The Un-Discovered Islands: An Archipelago Of Myths And Mysteries, Phantoms And Fakes

By Malachy Tallack (Polygon, £14.99)

MALACHY Tallack’s first book, Sixty Degrees North, was a reflection on his round-the-world trip following the 60th parallel through some stark territory, including Siberia and Greenland. It was also a search for a state of mind: the feeling of being at home in the world. As John Muir once said, "going out, I found, was really going in". Readers will not have much luck going out in search of the places in Tallack’s new collection of oddities, The Un-Discovered Islands. Better to let the imagination do the legwork. It is a journey around fictional lands, most of which have found their way on to world maps, and all of which have moored themselves in "the geography of the mind". It is not something one should read from start to finish. It should be dipped into, explored for a brief time, and placed back on the coffee table. Read in this manner, it is intrepid intellectual fun, and Katie Scott’s bold illustrations give an exotic colour to the pages.

The most famous mythical island is Atlantis, which appears in a section called Sunken Lands. Plato invented this submerged kingdom for allegorical purposes. The rulers were descendants of Poseidon, god of the sea, whose "divinity had become diluted 'by frequent admixture with mortal stock' ". Atlantis was an "imaginary foe" of the utopian city state of Athens. But the island’s character has changed over the centuries. Some eccentrics believe it was the birthplace of civilisation, others that it actually exists. In the 19th century, when the world was still being discovered, many legendary islands like Atlantis appeared on charts of the Atlantic, fooling even the wisest seafarers.

Many of the places Tallack writes about are only interesting because of the characters who "discovered" them. The Scots-Irish surgeon and pirate Lionel Wafer, for instance, was responsible for popularising Davis Island in the 17th century. He claimed it lay in the Pacific, south of the Galapagos Isles. Wafer spent many buccaneering years exploring the seas with William Dampier (the man who would later reach the island of Juan Fernandez and rescue Alexander Selkirk, "the castaway whose story inspired the tale of Robinson Crusoe"). He was once abandoned near Panama and lived with the native Cuna people for a year. After giving up piracy, Wafer was consulted in secret by the directors of the Darien Company in 1697, ahead of their doomed venture.

The final section of Tallack’s book considers a few modern-day examples of cartographic anomalies, such as Bermeja in the Gulf of Mexico, which caused a territorial fracas between Mexico and the US in the late 1990s. But most of the world’s habitable land has now been comprehensively mapped: "the science of navigation has worked towards the eradication of uncertainty and the end of mystery … and though that technology brings its own kind of wonder, part of us mourns what has been lost." Tallack is spot on, and how strange it feels to grieve for a state of ignorance.