Antony Swithin’s Rockall is another one of those imagined places whose creators have spent decades of their lives imagining. In this case, Swithin, the pen name of the late University of Saskatchewan geology professor William Sarjeant (1935-2002), placed his imagined Rockall, a large island the size of Iberia, where the real Rockall, a 20-metre rock northwest of the British Isles, and its surrounding oceanic plateau, are found.
When I was a child, Rockall was not claimed by any nation, nor could I discover anything about it. This lack of information fired my youthful imagination, so that soon I had worked out the geography of Rockall, its animal and plant life, and even its history and present-day politics; I had decided on its sports and its heraldry, and I made quite detailed maps of my imaginary island. After neglecting my island for more than 25 years, I returned to it in my 40s and made large scale, detailed maps of its physical features, geology, botany and ethnology, its present geography and even its political constituencies. […] Eventually, upon urging from my wife, I began actually to write my long-planned novels.1
Swithin published four novels in the early 1990s, in a series called The Perilous Quest for Lyonesse: Princes of Sandastre (1990), The Lords of the Stoney Mountains (1991), The Winds of the Wastelands (1992), and The Nine Gods of Safaddné (1992). They’re all out of print; search for them at AbeBooks. You can read the first part of Princes of Sandastre online, but I was able to get the entire first book through interlibrary loan.
Princes of Sandastre is set in the early 14th century, where young Simon Braithwaite, whose family fought on the losing side of the Battle of Shrewsbury, is forced to flee England for his safety. Following his father and brother, he makes his way to Bristol, where he lucks into passage to the mysterious Rockall. Most of the novel from this point on involves Simon learning more about his adoptive home, with much exposition about the island’s languages, flora and fauna, and politics. Simon is largely there to absorb it; otherwise he’s the sort of John Carter hero who, ordinary in his native land, becomes tremendously useful and welcome in the new strange land.
Rockall emerges as just the sort of place that develops from a young imagination. Zoologically speaking it’s a lost world, filled with extinct Cenozoic megafauna that communicate telepathically with Rockall’s inhabitants. Politically it’s utopian. It’s immediately clear how much fun the author had in creating this place; the infodumps are written with joy and enthusiasm, as though the characters, though isolationists, can’t wait to tell you all about it. You can read all about it too, or at least a little bit of it, on the Rockall website.
At this point it’s worth mentioning Sarjeant/Swithin’s maps, which are unlike any other maps seen in a fantasy series, and no doubt result from Sarjeant’s background as a geology professor. The map of southern Rockall that accompanies Princes of Sandastre is a hypsometric elevation map, not the usual sort with shaded mountains and drawn-in forests. It shows the location of the various family clans, rather than the usual information on a fantasy map. Moreover, it uses a sans serif font! The Rockall website has many similar maps: elevation maps of the island, ocean currents, geology (see right), vegetation, even electoral districts. (Sarjeant/Swithin has extended Rockall’s history into the present day. I can’t imagine how much unpublished material he must have produced.)
The imagined Rockall has leaked into the real world as well. Real subocean features in the Rockall Plateau have been named after locations in Swithin’s books, as though Swithin’s Rockall, which deliberately draws on the Atlantis myths, has merely sunk beneath the waves. Further to the southweast, and you’ll find seamounts named after locations from The Lord of the Rings: Edoras Bank, Gondor Seamount, Gandalf’s Spur. “To be coupled with Tolkien, even in so indirect a fashion,” Sarjeant/Swithin wrote, “is indeed high honour for any writer of fantasy novels.”2
- Antony Swithin, “Tolkien — and Swithin — Beneath the North Atlantic Ocean,” reprinted in Beyond Bree, April 2001.