It's twenty years after the magician and rightful Duke of Milan Prospero and his daughter Miranda have returned to Italy from the island they had been living on for a couple of years. Miranda is now queen of Naples and the mother of three children. The creature Caliban has managed to leave the island and has come to Naples to take revenge for the treatment Miranda and her father have given him back then. Prospero has already died a natural death, so Caliban visits Miranda in her bedroom in the castle. He tells her he has come to kill her, but first she has to listen to his story.
And his story is a tragic one - from his birth up until that moment. His mother was a supposed witch. The people from her village had sent her out to the sea, pregnant and with a cut-off tongue, but instead of drowning, she landed on an island. Caliban was born on this island and therefore never had the chance to meet other humans. His mother was his everything, his God; he feared and loved her at the same time. He was still a boy when she died, and he was all alone with his island. He had never learned to speak, as his mother could only produce some grunts with her handicap. Language is a very important theme in the story - things were just things in Caliban's world, he knew what they were for, and it was good that way. He didn't have a name, but he didn't need one to know that he existed. He was there, on his island, and knew how to survive.
Some years after, the banished ruler of Milan Prospero and his little daughter Miranda land on Caliban's island. They had come there after Prospero was overthrown by his brother and exiled from the city. Prospero manages to attract Caliban, who is anxious but also curious, and very eager to connect to other people again; to have a family. It is Prospero who teaches him words. This might be the thing Caliban hates Prospero the most for, since with those words came the lies. The newcomer behaves like he is the ruler of the island now, and Caliban is inferior to him. This is something Caliban can't really understand - wasn't he born on this Island, and hadn't he always lived here on his own? - but he doesn't revolt out of respect for Prospero, and of hope that Prospero will recognize him as a son. Prospero teaches the wild creature a lot about science and culture, and finally gives him a name. He is called Caliban because Prospero had told his daughter the creature is a cannibal, and Miranda could not pronounce it correctly. Caliban strongly hopes and works for their recognition, but it turns out Prospero only wants to use him as a slave. Caliban stays a wild animal and his eyes. The bitter feelings Caliban has are heartbreaking. Caliban loves the beautiful Miranda, but she has learned to see him as an animal, not as a man. Nevertheless, she has always treated him as a friend, but when he touches her once, just because he longed to be close to her, she tells her father. Prospero gets furious and beats Caliban, who didn't even know that he had done something wrong, until he is crippled. Caliban doesn't manage to get away from his master, however, and he would stay their slave until they are finally saved from the Island. When they set sail to Italy again, they leave him behind. And to top all of their actions, they act as if they would do something good to him by doing that.
His peace was never to return. He had learned that there were creatures that were better than him (at least they think so), that he was just an animal with barely a right to exist. How could he ever love himself again? He was abused both physically and mentally, betrayed and left behind.
After finishing his story, Caliban is ready to strangle Miranda, but her daughter, who has overheard everything he had told her mother, jumps in between. She promises to go with him if he would keep her mother alive, for she has heard the story, and believes Caliban is not the monster her mother and grandfather believed him to be. They leave to live on the island again, where some of Caliban's pride can hopefully return to him.
I love the emotional load this story had. Caliban's sad bitterness comes to life so well on the pages. It's an important message Tad Williams is bringing here. It's exactly how the 'wilds' were treated by the European travellers who came to America and felt superior to everyone who was living there. But it most of all is a tragic story of longing for love and recognition and of the disappointment and loneliness that follows.
By the way, the person who called the book 'Die Insel des Magiers' ('The magician's island) In German clearly hasn't got the message.