Books

California’s Island Heritage

CULTURE CLUB/GETTY IMAGES
Historically California was erroneously believed to be an independent island.
First published around 1510, the “Las Sergas de Esplandián,” written by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, imagined an island paradise called “California,” inhabited by Amazonian women. The rather literate Conquistadors used the name to describe the west coast of North America continent.

For almost two centuries, the lands of North, Central and South America, discovered, explored and claimed by Spanish adventurers, were thought to be The Indies. It took time for explorers, their patrons and cartographers to realize the magnitude of their error.  

This extensive period of geographical confusion coincided with a cultural phenomenon in southern Europe, a great rise in popularity of the romance novel. This was not the bodice-ripping sort referred to today, but rather stories of chivalry. Narratives that emerged in medieval times, proclaimed aloud and sung in verse, found their way into printed prose.  

The epics of Charlemagne and the tales of Arthur and his Knights of the Roundtable gave birth to successive versions, tweaked by new authors to go with the times. In the 16th century, as books became more accessible, the 14th century tale of “Amadis of Gaul,” modified and popularized by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, found new readership in Spain. 

 These novels were addictive, as illustrated by Cervantes’ hero Don Quixote with his chivalric-inspired madness. When Don Quixote’s relations stage an inquisitorial intervention to cure him of his fiction-infused insanity, they burn the evil books. The first volume thrown into the fire is the sequel to “Amadis,” “Las Sergas de Esplandián,” famous for its fantastical description of a tribe of ferocious women found on a certain island in The Indies:  

Now I wish you to learn of one of the strangest matters that has ever been found in writing or in the memory of mankind. … Know ye that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very close to the Earthly Paradise, and inhabited by women without a single man among them, for they live almost in the manner of Amazons. They are robust in body with stout, passionate hearts and great strength. The island itself is the most rugged with craggy rocks in the world. Their weapons are all of gold as well as the trappings of the wild beasts which they ride after taming, for there is no other metal on the whole island. 

Stanford University scholar Adrienne Mayor is certain that the Greek myths that spawned numerous Amazon fantasies are based on reality: A group of female warriors who fought on horseback on the steppes of Eurasia at least 1,000 years before the dawn of the Christian Era. By the time they appear in Montalvo’s “Las Sergas de Esplandián,” they have been transformed into man-hating harpies who ride scaly griffins into battle. In his book, they are ruled by a fearsome Queen Califa, who falls madly in love with Esplandián. Her kingdom is an eponymous island found in the Indies — an island whose very name resonates today. 

Such is the power of literature. The romantic tales of chivalry that Cervantes would later satirize so gripped the imagination of their readers that the books would later be (unsuccessfully) banned. Conquistadors and their patrons swallowed whole the myths and legends found in books such as “Las Sergas de Esplandián.”  

With the exception of a native population decimated by foreign settlers, the United States was formed by people who came from somewhere else. Rather than embrace the New World and give themselves over to it, they brought their troubles, prejudices and myths with them. In many ways, the new continent was, as Thomas Pynchon wrote in “Gravity’s Rainbow,” “a gift from the invisible powers, a way of returning. But Europe refused it.”  

Many of the names given to the territories and settlements on the North American continent reflected the namer’s origins: New York, New Jersey, New Mexico. Sometimes the names derive from the overwhelmed native tribes: Alabama, Massachusetts, Manhattan. Occasionally names were chosen in honor of the colonizing founder, or even named for kings, like Louisiana or Georgia.  

The Spanish explorers tended to be literal when assigning names, such as Montana (mountainous), Nevada (snowed upon), Colorado (colored red), or the Rio Grande (big river). Often, they were inspired by their faith, such as Santa Fe, San Francisco or Los Angeles.  

But the chivalric novels of the 16th century also played their part. For on the day in 1539 when the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Ulloa was sailing along the beautiful, golden lands hugging the Pacific coast, imagining he had found Queen Califa’s earthly paradise, her rich and mysterious island filled with female warriors, he called it California. 

DETAILS

Las Sergas de Esplandián
By Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo
116 pages, Doce Calles, $41.99

RECOMMENDATIONS: Best Books About California History 

• “The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon (1966): A must-read California primer filled with equal portions of craziness and insight.

 • “The Day of the Locustby Nathaniel West (1939): A parable about the dark side of the American Dream, last-ditch Hollywood dreamers burning with emotional chaos.

 • “Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (1968): Didion’s interpretations of the Californian urge for Utopia tell you all you need to know about the American West and North American culture.