Of Wonders and Goodly Creatures and the Worlds Where They Are Found

The Planets, Op. 32, H 125 – 1. “Mars, The Bringer Of War”
Gustav Holst

Of Wonders and Goodly Creatures and the Worlds Where They Are Found

Cover Illustration for Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land Cover


Science fiction is a literary genre that has always struggled to earn a bit of respect. I remember reading H. G. Wells and Jules Verne when in High School. I was asked by one of my English teachers why I read such awful stuff, or words to that effect suggesting that science fiction does not qualify as literature. When I suggested that 1984 and Brave New World (books that friends of mine were reading in honors English) were science fiction he said they were too well written to be science fiction. This definition is of course in orbit around itself but it represents a method often used to maintain a pejorative fiction about what is and is not art, literary or otherwise. Science fiction, though, has a long and “storied” history, especially if we, as many bookstores do, identify fantasy as a branch of science fiction.

The music is from Gustav Holst’s suite for orchestra The Planets. At the beginning of Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land Valentine Michael Smith comes to Earth from the planet Mars, where he, though an earthling, was raised by Martians. His representative insists that Mr. Smith be treated as a “head of state”, or the official representative of the Martian Government (read the novel if you want to find out why) and that the Martian national anthem be played when he enters the room. Because Mars does not have an official national anthem it is agreed that the “Mars” section of Holst’s The Planets be played in lieu of a national anthem. The music begins with the soft martial beat of a drum that grows louder as the music proceeds and is joined by the rest of the orchestra suggesting Mars’ affiliation with the god of war. However, Mr. Smith’s first name identifies him with Mars’ wife Venus, the goddess of love. A deliciously ironic touch to a novel about a character from a planet identified with war who argues for the peaceful resolution of conflict.

Cover Illutstration for The Martian Chronicles

This is the front book cover art for the book The Martian Chronicles by the author(s) Ray Bradbury. The book cover art copyright is believed to belong to the publisher, Doubleday or the cover artist.

Ray Bradbury’s book The Martian Chronicles takes a somewhat different view of Mars. The story has less to do with space travel and the colonization of planets than it does with issues of censorship, human kindness (and its absence), and the nature of difference. In one scene a young boy raised on the planet Mars asks his father to describe what Martians look like. The father takes the boy to a riverbank and tells the boy to look into the water. The boy looks into the water and sees his Martian reflection. The boy was after all born on Mars. There is, of course, a Martian culture and an indigenous people. They are never really seen by those from earth, but manifestations of their presence are seen. You will of course have to read the book to discover the actual content of their characters.

Forbidden Planet – The Short Version

The film Forbidden Planet is a science fiction retelling of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The clip above is a significantly abbreviated form of the film and omits all the Shakespearean plot elements, but if viewed in its entirety Morbius’ daughter Altaira bears a striking resemblance to Prospero’s daughter Miranda and many of the same issues arise in the film as are found in Shakespeare’s play. Vladimir Nabokov, one of the 20th century’s more venerated writers, believed that Shakespeare’s play would be classified as science fiction by anyone who took the working definition of science fiction seriously. This is especially true when fantasy fiction is considered a branch of science fiction. Caliban, for example, is not unlike the house elves in the Harry Potter stories and is certainly not treated much better. Prospero is a wizard not unlike Dumbledore in many ways, though with some darker aspects to his personality.

In this weekend’s New York Times Book Review section there is a review of a new book by Marjorie Garber Shakespeare and Modern Culture that addresses other modern elements of Shakespeare’s plays for the modern audience. It does not mention science fiction but points out that the aspect of Shakespeare that transcends time is how he captures the way people think and the consequences of that thinking (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the way we think Shakespeare’s characters think like us and the consequences of that thinking for us). Each culture that reads Shakespeare can find themselves in the plays and interpret those plays in light of its own cultural experience and point of view. Shakespeare is working with the inner life of his characters that often resemble the inner lives of a more modern people. Science fiction, at its best, speculates on the consequences of our thinking for the future.

