Let Us Speak of Adventurers

In which the author speaks of the calling and questing of Adventurers.

The tools of adventure.

Let Us Speak of Adventurers

Dear Reader,

We begin with a proposition: In fantasy stories, heroes are called to go on quests.

Sometimes even quiet homebodies experience the same (and of course become heroes in the process).

Let us further assume that a 'call' typically comes from some kind of 'herald' – the person or thing that gets our protagonist out the door.

Quests we might define as 'journeys of adventurous purpose.'

It is not enough to be on a trip to obtain something (going to the grocery store) or get rid of something (a trip to the dump).

There must be danger.

But not only one threat (a burglar breaking into your house). There must be a series of unfolding perils, a Road of Trials.

A Knight may set out to save a princess, but if he just walks out of the armory, climbs the stairs of the tower, and slays the ogre while it's napping. Well. That doesn’t qualify as a quest. It's a scene.

Trials provide the structure for the narrative that the hero passes through. The story is about how the character responds to the challenges encountered.

With these stipulations and considerations and so forth in mind, let us interrogate our proposition.

A Nod Toward the Bard

Macbeth is a hero.

A dutiful warrior thane putting down a rebellion against his liege lord, good king Duncan, when the strangest of happenings hijacks the trajectory of his life. This is the call, the inciting incident, the moment of temptation that confronts our soon-to-be tyrant.

The Weird Sisters deliver on two of three prophecies – the third is that he shall be king. That means Duncan must be on his way out...

Temptation of his loyalty, which provokes his slumbering ambition (and his wife’s), upends the world of Scotland in blood and chaos. Macbeth begins as our titular hero, his fall and decent into wickedness is the engine of the tragedy.

His ‘quest’ (to stretch the term to absurdity) is to rule without fear.

Or consider Hamlet, the character deputized into the heroic role in his play. Without the appearance of the ghost and his call there is no tragedy. The prince may never discover Claudius’ fratricide.

Yet, the call is not the truest moment of temptation.

When Hamlet overhears the confession from his uncle’s lips, he knows that slaying him would be just – but then Claudius would die in a state of grace. This is not acceptable to Hamlet.

Justice is insufficient to his wrath – only vengeance will placate him. And so the bodies pile high as he 'quests' for vengeance. It only ends when Fortinbras marches in on the charnel house of Danish nobility.

So, a ‘hero’ may fail (immediately in Macbeth’s case) or wreck tragedy (Hamlet’s fate). He may even live long enough to become the villain. (Or he may prove his quality – the very highest.)

Very well, I propose that we adjust our proposition here and stop calling our character a ‘hero’ and try a different term: ‘Adventurer.’

(And I’ll admit here that neither of the Shakespearean tragedies I sketched out involve quests in the sense typically meant when discussing the fantasy genre. But Shakespeare.)

Consider the Adventurer

From here we sketch out (somewhat) safer ground. Let’s name some of the Usual Suspects.

Odysseus, Atalanta, Beowulf, Perceval, Nie Yinniang, Frodo, Conan, Jirel of Jorey, Ged, Thomas Covenant, Elric – they are each as different as the authors who brought them to life, and each of them is an Adventurer.

One seeks to come home after a long and disastrous war but takes some unexpected detours, one joins the quest for a golden fleece, another sails to free a hall from the predation of monsters, a knight seeks a holy relic, a knight-errant does some assassinating, a homebody would destroy a terrible treasure that his uncle found; then there is the thief, reaver, mercenary, and king, whose author may have inspired a prototype Red Sonja (equal parts brash and cunning), a young man’s horrible mistake is the shadow he must face and name, the Land must be saved (by various means depending on the series), and a sorcerer king of a proud and ancient race flees his own decadent, cruel people, seeks understanding and adventure in the broader world, and gets swept up into the cosmic struggle that threatens all – as he carries his doom in his own hands.

(Phew. That was a mouthful of a paragraph! Maybe a bullet list next time.)

Onwards They Quest

The Adventurer may serve in a cast of characters: Jon Snow’s and Arya’s adventurous journeys are quite different than Sansa’s intrigue narrative in A Song of Fire and Ice. Armies may march and politicians scheme as individuals slog (Glen Cook, Erikson, Esslemont in military fantasy). The action may happen in the city or the wild or both (perhaps even extradimensional travel is in your future).

The adventurous stakes may be personal (Ged) or the Fate of the Realm (Daenerys) or just the thriving of your particular association of ne’er-do-wells (Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser).

There may or may not be monsters and/or magic.

Style and voicing and the uniqueness of character help determine if a fantasy story succeeds (whether or not anyone reads it or not). But here we affirm: There must be Adventure.

So for now, Dear Reader, let us suggest a new working proposition with some tautological flavoring:

In fantasy stories, adventurers are called to adventure.

Please let me know your thoughts on the matter – maybe we can get to the bottom of this interpretive exercise.

Best regards,


P.S. Have a favorite adventurer (or hero) that didn't make it into the newsletter? Feel free to reply and let me know.

Want more words, Traveller? Come visit my website at bryanerye.com, or take the direct route to the blog.

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