In Defense of the Adventure Novel


The works of Robert Louis Stevenson or Rider Haggard are not to be considered tales for boys.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s early edition of Treasure Island. Engraving. (Culture Club/Getty Images)

Before there were Caitlyn Jenners, Rachel Levine, and Lia Thomas there was Ernest Hemingway.

Papa was an American icon in his lifetime. He was a soldier in World War I, but not really. Deep-sea fishing was his passion in the Caribbean, and big-game hunting was his main focus in Africa. He was a beggar on all continents, except Antarctica. Castro moved to Cuba, where he smoked cigars. He also enjoyed boxing and drinking.

In July of 1961, Papa curled his big toe around the trigger of a shotgun. People might not have believed it to be appropriate, but they were not out of character. Hemingway lived his life on his terms.

Then, in 1986, a new posthumous novel appeared. The book is called The Garden of Eden ,, and it’s quite shocking. David Bourne, an American writer, is on honeymoon in France with Catherine, his wife. Soon after her arrival, Catherine cut her hair short and made it blonde. Catherine begs her husband to not call Catherine a girl. She convinces her husband to do the same thing with his hair. She sighs, “You’re changing.” You are. Yes, you are. You are.

It’s not surprising to learn that Hemingway, his wife Mary got the same haircuts and had bleach done. Ernest called her Pete, she called him Catherine.

Was Hemingway transgendered? Most likely not, at least not in modern times. He was probably succumbing late-stage debauchery. He suffered from two deadly flaws, sensualism as well as egotism. His obsession with his stimulation and himself was what drove him insane. He eventually turned to crossdressing as a way of getting his joy. Was there anything else?

Seedy Nihilism describes the general mood in modern literature. Why? Why? Of course, the self-deprecating, anxious literati. The cost of new books is often too high for most people. It’s impossible to relate with normal people and their experiences.

What’s a common man to do? What can an ordinary bibliophile do without getting sucked into the trappings of the decadent elite? He should start with an adventure novel.

Once upon a time great authors were beloved by their countrymen. They didn’t write 250 pages about drinking gin while a swarthy Italian sleeps with your wife. They spoke about Indian bandits, Scottish rebels and Barbary pirates. Their stories were filled with beautiful descriptions of distant lands. They had plenty of action, but not gratuitous violence. In their own ways, they were thoughtful and even philosophical. Their worldview, however, was essentially the same as that of their readers. It wasn’t their responsibility to inform or shock the public. They were the public. These were citizens-authors. And the fact that their books have vanished in favor of pompous trash like Ulysses or Sons and Lovers is a crying shame.

Every adventure novel is a blood descendant of Robinson Crusoe (1719). Daniel Defoe was a religious fanatic. He was a Presbyterian child who became entangled in the religious debates that followed the Glorious Revolution. In 1702 he published an anonymous essay called The Shortest Way with the Dissenters. He posed as an Anglican leader and argued for the extermination of radical Protestants. The shortest way captured briefly the attention of Anglican leaders until it was revealed that its authorship had been lost. Defoe was sentenced to prison primarily for embarrassing the elites. He was also sentenced to three consecutive days in prison.

He turned his humiliation into victory. His supporters rallied around him, reciting a long poem he’d written for the occasion called Hymn to the Pillory. It starts

Sometimes the air of scandal to maintain,
Villains look from thy lofty loops in vain;
But who can judge of crimes by punishment,
Where parties rule, and law’s subservient?

Defoe wasn’t pelted with rotten produce as is customary. Instead, he was sprinkled by fresh flowers. He worked as a propagandist for Whig governments and occasionally as a spy after his release. Defoe began writing prose fiction when he was almost sixty. His masterpiece, Robinson Crusoe . was his first novel.