This sci-fi/fantasy aspect to story telling can be found in the most ancient story telling. Leaving aside myth and mythic elements in the epic literature there is still a wealth of literary examples of the fabulous in literature. Lucian in his “True History” has a sailing ship blown significantly off course by a powerful storm that sends the tiny ship to the moon. The Thousand and One Arabian Nights is full of fabulous creatures and events that would feel right at home in modern stories of fantasy and science fiction. For those that are interested this weekend’s book section of The Guardian has a review of a new translation of The Arabian Nights. One of my favorites comes from Orlando Furioso, an epic poem by the Italian Renaissance writer Ariosto, where one of Orlando’s friends goes to the moon on a flying horse to recover Orlando’s wits (the moon being the final resting place of lost wits). The wits are found on the moon in an appropriately labeled jar and returned to Orlando.

I think the first science fiction story is Gulliver’s third voyage, “The Voyage to Laputa” from Gulliver’s Travels. This observation has been made by others and dismissed by others as well. It is the earliest attempt I have encountered where the author of the story has tried to provide a scientific explanation for how a bit of technological magic works. The Floating Island of Laputa hovers over the surface of the earth. Swift explains the island’s ability to hover, rise, and descend as the result of magnetic forces that have been harnessed by the island’s inhabitants. The plausibility of this explanation could be called into question by scientists, especially scientists today who have, perhaps, a deeper understanding of how magnets work, but for the writer of fiction it is only necessary to produce an explanation with a large enough grain of verisimilitude to give an aura of believability. It is certainly a more scientifically sound explanation than H. G. Wells’ Cavorite, an early relative of Flubber.

Painting of the Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel
Pieter Brueghel the Elder

When in college I took a course through the physics department in science fiction. It was a fascinating course, I thought, and one in which I learned more about physics than from the physics course I was required to take as part of my basic studies requirement. We were given the opportunity to either take an exam or to write a science fiction story. Because I did not want to take a test I wrote a story. There was not much science in it and I don’t believe it received a very good grade but it took as its premise that mathematics constituted a kind of universal language, that equations could be understood by mathematicians in any country no matter what language they spoke at home.

In the story scientists gathered to watch the launch of a spacecraft designed by scientists the world over using the common language of mathematics and universally understood symbols that could be employed on the blueprints and designs of the rocket. It was a parody of sorts of the story of “The Tower of Babel” from the “Old Testament” of The Bible. At the end of the story the space ship is destroyed by a cataclysmic event of divine origins.

Though the story itself was contrived and did little to demonstrate a knowledge of physics it illustrates a role played by science fiction. Both the novel by Heinlein and the novel by Bradbury suggest how science fiction can comment on the possibilities and dangers of the human psyche and of human aspirations. Stranger in a Strange Land, for example, was published at the time of the Vietnam War and was seen, as was another science fiction novel of the time Slaughterhouse Five, to be an attack on that war and the attitudes that set that war in motion. It also addresses other issues of political and religious coercion.

Swift’s satire was an attack on the science of his day. Part of his criticism is aimed at the uselessness of many of the scientific pursuits of his day and is seen by many as the weakest link in the satiric chain. He attacks scientific inquiry where it seems to him to be pointless, serving no practical end. He describes machines that write essays and speculations on the ambiguity of language and how these ambiguities might be resolved. The results of these experiments are silly and justly ridiculed, though others might see these speculations as not being entirely without merit.

Other scientists try to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and food from human excrement. These experiments are shown to be equally ridiculous, but in a time that struggles with renewable sources of energy, there might be some value to figuring out how to get the sunbeams, the solar energy, out of cucumbers and other plants. Swift does not seem to be able to see that what often seems as pointless or useless experimentation does produce very useful products that benefit all mankind. I am typing this on a laptop computer. The technology that produced the laptop computer was initially created to serve the needs of the space program, a program that some people still question the value of funding. Following a question or an idea, though it may not seem to offer much of value initially can lead to other things that may have great worth. That is one of the reasons why it is important to question and to explore.

There is another target of Swift’s satire of science, though, that does resonate to this day and that is the ability of scientists to develop tools and technologies that are used to restrict individual liberties and to intimidate and oppress a people. Some of the tools of this oppression that Swift depicts in the novel are drawn for their comic effect and not intended to be taken very seriously, though the mindset that would devise these technologies is truly troubling and it is this mindset that is the object of the satire. Swift is trying to encourage his readers to consider where things are taking us, whether those things are new technologies or the attitudes we have towards those we find disagreeable.

Science fiction on one hand wants to help us imagine a future and the road that must be traveled to achieve that future. Though, when literature of any kind tries to imagine what the future will look like it often gets as much wrong as it gets right. The communications devices in the film clip, for example, look the way people in the 1950’s thought they would look in the 22nd century, but early in the 21st century we can see that they are already out of date.

