Places: Penguin Island

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: L’Île des pingouins, 1908 (English translation, 1914)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Satire

Time of work: Ancient to modern times

Places DiscussedAlca

Alca. Penguin IslandIsland in the North Atlantic, close to the Arctic Circle, that is also known as the Island of the Penguins, Penguin Island, and Penguinia. Its shore was initially circular, surrounding a single, central mountain from whose peak the distant shores of Armorica could be seen. It was then flanked by steep cliffs, except for one place inset with a natural amphitheater formed of black and red rocks; in this amphitheater, while rendered snow-blind by the Arctic ice, the future Saint Maël preached the gospel to a population of penguins, thinking them humans, and then baptized them. (Note that penguins are native to the Southern Hemisphere, not the Arctic.)

Alca subsequently grew considerably in size, changing its shape to that of a mulberry leaf. Its previously desolate landscapes gave way to cultivated fields and woodlands. Much later in its history, the island was redesignated an “insula” following the expansion of its empire by the conqueror Trinco (although the conquered lands were soon lost again, along with the neighboring islands of Ampelphoria and the Dog’s Jaws, which had belonged to the Penguins before Trinco’s rise to power). These shifts in size and shape are a satirical projection of the alterations that changes in political geography impose on real maps.

The elementary geography of Alca is a conceptual sketch map of various kinds of territory recognized by mythographers and historians. The Coast of Shadows, to the east of the island, remains an ominous place long after the first phase of Penguin expansion–the sort of terra incognita which may be marked (literally, in this case) “here be dragons.” The church and monastery built by Maël are in the far more hospitable Bay of Divers to the south, which becomes the site of a trading port. The Penguins’ first violent property disputes erupt in the fertile western valleys of Dalles and Dombes, irrigated by the rivers Clange and Surelle, as a result of which disputes the First Assembly of the Estates of Penguinia is convened. From these primal locations, history progresses in Penguinia as a parody of actual social progress, culminating in a series of cultural cycles that suggests that the future of Penguinia and of the world will never culminate in a just and equitable society.

Abbey of Yvern

Abbey of Yvern. Monastery on the northwestern coast of France where Maël becomes abbot, establishing a school, an infirmary, a guest-house, a forge, and several workshops–a little utopia of sorts–before unwisely setting off to proselytize the pagans of the Breton Islands. He returns to the abbey to restore order when the chastity of its inhabitants is threatened by wayward nuns from the offshore island of Gad, after which the Devil diverts his boat to the northern Atlantic, so that he may discover Alca. When the monks of Yvern are dispossessed of their small-scale utopia by pagans in the Middle Ages, King Brian invites them to Alca, where he builds them a new monastery; however, the new one never becomes an entirely adequate substitute for the real thing.


Paradise. Site of the conference called by God to determine the legality of Maël’s baptism of the penguins, as a result of which Maël is licensed to perform a miracle transforming the penguins into humans. It is, in essence, a place in which saints engage one another in endless arguments about obscure matters of dogma and propriety.


Gigantopolis. Capital city of New Atlantis, the greatest of the world’s democracies, briefly visited by Professor Obnubile in the futile hope that the seemingly relentless march of its social and technological progress might bring about an end to war. However, the president of New Atlantis seems to devote all his energies to the promotion of distant wars, with the aim of forcing free trade upon the entire world.

BibliographyBresky, Dushan. The Art of Anatole France. The Hague: Mouton, 1969. A critical overview of France’s work, with discussion of France’s place within the French literary tradition. Sections on humor and utopianism, and great sensitivity to questions of aesthetics.Kennett, W. T. E. “The Theme of Penguin Island.” Romanic Review 33, no. 3 (October, 1942): 275-289. Traces the theme of an imaginary island populated by penguins in romantic European travelogue literature since the Renaissance, concluding with a critical examination of France’s Penguin Island.May, James Lewis. Anatole France: The Man and His Work, an Essay in Critical Biography. 1924. Reprint. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1970. Profiles France’s formative influences in the first half of the book, followed by critical discussions of France’s works.Stewart, Herbert Leslie. Anatole France, the Parisian. 1927. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1972. Correlates elements in France’s works to specific personal, cultural, and philosophical influences. Many anecdotes and pertinent quotations. Emphasizes France’s humanism and its effect on his work.Virtanen, Reino. Anatole France. New York: Twayne, 1968. A chronologically arranged critical perspective on France’s body of work. Traces France’s debts to earlier satirists.
Categories: Places