The beginning and end tell the story of an adventurer who is looking for excitement. After being shipwrecked, he is enslaved and raped by Moors. He escapes the slavery by sailing along the African coast with an Arab slave boy named Xury. A Portuguese ship rescues him and he sells Xury into slavery. But it’s okay. Xury did not mind. Robinson explained that he was reluctant to give up the liberty of the boy who helped me so loyally get my freedom. Robinson used the money to purchase a Brazilian plantation before embarking on another journey. Robinson is shipwrecked once more, but this time on an island in the tropical region. This is the start.

In the final moments, Robinson discovers that Carib tribesmen are visiting the island for a cannibal feast. Robinson saves one Carib from being eaten and the Carib man pledges his loyalty to Robinson. Robinson calls him “my man Friday” when he sees an English captain who is being held captive by mutineers. Friday and Robinson help the captain reclaim his vessel. Robinson and Friday are rescued by the grateful captain and taken to Europe. Robinson and Friday then fight off Pyrenean wolves on their return to England.

But this makes up only one-fifth the book. Robinson lived for about 28 years, but the middle section is not as action-packed. Robinson recounts in detail his attempts to survive on the island.

In the age of Amazon Prime this part of the novel may seem a bit boring. It’s not what he did to build his roundhouse or grow a cornfield from the few kernels that he discovered amongst the flotsam. But to readers in the 18th century, it was part of the excitement. Perhaps their attention spans are longer. Perhaps they had more experience working with their hands. Robinson Crusoe was a huge success, selling four copies in its first year. It remained a staple of the common man’s library well into the 20th century.

The book also contains a lot of information. Defoe is not shy about his faith views. Robinson is known for spending a lot of his time beating himself up and weeping about his past sins. He also converted Friday to Christianity. Robinson questions Robinson about his plans for his tribe if he goes back to it. “Would your man eat flesh of men again and become as wild as before ?”–?” The Carib replies that he would.

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Defoe was not without his imitators. The genre is called “Robinsonade” The Swiss Family Robinson is probably the most well-known. New generations of authors took the adventure story and made it theirs. Jules Verne is undoubtedly the most prominent.

Verne has two types of novels. These novels mimic the Robinson Crusoe and capture the public’s fascination with engineering and science. Most prominent among these is Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870). The novel can seem a bit strange to those who have only seen Kirk Douglas’ excellent movie. The majority of the book is dedicated to thoughts on nautical engineering. Captain Nemo describes how he gets everything from the sea. He also uses nicotinic saltwaterweed to replace tobacco.

For modern viewers, Twenty thousand Leagues can feel a little Epcotish. So can its sequel, The Mysterious Island (1874). But to Verne’s contemporaries electric-powered submarines weren’t more possible than hovercars. Verne’s books were devoured by millions of people, including children and women. His strange technology was a topic of conversation for them, much like sci-fi geeks debate whether Qui-Gon Jinn’s lightsaber can really melt through the blast doors in The Phantom Menace . Verne today is considered the father of science-fiction.

But, for people who don’t get the Nemo stories well enough, Verne has many novels with heavy action but light gadgets. Around the World . is the best. The film stars Phileas Fogg a British aristocrat whose name is something only a Frenchman could imagine. Fogg is quiet and has precise habits. Once he had to fire a valet when the water for morning shaving was five degrees cooler than he wanted.

One evening, while playing whist at the club, his friend reads an article in the Daily Telegraph calculating that it would take no fewer than eighty days to circumnavigate the globe. Fogg, a shrewd gambler who is worth twenty thousand pounds (rough PS2 million) believes he will be able to complete the task in just eighty days. The friends of Fogg are thrilled. His friend shouts, “Twenty thousand Pounds!”

” The unforeseen doesn’t exist,” Fogg responds coolly.

Along the way Fogg and Passepartout ride elephants through India. A banana is a bizarre fruit that they eat (“as nutritious as bread, and as delicious as cream”) A beautiful widow is saved from the flames by Juggernaut devotees in an suttee ritual. A British officer named Fix chases them across the Pacific, wrongly believing Fogg to be a bank robber.