On the other hand, science fiction can show us how our social institutions may evolve and how troubling these institutions could become if certain forces within those institutions were allowed to go unchecked. As Swift suggests some of the tools of oppression that might be developed have beneficial applications. It is the benefits of science that are often used to sell the science. It is the unintended consequences that often go ignored. The same technology that lets me talk to my brother in California could be used by a malicious government to listen to those conversations. Of course that same technology can help prevent criminal acts that could result in the deaths of many innocent people.

It may not be possible to escape the technologies we have created, nor may it be desirable. It is important, though, to consider where we are going and the tools and technologies that will take us there. It is perhaps unwise to try to retreat to a pre-technological age, but it is perhaps equally unwise to follow where the technology leads without taking the time to find out where we are going.

More Than Meets the Eye

From Mythodea “Movement 8”

More Than Meets the Eye

Title Page from Poetic Edda

The title page of a manuscript of the Prose Edda, showing Odin, Heimdallr, Sleipnir and other figures from Norse mythology. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript ÍB 299 4to, now in the care of the Icelandic National Library.

Exploring the heavens was something only possible in the imagination up until about fifty years ago. I remember as a boy my father bringing home a telescope and setting it up in the backyard to watch the moon and planets and stars. It wasn’t a powerful telescope but it brought a small corner of space closer to home. The music was composed to celebrate NASA’s 2001 launch of the Mars Odyssey satellite. The satellite orbits Mars and relays to earth transmissions from the various Mars rovers, as well as collects information of its own from the Martian neighborhood. The music celebrates the mythic nature of the expedition that is suggested by the name given by NASA to the mission, Mars Odyssey. I enjoy the serendipitous coincidence that the composer’s middle name, literally, evokes The Odyssey of Homer and the story’s central character (his full name is Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou).

In myth the stars are the home of the gods and ancient cultures identified their images in the shapes formed by stars splashed across the sky. As a teacher of literature I think it is the mythic quality of stories and their characters that gives them their power. The illustration at the top of the page is from The Prose Edda a collection of Old Norse stories and poems that includes The Gylfaginning (The Deluding of Gylfi) a marvelous story that does for Norse mythology what Ovid’s Metamorphosis does for Greek and Roman mythology. The story concerns a Norse king who is tricked by the gods who in the process of tricking him tell him the stories of the Germanic myths. The story begins with Gylfi’s encounter with a man juggling knives (keeping seven in the air at once) in front of house roofed with shields.

Illustration of Gylfi being fooled

King Gylfi gets himself beguiled. From the 18th century Icelandic manuscript SÁM 66 in the care of the Árni Magnússon Institute in Iceland.

The stories Gylfi is told have all the elements that capture our interest in stories to this day, adventure, humor, and a slew of interesting characters with very interesting character flaws. Part of the power of myth is the power of story to capture the imagination while, perhaps, explaining the mysteries of the universe. Gylfi under the guise of trying to get information about the gods and their ways takes on an assumed name. He hopes to con the gods and is perhaps an early example of the flim-flam artist. The gentlemen that delude Gylfi are con men in their own right, which is an interesting commentary on the Norse view of the divine character. In the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn Huck and Jim are bedeviled by a pair of con men that might be Gylfi’s literary descendants. They are Gylfi’s descendants because though successful in deluding others they are themselves successfully deluded by Huck on a few very significant occasions.

J. R. R. Tolkien on the Myths of Middle Earth

This is often how myth works in story telling, by creating archetypes that can be found in the stories told for less ecclesiastical purposes. When J. R. R. Tolkien created his world of Middle Earth for his novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings he created for his characters a whole mythic system that relied to a substantial degree on that of the ancient tribes of Germany and Scandinavia. The name of Gandalf and his horse Shadowfax come from ancient Icelandic stories found in The Poetic Edda.

The journeys of Bilbo in The Hobbit are more like those of the trickster stories, in that, though he is heroic Bilbo is able to succeed by fooling others. He “wins” the ring, for example, by playing a trick on Gollum and by not playing completely by the rules. The Lord of the Rings on the other hand is a heroic quest in the mold of those told in the mythic stories of the classical epics. Jacob Grimm in his book Teutonic Mythologies describes a character called a Hob-wiht that bears certain resemblances to the hobbits of middle earth. Perhaps these creatures described by Grimm suggest the mythic origins of hobbits. Frodo’s journey is mythic in that the outcome of his journey has cosmic consequences. I think this is what raises many stories to levels beyond the quality of the actual writing.

