Penguin Island

Penguin Island

The book about Human Nature, as experienced by Penguins

“As the great writer of Alca has said, the life of a people is a tissue of crime, wretchedness, and folly. Penguinia did not differ in this respect from other nations; nevertheless, its history contains some admirable sections upon which I hope that I have cast much fresh light”.

This piece of writing from the preface of Anatole France’s book Penguin Island fairly summarises the underlying message of the satirical story: people are bad, and they are bad because they are people. The story is about Penguin Island, inhabited by penguins that were transformed into humans. Their history satirically resembles that of France, or more broadly, Western Europe. Almost everything is ridiculed in the book written like a 18th or 19th century history book: from conservatism and progress to capitalism and socialism, and from law and custom to philosophy and theology; but also romance, revolution, history and even the future do not escape France’s critical view.

By Corina van der Werf

Anatole France was an engaged poet, journalist and novelist. His 1908 book is divided into eight chapters and moves through history both broadly and with an emphasis on specific events. It starts with the creation of the Penguin people: they are a peculiar race who descend from penguins, and their history resembles human history quite a bit. Several episodes later in the book parallel actual events in French political philosophy, and France satirizes them brilliantly. As has been mentioned before, he thinks that human nature is inherently faulty. The penguins used to live a peaceful and pleasurable life, but as they transformed into human beings, they started committing all crimes mankind has made itself guilty to as well. Not only did they start to wear clothes, but they also claimed ownership of land, developed a system of class separation and fought wars with other nations. Eventually, the self-destructive tendencies of humans become painfully clear, in a peek into the future…

The Beginnings and Ancient Times

The reason that the penguins transformed into human beings, is a peculiar one. The story starts off with the wise old monk Mael, to whom God had assigned the task to convert the pagans in neighbouring islands. One day, because of the devil, he loses control over the ship and is blown away north. The monk makes landfall at an island in the Arctic Ocean, where he encounters a group of great auks (a kind of penguin). However, blinded by the bright colour of the ice and deafened by the roaring of the sea, he takes them for humans. He sings the gospel for them, and after the friendly and curious penguins show no sign of restraint, he baptises them.

A wave of surprise sweeps throughout all the heavens. God calls an assembly to discuss whether the act is valid. His Holiness hears arguments, examples, bible citations and philosophical positions from popes, priests and other saints. In his section, France satirizes both reasoning within religion and God’s self-omnipotence:

“Although in my essence I am immutable, the longer I endure, the more I incline to mildness. This change of character is evident to anyone who reads my two Testaments.”

Eventually, God gives Mael the power to transform the penguins into men.

“Immediately the penguins were transformed. Their foreheads enlarged and their heads grew round like the dome of St. Maria Rotunda in Rome. Their oval eyes opened more widely on the universe, a fleshy nose clothed the two clefts of their nostrils; their beaks were changed into mouths, and from their mouths went forth speech; their necks grew short and think; their wings became arms and their claws legs, a restless soul dwelt within the breast of each of them.”

The Penguins start resembling humans more and more. The devil, again disguised, convinces Mael that they need clothes to cover themselves. Property is introduced as the result of a Penguin murdering his neighbour. Whereas penguins normally only fight during mating season, now they do so all year long out of greed. The elders of the group raise equal taxes for everyone, but the nobles are exempted from paying.

“The poor live on the wealth of the rich and that is the reason why that wealth is sacred.”

Anatole France now describes the legend of Kraken and Orberosia, which are one of the few people who stay relevant throughout the book. The legend goes that Kraken lived in isolation but seduced the pretty Orberosia. The rumour got around Alca, the centre of the isle, that a dragon invaded the villages and was accountable for Orberosia’s disappearance. In fact, all of this was because of Kraken. Mael thought only a true virgin could tame the beast, so Orberosia made up a plan where she pretended to tame the ‘dragon’ and have Kraken slay it. Alca was saved and their son, Draco, would create the first royal dynasty under the symbol of a dragon’s head. The legend of the brave virgin taming the dragon becomes a folk story known until the very end of the book. Orberosia is honoured like Maria and is even named a saint after her death, while all of their fame is due to her deceptive plans.