Eventually Passepartout & Fix get into a fight. It’s my opinion, the greatest fight scene in literature.

Passepartout made an abrupt rush for Fix and grabbed him by his throat. This amusing group of Americans then began to wager on Fix. They gave the detective a perfectly volley, which demonstrated the superiority of French pugilistic skills over English.

After Passepartout was done, Fix felt relieved and comforted. Fix stood in an awkward state and looked at Passepartout. He said to him, “Have I done ?”


” For this time,–yes .”

Crossing America, Fogg faces an American colonel in dueling on a train. After the conductor has left the car, the Sioux attack the train and force it to stop. The ending is not spoiler-free, but I will say this: there aren’t any hot-air balloons. For that, you might try Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), though Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) is much better.

Verne’s most renowned disciple is without doubt Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His novella The Lost World (1912) is closely modeled on Verne’s Journey. Some of the Sherlock Holmes stories from later times have strong science fictional elements. There’s “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” (1923), where an elderly professor tries to restore his sexual potency by injecting himself with a serum made from monkey glands, transforming himself into an apelike monster. This is not his finest work.

The adventure novel and science-fiction have largely been separated since Conan Doyle’s time. Robert Louis Stevenson is the most popular advocate of pure and unadulterated adventure novels.

Stevenson’s best-known adventure tale is Treasure Island (1883), a picturesque story of pirates and castaways. This book is called a boy’s book. It does not contain any cuckoldry, existentialism or cuckoldry. It’s full of love, murder and greed. Hawkins, a young master, shoots a pirate from point-blank range, then watches as his body sinks into the shallow sea. There are no transvestites.

If anyone makes light of Stevenson’s genius, point them to Ransome, the cabin boy from Kidnapped (1886). The boy has been at sea since he was nine, working on the Covenant. The boy has been aboard that wicked ship so many years, he doesn’t even remember how old he actually is. David Balfour (narrator) recounts the story of how Hoseason, his evil captain, made him a hero.

Ransome dies in drunken rage at the hands of his first mate Mr. Shaun. It is the most tragic death in literature. It looked at it as if it were waxy, with a terrible smile.”

Later there is a mutiny aboard. Balfour says that Mr. Shaun has been stabbed in his chest using a sword and that he “passed where he dared not go .”

An element that Verne overlooks, but Stevenson puts at the core of his novels is the high moralism. Treasure Island and Kidnapped, like Robinson Crusoe, are about the triumph of good over evil. In the end, honorable and upright people always win. Cowards and murderers always receive their just desserts.

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Both Defoe, and Stevenson found the most prevalent source of corruption in the docks. Robinson, who is terrified of drowning in the storm when he sets out on his first voyage at sea, begs God for mercy. Robinson is ridiculed by his friends, who encourage him to drink alcohol in order to drown his fear. They do exactly that: “We went to the old way all sailors go; I got the punch, and was made into a drunken man. In that night of wickedness all my regrets, all my thoughts upon past behavior, all my plans for the future, and all my hopes and dreams were drowned.”

This is the way Ransome got into an alcohol addiction at the age of ten. Balfour recounts the absurdities that Ransome’s cabin-boy mates told him. He was told that dry land was “a place where young men were subjected to a form of slavery known as a trade” and that apprentices were constantly lashed and put into filthy prisons. In a town, he thought every second person a decoy, and every third house a place in which seamen would be drugged and murdered.” All the better to keep him on the Covenant so he could be drugged and murdered by Mr. Shaun.

Henry James believed that Stevenson was an artist “achieved even to sophistication, with whose constant theme was the unsophisticated.” However, the book’s popularity isn’t a sign of its true populist status. The heroes of the book are not ordinary men, but natural aristocrats. Their quick thinking and solid morals allow them to go on great adventures that were unimaginable for their peers. They often end up with a large sum of money.

