The Book of Legendary Lands
Translated by Alastair McEwen
(2013, Rizzoli Ex Libris, 478 pages)
One of a series of beautifully illustrated books that includes The Infinity of Lists, History of Beauty, and On Ugliness, Umberto Eco’s The Book of Legendary Lands examines imagined utopias and dystopias from fiction, antiquity, folklore, and religion – entire worlds, continents, cities, or even dwellings that might be entirely fictional, or re-imaginings of existing places, but which, in Eco’s words, “have created flows of belief.”
Utopia, or non-place, has sometimes been interpreted as eu-topia, or good place. Thomas More was only one of the most famous of the many who imagined such a society. For instance, a concept found throughout human history is the Earthly Paradise: usually, according to Eco, “where at the beginning of the world one lived in a state of bliss and innocence,” was cast out, but may one day return. One finds it in literally all the major world religions, whether it’s the Garden of Eden, Mount Meru, the Kunlun Mountains, or the Elysian Fields. Very often it lives in the imagination, but for many thinkers and religions it has been an earthly (but distant) place: Sri Lanka, perhaps, or remotest Africa, or Armenia or Palestine, or an island in the middle of the ocean, or the top of the world’s highest peak. Perhaps it is the Isle of the Blessed that was written about so much during the Middle Ages and Renaissance (many, like St. Brendan, found it in close proximity to Ireland).
Perhaps, too, Atlantis was such a place. Atlantis, the continent that disappeared into the sea after catastrophic earthquakes or a flood, is the prototypical legendary land. Plato’s mentions of it in a couple of his dialogues (in the Critias, Atlantis is an island where live the descendants of the god Poseidon and his mortal lover Cleito) are the earliest that still exist, although there is evidence that the idea went much farther back. Centuries after Plato, Roman writers like Pliny the Elder and Diodorus Siculus returned to the concept. There was a renewal of interest during the Renaissance as well, where America, and later, Scandinavia were identified with Atlantis (although how these still-existing places could be Atlantis if Atlantis was destroyed and fell into the sea wasn’t explained). Another period of interest was the late nineteenth century. Think of the appearance of Atlantis in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870):
“…there beneath my eyes was a town in ruins, demolished, overwhelmed, laid low, its roofs caved in, its temples pulled down, its arches dislocated, its columns stretching over the earth; in these ruins you could still detect the solid proportions of a sort of Tuscan architecture; farther off, the remains of a gigantic aqueduct,; here, the caked heights of an acropolis along with the fluid forms of a Parthenon; there, the remnants of a wharf, as if some bygone part had long ago harbored merchant vessels and triple-tiered war galleys on the shores of some lost ocean; still farther off, long rows of collapsing walls, deserted thoroughfares, a whole Pompeii buried under the waters, which Captain Nemo had resurrected before my eyes!” Read more