Literary critics are often derogatory in their treatment of the Harry Potter books, claiming J. K. Rawlings is only a mediocre writer. Still, the nature of Harry’s journey captures many elements of the mythic imagination. One of C. S. Lewis’ favorite books was a science fiction story called A Voyage to Arcturus. He said the book was not that well written but its images and motifs were, in his view, very powerful. Ideally a story ought to be well told and the power of its language comparable to the power of the images and emotions it evokes. Perhaps it is only those stories where a powerful narrative is wedded to powerful language that survive the generations for which they were written.

C. S. Lewis’ own books have succeeded in capturing the imagination of readers for many years. A recent study of Lewis’ Narnia books asserts that they have at their heart a medieval cosmology that evokes the stories and myths that are attached to the names of the various gods whose names were given to the medieval planets. Hence the power of the NASA mission to Mars. It evokes the myths of Mars, both those myths told by the Classical Greek and Roman writers but also the myths of Mars as a hostile planet that have become part of the planet’s science fiction persona.

Lewis sets the second novel of his space trilogy Perelandra on the planet of Venus (Perelandra is the name the locals gave to their planet). It is a kind of science fiction retelling of Paradise Lost and the fall of man with the possibility of changing the outcome. On the planet’s surface a new Adam and Eve encounter a different sort of serpent in a different sort of garden. It is also apropos that the story take place on Venus the planet associated with the goddess of love because at the story’s core is a story of love, of the love of the new Adam for the new Eve but also of the divine for the transitory beings that populate the universe.

Postage stamp depicting Ask and Embla

Faroe_stamp_430_The_First_Human_Beings.jpg‎ (244 × 360 pixels, file size: 50 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg)

The characters in the stamp, Ask and Embla, are the Norse Adam and Eve and theirs is the story of the creation, the Norse counterpart to Genesis. This story, as do others like it, defines the world, where the world came from, where the people that populate the world came from. This is what stories and myths often do for us and one reason they resonate with readers. In this sense both Darwin and Genesis tell a mythic story, they try to explain how things began and the implications of those beginnings for the way people live their lives.

To those that live within a certain mythology that mythology offers a rational explanation for how things came to be as they are (which is completely irrational to those that live outside that mythology) and as a result these myths structure their lives. The battle between Creationism and Darwinism (or evolution) is in this sense a mythic battle. The science of the day supports Darwin but the science of Kepler’s day supported a seven planet solar system with an intricate network of crystal spheres and an ambiguous center.

But the core issue is probably not over how the human race came to be but how our daily lives should be led. Each mythic system brings with it not only this explanation for how things came to be but also a moral code that delineates how life ought to be lived. The myths both explain the universe and set forth a code of conduct. The Darwinian code is not so much a set of laws telling people how to live but an explanation of forces that determine who will survive. Science after all does not seek to impose a system of rules but only to understand how the various components of our universe work. But often the way a world is understood to work shapes the behaviors of those that live and work within that world.

Perhaps it is the stories we tell that help us to decide how we ought to live and to treat those with whom we come in contact. The forces at work in the world as explained by modern science do not reward behaviors necessarily but only those who figure out how to successfully manipulate those forces. Science does not make judgments but people do and perhaps the stories we continue to tell help shape the modern myths of our existence and, in the words of Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young give us a code that we can live by.

It’s a Mystery to Me

“Baker Street”
Gerry Rafferty

It’s a Mystery to Me

Picture of Sherlock Holmes
Illustration by Frank Wiles for The Valley of Fear (Color)

When I first heard the song “Baker Street” the first image that came to my mind was of Sherlock Holmes because of his famous address of 221B Baker Street. The song of course has nothing to do with murder, mystery, or with Sherlock Holmes but Baker Street is Baker Street and the name cannot be mentioned without evoking its most famous resident and that resident’s occupation of consulting detective.

The genre in which this fictional detective worked was the murder mystery, though, as in the genre as a whole, not all of Holmes’ cases involved murder. As a genre it involves the solution of a puzzle that involves a crime. One of the more satisfying aspects of the traditional murder mystery is that a world that has been disrupted by a heinous event is put right again; that good triumphs over evil and that the world is ultimately a safe place. There is the tragedy suffered by those related to the crime and its victims but for the world at large there is comfort and the assurance that those that do wrong will be punished and that potential wrong doers see the punishment and are, perhaps, deterred from pursuing their criminal plans.

