The Call to Adventure
Holidays always feel like a time to read the stuff that’s so fun it seems you shouldn’t be allowed to read it any time else. Books with adventure. The bigger and wilder and less familiar the better. It’s a silly constraint, I think, this feeling that we ought to be reading something else (though I place it on myself all the time). But that’s not exactly my focus here. Not exactly.
I’m interested in the idea of adventure, itself, the curious pull it has. It’s a pull often as strong on its readers as it apparently is on the characters involved in it. I’ve recently been struck by the phenomenon of that peculiar moment in adventure stories when things really gets going, the initial step toward something new. It’s what Joseph Campbell referred to as the “call to adventure,” that moment when the hero first feels some kind of pull toward the unknown.
Here’s a classic example.
In chapter two of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, after Bilbo’s famous and dramatic disappearance, Frodo, the hitherto reluctant hero, “found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams. He began to say to himself: ‘Perhaps I shall cross the River myself one day.’”
And just before things really get cracking in LOTR, we’re told that “Frodo began to feel restless, and the old paths seemed too well-trodden. He looked at maps, and wondered what lay beyond their edges: maps made in the Shire showed mostly white spaces beyond their borders. He took to wandering further afield and more often by himself.”
In Treasure Island, the promise of adventure entices as much by what’s tantalizingly left out as by what’s given: “These gentlemen,” starts the narrator, “having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—, and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow inn, and the brown old seaman, with the saber cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.”
This same quality permeates the beginnings of adventure stories from all ages. A more recent example appears in The Phantom Tollbooth, when Milo comes home from school to find (not surprisingly) a tollbooth, complete with coin slot and sign, in his bedroom, beyond it a road he’d never dreamt of, one that would take him to places he couldn’t have imagined. This is the exact moment the real thrill of the story starts. Coincidentally, that charming and witty tale is in many ways an allegory about acquiring knowledge—a fit subject for the adventure story, as I’ll explain in a minute.
Looking further back, right near the start of Chrétien de Troyes’ twelfth-century Arthurian romance, Yvain, the Knight with the Lion, we see ‘the call’ take this form: “It happened some seven years ago that, as solitary as a country-man, I was travelling in quest of adventures, fully equipped with arms as a knight should be, when on the right hand I found a way leading through a dense forest.”
All these beginnings, and literally countless others, show a recognition in the tellers’ sensibilities of the pull that such story openings have, the power in them to entice, intrigue, get the reader buckled in for a long ride of twists and turns leading to unexpected dangers and treasures. These beginnings excite us. And authors from Homer to Dumas to Tolkien have always known it.
But why do we get excited? What deep-seated impulse makes us sit up a little straighter when we come to that point in a story when adventure calls?
Here’s one possible answer—though I’m really interested in what others might think about this: It seems that this desire to take part in adventure, to find out new things, discover new places, is at its heart a desire for new knowledge.
It’s the thrill of a journey, but more specifically of discovery. A child’s impulse to grab a friend and say, “Let’s go exploring,” Columbus’s impulse to sail, Coronado’s, Magellan’s, and our own generation’s desire to explore the Moon, Mars, the far reaches of space. It all seems connected somehow to this idea of a desire for new—and new kinds of—knowledge.
Also, very interestingly, despite the fact that our favorite adventuring protagonists often don’t seem to have a particular motive, most of us will likely never accuse them of having a bad one, or will think their desire for adventure is somehow wrong. It just simply is, we feel. And it’s natural. We completely understand it. We’re on their side. We’re excited along with them. No author ever has to take pains to justify their hero’s pursuit of adventure, even if the hero has no particular force acting on him other than ‘restlessness.’
So the second fundamental question is: Why are we so quick to accept this impulse in adventuring characters, an impulse that—as it happens—seems wrapped up with the impulse to acquire knowledge?
The answer to this might sound surprising. But hang with me for a sec.
It seems possible—and upon deep reflection, almost probable—that such desires are rooted in an eternal desire for knowing more about God, creator of The Adventure Story, himself. The ineffable, invisible, incomprehensible, but—according to Christian theology at least—indeed knowable.
Whoa, weird connection. Yes. Let me explain.
I’ve often wondered if heaven could be thought of as, in some sense, a kind of eternal journey, an eternal adventure—eternal discovery.
Consider the possibility that, as finite beings made in the image of an infinite God, part of living in eternity with such a God would be continually learning more about him. Imagine regularly acquiring profound, new bits of knowledge that, once learned—like all profound discoveries—prompt a looking back on everything else that came before, prompt a recasting of everything in light of the information just discovered, in light of the new corner just turned.
What more lasting definition of bliss could there be?
This could explain why some characters, who have perfectly stable—often enviable—lives, who aren’t propelled out on their journeys by some tragedy or revenge agenda, still knowingly risk their comfortable, untroubled situations for the sake of adventure. (It would also explain why we still root for them.) They—and we—sense there’s something more ultimate to existence than simply subsisting, or being comfortable, or having all that’s needed and wanted, or even being ‘happy.’ There’s always something more. And the internal pull toward it, we sense, is not a bad thing.
There’s something inherently desirable about gaining new and deeper knowledge of reality. And it doesn’t take much of a leap from that point to recognize that there’s something infinitely desirable about gaining new and deeper knowledge of an infinitely desirable object—all the more so an object you can be in relationship with, a person.
Adventure stories, then, with their promises of seemingly boundless knowledge to be gained at their beginnings, echo the truly boundless knowledge there is to be gained about God. As a corollary to that, this culturally, historically, geographically universal affinity for adventure stories may in fact be a response in image-bearers of an eternal God to that grand Story we all have a sense of being wrapped up in. As Ecclesiastes puts it: He “has set eternity in the hearts of men.”
So I’m curious what others think. Could this be why we love adventure so much?