- Return to the Island of Mist*
for Sian and Cara
The Student and Fiona lived in a little gray house on the shores of a gray sea-loch in the Isle of Mist. The Student was a thin man with a stoop to his shoulders, which old Anne MacDermott said came of reading books; but really it was because he had been educated at a place where this is expected of you. Fiona, when she was doing nothing else, used to help Anne to keep house, rather jerkily, in a way a learned man may be supposed to like. She was a long-legged creature of fifteen, who laughed when her father threatened her with school on the mainland, and she had a warm heart and a largish size in shoes. Sometimes they would have dinner; sometimes nobody remembered in time, and they had sunset and salt herrings, with a bowl of glorious yellow corn-daisies to catch the sunset.
Thus begins W. W. Tarn's The Treasure of the Island of Mist, a fairy tale set in the fabled Scottish isle of Skye ("The Island of Mist"), which the author ("the Student") concocted for his daughter ("Fiona"). Like L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz, Tarn's story evolved from the need to entertain a sick child. Though Treasure was written during the winter of 1913-14, it was not published until the end of World War I. The British edition appeared in 1919 and its American counterpart the following year. Over the next generation it became a perennial favorite, a standard of children's literature on both sides of the Atlantic.1
The hunt for buried treasure begins with an itinerant peddler's gift to Fiona of a copper wristlet, fashioned centuries ago (he tells her) by men "who perhaps were nearer to the heart of things than we are." Fiona's companion on the search is the Urchin, a neighborhood lad three years her junior, who has a penchant for throwing stones at animate and inanimate objects. Fiona's bracelet proves to be magical, for it allows her [End Page 67] to converse with a lark, a whale, and a centipede. Twin Scottish terriers named Artemis and Apollo speak to her in Gaelic and English, respectively. All provide clues to the whereabouts of the treasure.
The quest eventually narrows to a haunted sea-cave on "Scargill" Island wherein, it is said, a Spanish captain buried his cargo of gold doubloons during the wreck of the Armada in 1588. The two adventurers row into its Stygian darkness. Disaster strikes: the Urchin's evil uncle Jeconiah has followed them with the intention of claiming the treasure for himself. Inexplicably the chests of gold are missing. A rockfall leaves Jeconiah in a state of suspended animation. The Urchin disappears to Fairyland, where he is to be brought to trial for attempted theft of the treasure. The jury will be "an innumerable host of little strange beings, of every sort and shape, elves and brownies, gnomes and pixies, trolls and kobolds, goblins and leprechauns." Fiona's quest for the treasure has now become a search for the Urchin.
Tarn's descriptive passages are marvels of imaginative skill, full of colors, sounds, scents, and images that delight the mind's sensorial storehouse. He is far less convincing when depicting action. Perhaps his successive careers as legal advocate and reflective historian indicate the reason. Though he enjoyed the outdoors and in time became one of the best game-bird shots in Britain,2 he remained at heart a book-bound scholar. Note how the scene is set for a dramatic encounter when Fiona and the Urchin stand transfixed as "round the side of the mountain came their enemy, perhaps the last kite [hawk] in the island, glittering in the sun. . . ." But then the drama unexpectedly dissolves: "the beautiful cowardly creature caught sight of Fiona and swept away across the valley." Contrast that with the scene in which Fiona encounters the Oread, the spirit of Heleral Hill, whose "face was beautiful and cold, like a frosty moonrise; her eyes shone like the drip of phosphorescent water under the stars." The...