The Call to Adventure

by Garret Johnson

call to adventureHolidays 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.”

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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…

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