For Holmes, though, it is the puzzle and not the quest for justice that motivates him. He refuses simple cases and when he does not have a case he often seeks refuge in narcotics. His is an active mind that needs to be stimulated; that without a difficult problem to wrap itself around gets restless. This is another attribute of the traditional murder mystery detective; she or he has some eccentricity that sets the detective apart from others. This may make them aloof like Holmes or perhaps neurotic like a certain television detective.

Clips from episodes of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from PBS

As can be seen from the clips Holmes delights in the intellectual challenge of a difficult problem. He also believes most problems can be solved by careful observation and a study of the people and facts in front of him; that careful observation will reveal the solution to the most enigmatic of mysteries. In Holmes’ view the problem with most people and the reason most people are perplexed is because they do not look. As a teacher I think this is certainly true of the problems most of us face trying to learn something new, that observation and tenacity will usually produce the appropriate form of enlightenment.

Cover of Magazine with Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet

Cover of Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, featuring A. Conan Doyle’s story A Study in Scarlet

The detective story begins many believe with Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Murders of the Rue Morgue, which is why one of the most prestigious awards an American mystery writer can earn is called “The Edgar.” But the mystery story is much older. The plot of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King is at its heart a murder investigation (I think of Oedipus as a quaesitor the a magistrate charged with investigating capital crimes in Ancient Rome). The play is a search for the identity of the murderer of the previous king of Thebes, the king that Oedipus replaced. This king was murdered and his death was never investigated. Oedipus vows to solve the crime and in fact he does, read the play to discover the murderer’s identity. Like with the traditional murder mystery the solution of the crime restores order to Theban society.

The refined and sophisticated detective of the traditional “drawing room” whodunit was replaced in early 20th century America by the hard-boiled detective. This was the Depression Era and things were more rough and tumble and polite society was, in many ways, on the skids. This detective operated on instincts, hunches, and a kind of bare-knuckled tenacity the eventually produced a solution. I say “bare-knuckled” because before arriving at a solution most of these detectives had to either survive or inflict (or both) a few beatings. They are smart guys, but they occupy a seedier part of town than Baker Street and are often perceived to be as crooked as those they pursue (though by the end of the story this perception is often found to be misguided).

What I enjoy about these detectives is their patter and their similes. For example, Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe, probably the most skilled at this, on one occasion says, “His smile was as stiff as a frozen fish.” And on another, “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun.” Like a lost letter on a runaway train the story may not get where it needs to go, but the ride is always very exciting.

Cover of the Magazine Black Mask with The Maltese Falcon
Cover of hardboiled magazine Black Mask, September 1929, featuring part 1 of The Maltese Falcon, by hardboiled pioneer Dashiell Hammett

These thoughts on mysteries were provoked by an entry in Will Richardson’s blog, “The Ultimate Disruption for Schools.” The blog is about making schools more modern, a discussion that has been going on for about a hundred years and as yet not much has changed, at least not since right after the discussion started and Horace Mann and his friends created the modern public school. School reform is a mystery that has puzzled many for a very long time.

The basic model of a school has really changed little since the time of Socrates. There is a teacher sharing what she or he knows and a group of students hanging on every word. Perhaps all the modern school movement changed was that last bit about “hanging on every word.” Since Socrates good teachers have been frustrated by students who only want the answers and do not want to reason the conclusions out for themselves. All a good teacher can do is provide a method for finding answers not the answers themselves. Teachers can of course give an answer, even a correct answer, but it is not likely the answer will be remembered because it is the working out of the problem that makes the answer stick. It is also knowing how to work the problem that makes the answer recoverable when it has been forgotten.

Too often the answers are contingent on where one stands. Standing on the beach looking east provides a very different view from standing on that same beach looking west (where you stand, west coast or east coast also determines in which direction the ocean lies). The teacher can help the student make sense of an eastward or westward point of view but the teacher should not dictate the point of view and unless the teacher dictates point of view the teacher cannot provide answers only analytic tools and methods.