The reactionary romanticism of the Stevenson generation was also adopted by adventure writers. Robert Louis clearly loved the Jacobites. Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda (1894) is set in Ruritania, a fictional kingdom with a Central European feel: highly cultured, Roman Catholic, and largely untouched by the Industrial Revolution. These two themes focus on monarchy and courtly love. Michael, Duke of Strelsau is not only a usurper, but also a bounder. Rudolph and the King of Ruritania, his American cousin, are both good Christian gentlemen. Rudolph says, “I can thank God that I love the noblest woman in the world, most gracious, and beautiful and that nothing in my love made her fail in her high-duty .”


Meanwhile, Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) is a variation on the theme by Edmund Burke. We also find noble aristocrats being persecuted and beaten by jealous commoners. These opening lines may have been lifted from L’Action Francaise:

A gang of seething, murmuring beings who are only human in name. They seem to be savage, possessed by evil passions, lust for revenge and hatred, and they can even roar. . . The guillotine was busy for the majority of the day: France’s past boasts of old names and blue blood had taken a toll on her need for freedom and fraternity.

We then follow the Pimpernel, who slips through Paris in the dark and whisks aristocrats to England.

After the romantic phase, comes the imperialist. As the United Kingdom becomes more and more invested in its colonies–particularly those in Asia and Africa–the public’s imagination is drawn eastward. British writers respond by setting their stories within these far-flung kingdoms.

Rudyard Kipling is the poet laureate for empire. His novel Kim (1901) is the first adventure novel since Robinson Crusoe to be considered a great work of literature. Modern Library named it one of the 100 Best Novels. These categories may be absurd, but it’s not hard to see why Kim is a great piece of writing. Anglo-Irish merchant named after him wanders across India along with a Tibetan lama, before becoming involved in The Great Game: Russia and England’s struggle for the control of India.

Kipling’s knowledge of Indian geography, culture, and politics make Kim one of the most colorful adventure novels. The indigenous characters in the novel aren’t stereotypes, unlike poor Xury or Friday. It assumes that the reader is familiar with pre-war Anglo–Russian relations. This is its only fault. As the children say, it hasn’t aged well. It’s sad. An earlier short story, “The Man Who Would Be King” (1888), has fared better in that respect, though it isn’t nearly as sumptuous as Kim.

But H. Rider Haggard is undoubtedly the most important. Rider Haggard was a rare author: an adventurer and a stylist of high quality. Really, it’s amazing that Hemingway could have embraced his persona, knowing that Allan Quartermain–the narrator-hero of Rider Haggard’s masterpiece, King Solomon’s Mines (1885)–was at large in the literary world. Quartermain admits to being a shy man on page 1. “I don’t like violence and I’m pretty sick of adventure.”

I’m not sure why this book is being written.

This beauty is Quartermain. He has been an elephant hunter for twenty-five year in Africa. The average life expectancy of men working in this field is five years. Although he doesn’t enjoy his job, he is skilled at the task and has a son in England that he must support. He is a fighter for men who are nothing more than foreigners. He still considers himself a coward despite all this.

In Quartermain’s novel, he and his three friends traverse a desert to find a series of mountain ranges that are believed to hold the legendary mines of King Solomon. They find the great civilization in the valley below once they have passed the mountain range. They must battle Twala the evil king and his vizir. The vizir is a witch and a hag named Gagool. Quartermain describes her as a “wizened monkeylike figure”, who crawls on all fours. Her face is amazing! And her face!

Quartermain discovers that Twala has become an unsuspecting king. They must therefore help Twala, the legitimate king, to build an army and take his throne. Quartermain watches his troops as they prepare to fight in the last battle:

My mind’s eye singled out those who were sealed to slaughter, and there rushed in upon my heart a great sense of the mystery of human life, and an overwhelming sorrow at its futility and sadness. These thousands of people slept well last night, but tomorrow they and others would feel stiffening from the cold. Their wives and children would become widows and their places would no longer know them. . .

Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable elements of individual life, which having once been, can never die, though they blend and change, and change again for ever.

Quartermain does not consider himself a Stoic. We admire Quartermain, even though he protests. He wouldn’t have the courage to be indifferent to his life. He was able to kill without any hesitation. Without a second thought, he could even sacrifice his own life. He is instead deeply affected by each death, including the one where a servant boy is killed by an elephant and the one that afflicts Gagool.

Richard Hannay is the only hero who can rival Quartermain. John Buchan is his creator. He is almost as important to spy fiction than Jules Verne to science-fiction.

Buchan used to joke that his characters had the “chance of getting out of difficult places.” This is true. It’s not always a great story-telling skill. His most famous book, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), doesn’t quite work, exactly because it all comes just a little too easy for Hannay. Why don’t the Germans wait for him in his apartment, after they have stabbed Scudder? They should also search the dovecote. How did they plan to use the Alloa fake?

The second Hannay novel, is perhaps the most important. Greenmantle (1916) is a brilliant yarn about German occultism and radical Islam. Hannay is a spy who sneaks into Ottoman Turkey during World War I to find a prophet. He seeks out a leader that will rally all Muslims in an jihad against the Allies.

While reading it, you can’t help but think of James Bond as Hannay. He is self-effacing and pleasantly confident, particularly when it comes down to sex. “Women never came much my way and I knew as many of their ways about Chinese languages as I did the Chinese language.”) He is also keen to find the best in others. He is impressed by the courage and strength of Stumm the German sadist who pursues him through the story. The Kaiser is a stranger he meets at the train station. He leaves feeling sorry for the old man. He reflects, “I wouldn’t have been in his shoes to win the throne”

Hannay also regrets each foe’s death. Buchan is known for his high regard for his characters and even his villains. This theme runs throughout his work.

Hannay states that “to be able and to show mercy” are the two best qualities for man.

Richard Hannay is a man who loves life. He’s like Phileas Fogg and David Balfour. He says, “I think it’s not the men who are most successful and have the most fun with the world that fear the most to die.” It is those with weak engineered souls, who wander about in dull eyes and cling the most to their lives. They don’t have the joy of living, which is a type of earnest of immortality.” I prefer Hannay’s more than Quartermains.

The greatest adventure novel of them all is James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933). It’s objectively the best novel written in English. The book is flawless. It is flawless in its pace. Perfectly achieved is the willing suspension of disbelief. These descriptions are beautiful without being overdone. The perfect blend of English charm with oriental mystique is achieved. As much for the readers as it is the characters, the suspense builds slowly and silently. Their fear, suspicion and claustrophobia are all shared by us.

Who can forget the first sight of Shangri-La for him?

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A group of colorful pavilions held onto the mountainside without the grim determination of a Rhineland Castle, but with the delicacy and chance of flowers petals impaled on a crag. The result was stunning and beautiful. It was a powerful emotion that carried the eye up from the milk-blue roofs above to the grey rock bastion, as impressive as the Wetterhorn over Grindelwald. The snowy slopes of Karakal were visible beyond, as a magnificent pyramid. Conway believed it might be the most frightening mountainscape on the planet. He imagined that the enormous stress from snow and glacier would have made the rock act as a huge retaining wall. Perhaps one day, Karakal’s snow-covered splendor will fall into the valley and the mountain itself will split.

And who is to say that Conway would be able to find the strength and courage in his position to leave the Valley of the Blue Moon if it was him?

” I confess that I love a good story, Hilton wrote once. Hilton once wrote, “I believe people like stories and I believe romantic and adventure stories will keep their popularity because, despite all its drawbacks. Poor Hemingway was a lover of romance but had an adventurous sense of adventure.” Hemingway’s colleagues had both. Hiltonism is still the most controversial literary tactic. His philosophy is a common one. But it’s not new. This goes at least back to Robinson Crusoe . Hiltonism’s tenets are simple: have fun and be kind. We hope to see them again.

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