Ian McGuire's The North Water is a dark, brilliant, old-fashioned yarn set on a 19th-century Yorkshire whaler in the dead of winter. McGuire picks 10 of his favorite adventure books.
Adventure, to put it simply, is the movement from safety to danger then back again. In the classic adventure story the adventurer leaves home, encounters great hazards, risks horrible death and then eventually returns wiser and/or richer than he (and it almost always is a he) was before. This basic structure is circular and mythic—think Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, the Grimm brothers—but the specific contents of any actual adventure story vary a good deal depending on when it was written, who wrote it, and why. What exactly counts as safety? What counts as danger? What kind of booty is it best to bring back anyway—gold? diamonds? self-knowledge? despair? Drawing up this list, which contains four British novels and five American novels and one work which (perhaps I should apologize in advance) isn’t actually a novel at all, I was struck by how often the British adventure novel is a novel about empire and about the risks and rewards of imperialism, and how often the American adventure novel is about nature, individualism and the risks and rewards of living with other people. That’s predictable enough perhaps, given the differing histories and cultures, but it’s also interesting to note the way that, in the American novels particularly, the final mythic turn, the movement back towards home, is often resisted or sabotaged in some way – as if after experiencing a true and deep adventure the old ways of thinking and living are no longer possible.
1. The Odyssey
I could start this list with Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe or possibly Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, but The Odyssey, although it’s an epic poem rather than a novel of course, strikes me as the most fitting way to begin. As an archetype of the adventurer, Odysseus is hard to beat, and his adventures–like all the best adventures–are both literally thrilling, and metaphorically and symbolically full of implication.
2. Gulliver's Travels
The adventure novel as social satire. Swift uses the inherited tropes and conventions of the contemporary travel narrative to mock religion, politics, science and human nature in general. Gulliver’s inner journey is from optimism to embittered misanthropy—the more adventures he has the less sanguine he becomes.
Melville started off writing more straightforward adventure novels set in exotic South Sea locations and featuring alluring and dangerous natives, but then he wrote Moby-Dick, which was much more brilliant and original and much less commercially successful. The basic framework of the adventure novel is still there, but for most of the novel the hazards Ishmael wrestles with are philosophical rather than physical.
4. Treasure Island
What better reason could there be for an adventure than the search for buried treasure? All the clichés are here—the treasure map (X marks the spot), the one-legged pirate, the plucky cabin boy, the talking parrot—but they only feel like clichés to us now because Stevenson’s novel, so new and original at the time, has driven them so deep into our collective unconscious. Pirate stories have a special and privileged place in adventure fiction and Treasure Island is a pure and unmatched example of the genre.
5. King Solomon's Mines
This is a wonderfully strange book. It reads like an extended, imperialistic fairy tale. Three Englishmen (one an over-sized aristocrat) go in search of the legendary mines with the help of an ancient map drawn in blood. They come across a lost kingdom, participate heroically in a brief and extraordinarily bloody civil war, then discover a hoard of untold riches in a hidden cave. It’s eye-poppingly racist at times, and if you’re wondering where Indiana Jones really came from most of the answers are here.
6. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
In most adventure stories the land represents home, safety and security, and the water represents danger or at least the possibility of danger, but Twain brilliantly inverts those values. In Huckleberry Finn it is the land and all it symbolises which is more dangerous—the shores of the Mississippi are inhabited by slave traders, con men and child murderers—and it’s the raft, precarious and temporary as it is, which represents safety and peace for Huck and Jim.
7. Heart of Darkness
Treasure Island was the defining story of my childhood, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (buttressed by Francis Ford Coppola’s equally brilliant Apocalypse Now) became the Treasure Island of my late adolescence. I was lucky enough to read it in high school and I’ve loved it ever since. In the context of this list, it’s the perfect counterweight to the more imperialistic adventure stories of the late Victorian era. Conrad’s framing device is brilliant, as is Marlow’s first person narration, and, as a vision of what civilised man can become, Kurtz remains extraordinarily prescient.
8. The Call of the Wild
A Darwinian adventure story that is very much of its time. Laid over the more conventional and human gold-rush narrative, is the real story—the story of Buck, the initially domesticated dog, and his reversion to type. There are plenty of rip-roaring adventures along the way, but the novel’s deeper purpose is to illustrate the power of instinct and nature over the forces of culture and civilisation.
9. The Sheltering Sky
I lived in Egypt for several years in my twenties, and when I read this novel shortly afterwards it struck a chord. It’s about the lure of the exotic, and the unappealing realities which ideas of the exotic can conceal. It’s a highly self-conscious, very modern adventure story in that it explores what we might mean by adventure, and asks why the notion of adventure is so appealing.
10. The Road
Cormac McCarthy is a hero of mine. Most of his novels are broadly picaresque–the characters travel through a landscape (always described with extraordinary vividness and originality) and have a series of typically violent or frightening encounters with other people. The Road certainly fits that pattern. It’s a grim post-apocalyptic adventure story complete with cannibals and babies on spits. The home is destroyed and the mother is dead well before the novel begins, but there is a definite glimmer of hope at the end when the dying father entrusts his son to a new family.