Critics generally find The Green Isle of the Great Deep inferior to other mystical-political, antitotalitarian parables that appeared in the 1930s and 1940s as hybrids of fantasy and reality. These works include Joseph ONeills Land Under England (1935), Rex Warners The Aerodrome (1941), and Ruthven Todds Over the Mountain (1939). Many readers remain unconvinced of the success of Gunns attempt in his novel to combine elements of Celtic folklore, Christian orthodoxy, and modern managerial society. Moreover, they find strained his use of Arts name to evoke not only Arthurian legend but also the creative powers of art and poetry.
Political allegory admittedly marked a departure for Gunn, who was generally known as a writer of sentimental regional novels of the Highlands. When a friend hinted that the loosely connected tales in Young Art and Old Hector verged on escapism, Gunn responded with The Green Isle of the Great Deep. Ironically, critics tend to consider the early work more profound in its simplicity as well as more successful in its implicit demonstration of values the sequel makes explicit.
Gunns thoughts were clearly focused on the nature of despotic idealism and authoritarianism at the time he wrote The Green Isle of the Great Deep. Given the threat of fascism in the early 1940s, this preoccupation is not surprising. A contemporaneous work, The Serpent (1943; published in the United States as Man Goes Alone, 1944), develops an idea found in Gunn’s “phantasy” (as he calls The Green Isle of the Great Deep in his dedication): the redemption of human nature by the individuals realization of what Gunn terms the “second self.” Explained in his autobiography, the “second self” refers to the inner core of secret reality that makes a human free; it is this second self of Mary, Art, and ultimately Hector that resists the Dostoevskian Questioner.
In taking seriously the threat to freedom of the will from conditioning techniques, The Green Isle of the Great Deep is a forerunner to such novels as Anthony Burgess A Clockwork Orange (1962). As such, it has a certain prophetic value. Although Gunns evocation of dystopia is certainly less compelling than Burgess, or of Aldous Huxleys in Brave New World (1932) and George Orwells in Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), critics generally credit The Green Isle of the Great Deep as a sincerely felt cautionary tale.