Last week, I promised a little more about the value of the adventure as a narrative. Adventure is an ancient genre, a story-telling style that has existed since long before pen was put to paper, or chisel to stone. Why has this type of story persisted, even through the twentieth century when traditional tales were so strongly challenged? What does adventure offer the listener or reader?
- First, there’s the narrative cohesion of an adventure story. In general, adventures follow the pattern of this happened, and then this, and then this…Of course, the straight sequence is interrupted frequently with danger. Typically, the adventurer went on a journey – but, oh no! the sky fell down – then the dragon put the sky back, so it was ok, and the journey continued – but oh no! the dragon decided to eat the adventurer – then a magical bird flew at the dragon, so it was ok, and the journey continued – but oh no! a hunter’s arrow struck the magical bird – then the bird turned into a dragon and rescued the adventurer from the hunter, so it was ok, and the journey continued … And so on. There are many ancient examples, and plenty of modern ones. Think of Andy Weir’s The Martian, where Mark Watney regularly evades death with wit and sass, and a sprinkling of stretched science. We all love the adventure narrative, and recognise it from many of our culturally-loved stories, from Robin Hood to Indiana Jones to James Bond to Harry Potter and beyond (yes, notice that the adventurer is traditionally male). The examples are truly countless. We love a story that goes: first this, then that, then this, then that… I contend that one of the interesting and maybe difficult aspects of GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones series is that, even though he uses the adventure structure, he regularly subverts the adventurer story with random deaths. Otherwise Ned Stark would still be alive in Book 2.
- So, we ask, its structural predictability is the only reason adventure remains so popular? No. The second, and perhaps more fundamental reason, is that adventure stories affirm life. The hero continues to expose him (or her)self to risk, and in general, overcomes the great adversary – Death – by courage or wit or skill or magical/divine assistance. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum explained that, in classical Greek literature (think those enduring adventures, The Iliad and The Odyssey), the very fact that human life is fragile makes it beautiful and beloved of the gods, whose immortality seems coarse by comparison. This is a concept that recurs in some modern fantasy stories, for example the excellent Folk of the Air series by Holly Black, where mortals live in the timeless courts of faerie.
- The third reason that adventure (in its many incarnations across genres) remains popular is that such stories indicate that humans can do something: they can take action which brings about a real effect in the physical world. Such reassurance is welcome in dark times, when people may feel that they are helpless against larger forces. This has always been true. Classical adventure contended that action can stave off Death many times before the inevitable end. With the rise of the novel, not only death but all manner of enemies could be defeated time and time again – fires and floods, plagues and poverty, assassins, ghouls, organised crime, unjust political systems…
Arguably, the Great War marked a turning point in our reception of the adventurer as a hero in high literature. Demonstrably, courage was seen to have no power over death (this has always been the case, but somehow centuries of readers missed this in The Iliad and its like). More introspective, thoughtful stories appeared, where the struggle involved inner demons and existential or even nihilistic considerations. Adventure stories, once the heart of classical culture, were consigned to popular fiction – genre fiction – rather than high literature. That fits with the notion that ‘science fiction’ and its brethren are ‘lowbrow’ and of lesser value than post-modern novels of introspection.
I disagree. I think all stories have their place, their function, their readers. There is no single right way. Adventure continues as a mainstay of storytelling, its traditional male hero now, thankfully, often reinvigorated with heroes of various genders, ethnicities, backgrounds, abilities, species, and intergalactic origins.
I love it.