Anatole France won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921; the award committee, maybe taking a cue from his surname, lauded his “true Gallic temperament.” And there is no denying it: France was French. His celebrated temperament is maybe most visible in Penguin Island, his 1908 novel, which boasts one of the most singular premises in all of fiction. Pitched as a satirical history, it tells the story of Penguinia, an island civilization whose trajectory through the centuries is more or less the same as that of the real France. The difference is that this island is peopled by penguins.
You see, at the novel’s start, a deaf monk with bad eyesight sets sail alone, only to make landfall at Penguinia by mistake. After wandering around for a bit, he apprehends, with his blurry vision, a group of vaguely bipedal creatures that he believes to be pagans; they don’t seem to be afraid of him, and he can’t hear them. So he does what any self-respecting monk would do and baptizes them on the spot, one by one, for three days straight. Well. Big mistake, monk! Those aren’t people. They’re penguins.
This puts God in a real bind, since only humans are supposed to be baptized. In His infinite wisdom, He decides it’s probably best just to turn the penguins into humanoid creatures with a few slightly ornithological features leftover, because why not? So He does that, and then the Penguin People proceed to start their own little society, as is their wont. Penguinia history continues apace.
I won’t spoil the rest for you, mainly because I haven’t read it.
But you can read Penguin Island in English thanks to the efforts of A. W. Evans; one of its earliest English-language editions also features lavish illustrations by Frank C. Papé. Here’s the baptism scene, in all its perfect strangeness:
The holy man had gone almost entirely round the island without meeting any inhabitants, when he came to a vast amphitheatre formed of black and red rocks whose summits became tinged with blue as they rose towards the clouds, and they were filled with sonorous cascades.
The reflection from the polar ice had hurt the old man’s eyes, but a feeble gleam of light still shone through his swollen eyelids. He distinguished animated forms which filled the rocks, in stages, like a crowd of men on the tiers of an amphitheatre. And at the same time, his ears, deafened by the continual noises of the sea, heard a feeble sound of voices. Thinking that what he saw were men living under the natural law, and that the Lord had sent him to teach them the Divine law, he preached the gospel to them.
Mounted on a lofty stone in the midst of the wild circus:
“Inhabitants of this island,” said he, “although you be of small stature, you look less like a band of fishermen and mariners than like the senate of a judicious republic. By your gravity, your silence, your tranquil deportment, you form on this wild rock an assembly comparable to the Conscript Fathers at Rome deliberating in the temple of Victory, or rather, to the philosophers of Athens disputing on the benches of the Areopagus. Doubtless you possess neither their science nor their genius, but perhaps in the sight of God you are their superiors. I believe that you are simple and good. As I went round your island I saw no image of murder, no sign of carnage, no enemies’ heads or scalps hung from a lofty pole or nailed to the doors of your villages. You appear to me to have no arts and not to work in metals. But your hearts are pure and your hands are innocent, and the truth will easily enter into your souls.”
Now what he had taken for men of small stature but of grave bearing were penguins whom the spring had gathered together, and who were ranged in couples on the natural steps of the rock, erect in the majesty of their large white bellies. From moment to moment they moved their winglets like arms, and uttered peaceful cries. They did not fear men, for they did not know them, and had never received any harm from them; and there was in the monk a certain gentleness that reassured the most timid animals and that pleased these penguins extremely. With a friendly curiosity they turned towards him their little round eyes lengthened in front by a white oval spot that gave something odd and human to their appearance.
Touched by their attention, the holy man taught them the Gospel.
“Inhabitants of this island, the earthly day that has just risen over your rocks is the image of the heavenly day that rises in your souls. For I bring you the inner light; I bring you the light and heat of the soul. Just as the sun melts the ice of your mountains so Jesus Christ will melt the ice of your hearts.”
Thus the old man spoke. As everywhere throughout nature voice calls to voice, as all which breathes in the light of day loves alternate strains, these penguins answered the old man by the sounds of their throats. And their voices were soft, for it was the season of their loves.
The holy man, persuaded that they belonged to some idolatrous people and that in their own language they gave adherence to the Christian faith, invited them to receive baptism.
“I think,” said he to them, “that you bathe often, for all the hollows of the rocks are full of pure water, and as I came to your assembly I saw several of you plunging into these natural baths. Now purity of body is the image of spiritual purity.”
And he taught them the origin, the nature, and the effects of baptism.
“Baptism,” said he to them, “is Adoption, New Birth, Regeneration, Illumination.”
And he explained each of these points to them in succession.
Then, having previously blessed the water that fell from the cascades and recited the exorcisms, he baptized those whom he had just taught, pouring on each of their heads a drop of pure water and pronouncing the sacred words.
And thus for three days and three nights he baptized the birds.