of Wales and Archbishop Baldwin went on a preaching tour to gain support for the Third Crusade. Their travels were written up in Gerald's The Journey Through Wales, which includes a good example of pre-Romantic description of mountains. When Gerald reached Snowdonia his interest centred not on the snowy peaks and cataracts, but on their usefulness as extensive grazing-grounds (illustrated with a quotation from Virgil) and some of the marvels you could apparently see there:
  • A lake with a floating island, blown around by the winds
  • Another lake in which the eels, perch and trout all had only one eye
  • An eagle that waited to feed on men killed in battle, perched on a particular stone with a hole pierced through it where the eagle would clean and sharpens its beak.
Gerald repeats his facts about the lakes and the extensive pasture lands in a later work, The Description of Wales. Although there is no direct reaction to the mountain landscape in these books, the inclusion of these marvels gives a sense of how Snowdonia could still have been a source of some fascination even in the Middle Ages. And later on marvels like these might easily have inspired Romantic tales or poems. There is for example, a floating island in a poem by Dorothy Wordsworth. Here are some lines from 'Floating Island at Hawkshead: An Incident in the Schemes of Nature' (1820):
Once did I see a slip of earth
By throbbing waves long undermined,
Loosed from its hold--how no one knew,
But all might see it float, obedient to the wind;
Might see it from the verdant shore
Dissevered float upon the lake,
Float with its crest of trees adorned
On which the warbling birds their pastime take...


snarlerson said...

Gerald had a fascination for islands. In his Topographia Hibernica he describes an island in Ulster which is divided into two parts. One part has a beautiful church and is well worth seeing but the other is stony and ugly and is abandoned to the use of evil spirits only. Another has arisen from the sea recently like the modern Surtsee whilst on another no one dies.

Gerald of Wales, The History and Topography of Ireland, ed. L.Thorpe (Harmondsworth, 1982), nos.37, 38 and 45.

Plinius said...

Thanks - that is really interesting. I'm sure I've read of various floating islands in myth and literature (I mean floating in water, not in the sky like Swift's Laputa). I had a quick look on Wikipedia which briefly discusses the natural phenomenon: "they are sometimes referred to as tussocks, floatons, or sudds. Natural floating islands are composed of vegetation growing on a buoyant mat consisting of plant roots or other organic detritus." It also mentions a strange assortment of cultural references including something that almost made me choke with horror on my cup of tea: "Roger Dean is also planning a movie entitled Floating Islands. The movie is said to be based on the story of his album art for the band Yes and will feature several of their songs." Surely not! Somebody stop that man!