Richardson believes that schools should integrate more of the social networking tools now available on the Internet into their academic programs. That students learn best when they form their own social networks and learn from each other. There is certainly truth to this. Curiosity is the best teacher and students organized into networks of shared interests have a common curiosity that unites them. But what about those ideas and disciplines that live outside the social networks in which a student moves? How will the student moving in circles interested in psychology ever be introduced to calculus?

It is possible that someone with an interest in both psychology and calculus will penetrate that network, but that seems to rely a bit too heavily on fate. It is also unlikely students that learn in this way are going to accumulate all the knowledge they need to become good psychologists. I do not think anyone would advocate learning the practice of medicine or most any profession, in this way. Without someone passing judgment on the depth and breadth of the student’s knowledge, not to mention the student’s skill with a scalpel, how can a patient have confidence in this student’s abilities when she or he enters the profession?

Richardson is, of course, talking about training public k-12 students, not doctors and lawyers so the analogy is not entirely fair. But I think the issue does at some level need resolution. My interest in English language and literature was provoked by inspiring teachers of English language and literature. Those that went on to become mathematicians and scientists often had the same experience that I had, only with math and science teachers. One purpose of the public school and of a liberal arts education is to expose students to all the disciplines (university is, after all, a cognate of universal). Unless students are challenged beyond the circle of interests towards which they naturally gravitate they may never discover where their true interests lie.

Schools need to be reformed and the skills students get from working collaboratively in social networks structured within the schools and by the various disciplines taught in those schools will give students skills that will be very valuable later in life, even if the disciplines in which those skills were learned are abandoned. It is not likely that new technologies will awaken an interest in education in all that receive a compulsory education. Plato said that the mind will not retain what it has been forced to learn. It may retain a body of information long enough to pass a test but unless the student’s interest is piqued that body of information will not likely remain with the student after the test is passed or failed as the case may be.

The technology may help to capture the interest of some. But even if the new technology does not succeed in generating student interest in a given discipline students have been provided with tools, and taught how to use those tools, that can help students educate themselves when their interests are eventually aroused. Someone once said that an autodidact was someone educated by a fool. There may be some truth to that but I am not sure. If the student is wise that self-study may provoke an interest in learning from those with more expertise in the subject and the technology that provoked the interest might also put that student in touch with those whose knowledge of the subject is more complete.

It’s a Long and Dusty Road

“Never Been to Spain”
Hoyt Axton

It’s a Long and Dusty Road

Mexican Travel Poster

Tasco Travel Poster

Hoyt Axton in his song “Never Been to Spain” is a kind of imaginary traveler. He has never been to a number of places but appreciates their culture and people none the less. Music, for Axton, is often the key that unlocks the cultural door. Whether it is the music of Spain or the Beatles it often touches us emotionally and evokes in us an interest in the culture it claims to represent. The music of the Middle East is very different from that of Europe, as the music of most European countries is different from that of their European neighbors. Often the foreign, exotic sounds of the music creates a desire to see the culture that produced it, even when we don’t understand the words being sung or understand the purpose of the music or what inspired it.

I went to high school in the Los Angeles Harbor area, a little town called San Pedro. Richard Henry Dana in his book Two Years Before the Mast speaks of San Pedro as a dreary and desolate place. Of course he visited before the building of the breakwater that enclosed the harbor and made it a more satisfactory anchorage. From our back yard we could see the harbor and the comings and goings of the ships. I remember one year there was a longshoremen’s strike and the ships anchored outside the breakwater and there were ships anchored out to sea for almost as far as the eye could see (or so I remember it).

But like Hoyt Axton we would listen to music and while in high school a popular band was The Tijuana Brass. They were a group of guys playing trumpets who, to us, looked like Italians playing Mexican music. Tunes like “The Tijuana Taxi” and “The Lonely Bull” evoked Mexico to us and gave us a desire to visit and experience the culture more fully, a much easier place to visit than Spain, being only about a hundred miles down the coast. When we finally went to Mexico it became clear that the music painted a more romantic picture than the reality, though our visits to Rosarita Beach and Ensenada were always great fun.

My favorite story about a book involving travel concerns Bram Stoker and his book Dracula (the story is told in the first Annotated Dracula). The opening chapters of the book take place in the Transylvanian mountains and other colorful locations in Eastern Europe. In the novel Stoker has his character, Jonathan Harker, describe the countryside through which he travels as well as the local customs he encounters, the food he eats, and the wine he drinks.

