The American phrase “for the birds” connotes something that is trivial, worthless, or of interest to gullible people. Penguin Island by Anatole France, the nom de plume for Jacques Anatole Thibault, is not “for the birds” but describes the history of the mythical land of Penguinia where the inhabitants were once birds; but, have a curious story of how they became human.
Published in 1908, the story begins with how a member of a royal family, named Maël, devoted himself to serve the Lord. He embarked on a missionary journey across bodies of water in an awkward vessel of stone. Unbeknownst to him he came under the influence of the Devil and found himself on an island in an unknown part of the world. Exploring the island he discovered inhabitants that he assessed to be simple souls but of pure heart. He decided to teach them the Gospel and then baptize them. Now the story really unfolds, as the inhabitants are not men but penguins. “When the baptism of the penguins was known in Paradise, it caused neither joy nor sorrow, but an extreme surprise. The Lord himself was embarrassed. He gathered an assembly of clerics and doctors, and asked them whether they regarded the baptism as valid.”
A few chapters of debate and it was decided. An archangel delivered the news — “Maël, know thy error, believing that thou wert baptizing children of Adam thou hast baptized birds; and it is through thee that penguins have entered into the Church of God.” Maël became concerned that if he left these newly transformed beings alone they might stray from their original teachings so he decided to bring the island back with him, towing it behind his vessel, to the coasts of Armorica.
In a small book of 297 pages, the reader learns the details of the religious immersion of Maël, the baptism of the penguins, the transportation of the island, the ancient times, middle ages, renaissance, modern times and future times of Penguinia. Called a “satire of the history of mankind” on the front cover sleeve, France delivers this story in such a way that it was considered his masterpiece. And in today’s tumultuous political world, it is oddly current considering that the author’s perspective is over a hundred years old.
Jacques Anatole Thibault was born in 1844 the son of a Paris book dealer. His education was classical and he held numerous diverse positions, including a 14-year period as the assistant librarian at the Senate. Regardless of the type of position he made time to master his word craft and thus created an extensive bibliography during his career. He mainly worked at storytelling and novels, but explored most of the literary genres.
Thibault was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in Literature “in recognition of his brilliant literary achievements, characterized as they are by a nobility of style, a profound human sympathy, grace, and a true Gallic temperament.”
I leave you with a few tempting lines from the timeline of the story of Penguinia:
The Ancient Times — “‘I see them,” said Bulloch. They are creating law; they are founding property; they are establishing the principles of civilization, the basis of society, and the foundations of the State.’ ‘How is that?’ asked old Maël. ‘By setting bounds to their fields. That is the origin of all government. Your penguins, O Master, are performing the most august of functions. Throughout the ages their work will be consecrated by lawyers, and magistrates will confirm it.’”
The Middle Ages and Renaissance — “The Penguin critics vie with one another in affirming that Penguin art has from its origin been distinguished by a powerful and pleasing originality, and that we may look elsewhere in vain for the qualities of grace and reason that characterise its earliest works.”
Modern Times: Trinco — “Ægidius Aucupis, the Erasmus of the Penguins, was not mistaken; his age was an age of free inquiry. But that great man mistook the elegances of the humanists for softness of manners, and he did not foresee the effects that the awakening of intelligence would have amongst the Penguins. It brought about the religious Reformation; Catholics massacred Protestants and Protestants massacred Catholics.”
Modern Times: Chatillon — “Every system of government produces people who are dissatisfied. The Republic or Public Thing produced them at first from amongst the nobles who have been despoiled of their ancient privileges.”
Modern Times — “No one doubted because the general ignorance in which everybody was concerning the affair did not allow of doubt, for doubt is a thing that demands motives. People do not doubt without reasons in the same way that people believe without reasons. The thing was not doubted because it was repeated everywhere and, with the public, to repeat is to prove.”