Mortality is, more or less, the bane of human existence, wouldn’t you say? Looming over each of us, sometimes menacing and always mysterious, death is life’s only guarantee. Naturally, we fear it. We do not understand it and cannot prepare for it. For those of us left behind in its wake, it is tragic. It’s loss. But every living thing does it. Our very human response is to attempt to make sense of it, to make it okay. And we do this in a very human way. Storytelling. Matthew Dow Smith’s The Phantom Isle, tale three of four in Archaia’s Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Witches series, is a story about stories. And life. And death.
After his ship hits a reef off the coast of Ireland, a young sailor by profession, storyteller by passion, washes up on a mysterious island, “where no island should be.” Tir na nOg. Those familiar with Irish mythology will quickly recognize a re-imagining of the tale of Oisin in Tir na nOg. In Smith’s story, the island is not the Land of Youth of lore, but decrepit and mostly deserted, save for a council of ancient witches and one young witch. The sailor is their savior, for the island thrives on imagination. With his stories, he revives the island back to its former glory. In exchange, the witches grant him immortality. But the story cannot end happily here, can it? For immortality is contrary to nature, both human and physical.
Smith’s illustrations, simple, yet skillful, and a muted color palette, pair nicely with our narrator’s evocative yarn. Misty old Ireland is given proper treatment here – and barely a hint of green.
With its mythical and magical elements, The Phantom Isle reaches for its readers’ essential, primeval places. Ideally, it should be read seaside, by a window, a storm raging outside and fireplace blazing in.