After the book was published Stoker was asked to speak to various organizations about his travels because it was assumed he could not have written so compelling about these places if he had not been there. In fact Stoker never left England. He did all of his research for the novel in London’s fine libraries. I like this story because it suggests the possibility of not just knowing well a culture and people we have never visited, but of appreciating that culture and people.

In this weeks Sunday New York Times (12-07) book review section there is an article devoted to books on the automobile industry that made America a nation in a sense defined by its mobility and the ability to travel. Growing up our television encouraged us to “see the USA in a Chevrolet” and to travel America first by using the vast highway system to explore every corner between our eastern and western beaches. There is another article on travel books. These books are about kayaking the South China Sea and motorcycling through the Congo and traveling the United States in a Mercedes Benz that runs on used cooking oil. These books all remind us of the vastness of the world, the diversity of its cultures and the yearning for adventure that abides in the hearts of most, even those who at heart are like hobbits who, as a people, dislike traveling too far from their front door.

Painting of Sir John Mandeville

Full-page portrait of Sir John Mandeville.
Source “Travels” by John Mandeville (created 1459). Via NYPL Digital Gallery

Sir John Mandeville is one of my favorite travelers. There are those who question whether or not he traveled anywhere. Many of the stories that he tells recount popular beliefs of mythological beasts that were believed to live in far away places. He talks of people with only one leg that operates something like a pogo stick and of people without heads whose faces are in the middle of their chests. (Some of these creatures make an appearance in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader one of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books.) Today we are fairly certain such creatures do not exist, so at best Sir John was having a bit of fun at the expense of the untraveled medieval reader.

Another medieval world traveler was Marco Polo. He did indeed go to China and became a civil servant in the court of Kublai Khan. When he returned to Venice he ended up in jail for some reason and started telling his travel stories to a fellow prisoner who told him he should write a book, which Marco eventually did (his fellow prisoner wrote it down). His book talks of a world few had seen and his accounts of his travels through China still captivate readers to this day. Though there are elements that are bit far fetched they are usually stories Marco heard from others and is merely reporting.

Picture of Marco Polo traveling

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Marco Polo travelling, Miniature from the Book “The Travels of Marco Polo” (“Il milione”), originally published during Polos lifetime(September 15, 1254 – January 8, 1324), but frequently reprinted and translated .


By a serendipitous twist of fate it works out every year that we study Gulliver’s Travels in British Literature at the same time we are studying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in American Literature. Both of these books involve travel one to places that have never existed and one to a place that is rich with historical and cultural significance. The point of these stories, though, is not to take us to exotic places and give us a sampling of their flavors but to make a point about how lives were lived at home. In both cases the travelogue aspects of the book are not the point. Both books effectively skewer the cultures in which their author’s lived.

Sherlock, Jr.
Buster Keaton, 1924

Buster Keaton captures another side of motorized mobility. His is a somewhat carefree journey until he realizes that no one is piloting the motorcycle. Keaton was a master of the visual gag and slapstick comedy. His best films make use of machines, especially machines in motion, like trains, steamboats, and motorcycles. In his films he is often on a journey and the vehicles on which he travels are conspiring against him. One advantage to reading of the journeys others take, even journeys to non-existent places, is that the reader can share in many of the experiences of the traveler while assuming few of the risks.

To a certain extent as travelers we are like Keaton on his motorcycle without a driver. Like Keaton before he realizes he is alone we feel relatively safe and that everything is under control when in fact we are strangers in a strange land. People often say the French do not treat tourists, especially American tourists, very well. My experience was very different, with few exceptions. America is a nation of immigrants and people from different lands are always coming here. As a result we are used to thinking of people from other countries as foreigners. Many bring this attitude with them when they travel to other countries. Perhaps we are a bit like Jim in Huckleberry Finn who finds it odd that the French do not speak English. If all cows moo and all dogs bark than it stands to reason that all men share a common language as well, which, of course, is English.

Part of the adventure of travel comes from realizing we are the foreigners. Gulliver always realizes this and brings a zest and enthusiasm to his discovery of each new land where circumstance brings him. He is not at all like the traveler that views each new land as an extension of his homeland. In fact his experiences in each place he visits increases his feelings of alienation from the culture and people of his own country. These feelings of alienation eventually drive Gulliver mad. There is always this danger for the traveler perhaps, of feeling so far from home that she or he forgets what home is and what it is about home that is, or at least should be, warm and inviting and a shelter from the storms of life.