The Middle Ages and the Renaissance

The Middle Ages are a hectic time, filled with war, scandals and mistrust. Johannes Talpa is a writer in the middle ages, who wrote about the 13-century war with the Purpoises. They are a neighbouring people that hate the Penguins just as much as the other way around and resemble the Viking Raiders that attacked France in the early Middle Ages. When asked why the two groups hate each other as much as they do, people might answer something like this.

“He who says neighbours says enemies. Look at the field that borders mine. It belongs to the man I hate most in the world. After him my worst enemies are the people of the village on the other slope of the valley at the foot of that birch wood. In this narrow valley formed of two parts there are but that village and mine. They are enemies. Every time that our lads meet the others, insults and blows pass between them. And you want the Penguins not to be the enemies of the Purpoises! Don’t you know what patriotism is? For my part there are two cries that rise to my lips: ‘Hurrah for the Penguins! Death to the Purpoises!’”

Modern Times

At first, people keep having faith in God despite the disorder that plagues the country, but leading up to the 15th century, the Penguins become more sceptical towards religion and put more trust in science. A war starts between the Catholics and the Protestants and natural philosophy takes the place of rational theology. At the end of the so-called age of philosophers, a revolution prevails. The king is deposed, the nobles lose their privileges and the church their property, chaos infests the country. The largest dragon anyone has ever seen torments the Penguins for over fourteen years while the war keeps going on. And yet, the patriots remain true to their leaders. A traveller describes in his journals the love people still feel for the war hero Trinco, who both conquered and lost half the world, very much like Napoleon Bonaparte did.

“’Trinco conquered it for us, and Trinco lost it to us. As great in his defeats as in his victories, he surrendered all that he had conquered. […] At the time of his fall there were left in our country none but the hunchbacks and cripples from whom we are descended. But he gave us glory.’
‘He made you pay for it!’
‘Glory never costs too much,’ replied my guide.”

Eventually, a democracy is established, called the Republic or ‘Public Thing’. Formally, the power is with the people, but the actual power remains in the hands of a rich oligarchy that gains their knowledge from the newspapers. A Penguin professor called Obnubile doesn’t think the democracy will hold during the war, so he travels to New Atlantis, believing the industry of the prosperous country is be too important to waste time on war. He soon discovers the opposite is true talking to a guide who takes him to the government.

“[Guide:] ‘As soon as one of our industries fails to find a market for its products a war is necessary to open new outlets. It is in his way we have had a coal war, a copper war, and a cotton war. In Third-Zealand we have killed two-thirds of the inhabitants in order to compel the remainder to buy our umbrellas and braces.’
At that moment a fat man who was sitting in the middle of the assembly ascended the tribune.
‘I claim,’ said he, ‘a war against the Emerald Republic, which insolently contends with our pigs for the hegemony of hams and sauces in all the markets of the universe.’
‘Who is that legislator?’ asked Doctor Obnubile.
‘He is a pig merchant’ [Answered his guide.]”

Proponents of the Republic of Penguinia are mainly labourers, whereas opponents are the nobles, small merchants and some monks. A group of nobles, led by a monk, tries to put the popular head of the navy into power, only to blame him for taking all of the power for himself. The ultimate goal is to reinstate the banished prince Crucho, the last of the Draconides on the throne. However, the plan fails miserably and the influence of conservatists and royalists declines even more. The head of the navy can be compared to George Ernest Boulanger, who was so popular some started to fear that he would become a dictator.

At this point, Anatole France seems to come into the picture himself. One day, the army discovers that 80 thousand trusses of hay have gone missing. The Jewish Pyrot is suspected and framed for the theft, despite his innocence. A man called Maubec has actually been paid for the trusses of hay, but never delivered them to the army. A similar case happened during the time France lived: back then, a Jewish man called Dreyfus was convicted for sharing army details to the enemy. The country got split up between defenders and opponents of the man, and while the first group was significantly smaller, it kept growing. France himself had seen there was no valid evidence for the case and compares himself to the writer Colomban in a story. He hung up posters and got beaten up for it yet kept defending Pyrot. France clearly is not positive about everyone who kept accusing the Jewish man:

“That Pyrot had stolen the eighty thousand trusses of hay nobody hesitated for a moment to believe. 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. It was not doubted because people wished to believe Pyrot guilty and one believes what one wishes to believe. Finally, it was not doubted because the faculty of doubt is rare amongst men; very few minds carry in them its germs and these are not developed without cultivation. Doubt is singular, exquisite, philosophic, immoral, transcendent, monstrous, full of malignity, injurious to persons and to property, contrary to the good order of governments, and to the prosperity of empires, fatal to humanity, destructive of the gods, held in horror by heaven and earth. The mass of the Penguins were ignorant of doubt: it believed in Pyrot’s guilt and this conviction immediately became one of its chief national beliefs and an essential truth in its patriotic creed.”

At some point, the government starts to doubt themselves. They call for the help of one of the higher judges, called Chaussepied. Although he hates Pyrot deeply and believes only a monster is capable of committing such a horrible crime, he wants to see the collected evidence first. It fills two stories in the Ministry of War by now, but Chaussepied never expects to find what he will find.

“Numbered and initialled they ran to the number of fourteen million six hundred and twenty-six thousand three hundred and twelve. As he studied them, the judge was at first surprised, then astonished, then stupefied, amazed, and, if I dare say so, flabbergasted. He found among the documents prospectuses of new fancy shops, newspapers, fashion-plates, paper bags, old business letters, exercise books, brown paper, green paper for rubbing paquet floors, playing cards, diagrams, six thousand copies of the ‘Key to Dreams’, but not a single document in which any mention was made of Pyrot.”

Of course, Chaussepied defends Pyrot’s innocence and the Jewish man is finally spoken free.

Despite the whole affair and another government reform, Penguin politics in the years to follow are still ruled by power-hungriness, opportunism and vainglory. This is proven once again by an affair between the prime minister and the deputy’s wife. When the deputy finds out, his jealousy accidentally causes the war that both Penguinia and the neighbouring countries were trying to prevent.


Class separation grows while traditions, arts and intellectual culture gradually disappear. Alca, the capital city, assumes a cosmopolitan and financial character. Fifteen million people labour in the giant town. The country finally reaches some tranquillity, which the writer calls its zenith. Industry is booming. Buildings can higher and higher while tunnels get deeper and deeper, and in Alca, sunlight is barely visible through the smoke. The population is roughly divided between three groups: the millionaires, who own everything and everyone and who know no morality; the agents of commerce and banking who want to become the millionaires, and the labourers in the factories. Living qualities are bad for everyone and terrible accidents happen daily, but the ones without morale were the factory workers. The stronger workers are recruited for the army and employers see the smartest ones as dangerous, so they often seem to disappear completely. And then there are the anarchists, a mix of all kinds of people who see that life has lost its meaning. They start tormenting the city with home-made explosions, killing ministers, law-enforcers, medics, sales-people, beggars and scientists, but most of all, of course, factory workers. The millionaires and their close associates pretend everything is all right, but it’s not for long they can avoid the chaos.

“The enemy was master of the town. Instead of silence, the noise of explosions was now continuous and produced an insurmountable feeling of horror. […] It became impossible to clear away the ruins or to bury the dead.”

At some point, everyone in the city either died or fled and there is no future there anymore. Other cities in Penguinia barely survive the chaos and their inhabitants see no reason to keep living there. Everyone goes back to hunting wild animals and working on the field.

“Then in the course of ages, the wealth of the villages and the corn that filled the fields were pillaged by barbarian invaders. The country changed its masters several times. The conquerors built castles upon the hills; cultivation increased; mills, forges, tanneries, and looms were established; roads were opened through the woods and over the marshes; the river was covered with boats. The hamlets became large villages and joining together formed a town which protected itself by deep trenches and lofty walls. Later, becoming the capital of a great State, it found itself straitened within its now useless ramparts and it converted them into grass-covered walks.
It grew very rich and large beyond measure. The houses were never high enough to satisfy the people, they kept on making them still higher and built them of thirty or forty storeys, with offices, shops, banks, societies one above another, they dug cellars and tunnels ever deeper downwards. Fifteen millions of men laboured in the giant town.”


Corina van der Werf

Corina van der Werf volgt de bachelor Filosofie en schrijft sinds 2018 voor Qualia

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