Whether you’re aware of it or not, from where I’m sitting you’re on an adventure right now. A Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Thelma & Louise, Frozen, Stand by Me, Choose Your Own, Jesus type adventure. They’re all pretty much the same thing. But you know that by now, aren’t they?
We consume stories because they compartmentalise various parts of existence into measurable chunks. It might be to relax or escape, connect or immerse, to learn, feel, compensate or remember – or a variety of other emotionally, physically or mentally seeded reasons. Whether we’re consuming a reality cooking show, an epic poem, a seven-seasons-and-a-movie genre series or a trashy political biography, there’s something in there that resonates with us.
We see this in how certain stories connect with people at particular times of their lives. I once introduced J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to a nineteen-year-old Brazilian student. We’d looked at the opening passage in an Academic English class one day, and after the class she came up and asked if she could read the whole book. I said ‘of course’ and handed her my copy. Two days later she handed me my book back and told me that the book had changed her life. It was one of those teaching moments that makes you never want to stop.
But Catcher in the Rye certainly doesn’t affect everybody in the that way. I first read it in my late-twenties, and, while recongising that it was very well-written and why it was an ‘important’ book, it didn’t particularly bowl me over. At my monthly Bookclub last week we discussed John Williams’ Stoner, covering the life and struggles of a university Professor of English. Again, great book, but it didn’t floor me like it did a couple of guys in the group, who were deeply affected.
The way stories can relate to our lives is littered throughout literature. It’s James Joyce reimagining Odysseus’ legendary adventures among gods and monsters as a typical day in the life of Leopold Bloom and associates in Dublin in 1904. It’s Hollywood adapting Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as 10 Things I Hate About You. There are an endless parade of wonderful coming-of-age stories, books and films, like Little Women, Stand By Me, Norwegian Wood, Juno, Submarine and of course Catcher in the Rye. After sci-fi it’s probably my favourite genre.
I come from that generation where the first three Star Wars films (Episodes IV – VI) played pivotal roles in many childhoods. For me Star Wars led to films like Flash Gordon and Indiana Jones, into Asterix, Tintin, X-Men and Batman comic books, into Dungeons & Dragons and the novels of J.R.R Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and eventually George Orwell.
George Lucas and Co. didn’t invent adventure, of course, but they did define how much of my generation related to it. Lucas structured Star Wars: A New Hope tightly on The Hero’s Journey, mythologist Joseph Campbell’s analysis of a monomyth that unites religions and mythologies around the globe, from Buddha to Odin to Christ and beyond.
The basis of the monomyth is this:
A hero leaves their regular life and goes on a (figurative or literal) journey, meeting a series of helpers, mentors and opponents. The experience transforms them for good or bad and they then return to a newly stable form of existence.
You can scale this structure up or down, from grand scale space operas to suburban households:
Luke Skywalker leaves his home planet to rescue a Princess from the Galactic Empire. With help from Han Solo, Obi Wan Kenobi, et al. he discovers the Force and uses it to destroy the Death Star, becoming a hero of the Rebel Alliance. (Star Wars: A New Hope)
15 year-old Oliver Tate steps out of his introverted existence in Swansea, Wales to save his parents’ marriage. Via his developing relationship with Jordana Bevan, Oliver grows as a person and contributes to his parents’ reconciliation. (Submarine)
Perhaps because of the type of stories I consumed as a child, I choose to see life as a series of adventures. Whether it’s travel, romance, work, play, study, any kind of project really, everything is a potentially transformative experience. I look for and value mentors and helpers in my life. I try to look for opportunities to play those roles for others.
It’s never cut and dried of course – that’s the realm of archetype and stereotype – the friend who helped me yesterday may teach me something today and stand in my way tomorrow. When you’re part of a partnership or team working towards a collective goal, together you’re the hero going on the journey together.
I’ve been playing and developing these ideas for years, but they’ve been on my mind particularly in the last week because of a couple of intense experiences, beginning seven days ago. Essentially, within the space of three days, two significant male figures stepped out of my life, one through his choice and the other through a terminal illness.
In the monomyth structure there is a cauldron in which the transformation takes place. In action movies it’s often a physical battle. In resurrection stories it might be death. In more traditional dramas it could be falling in love. In election campaigns it’s polling day.
The events at the beginning of last week threw me into a cauldron: the exit of mentor/opponent/helper figures over three days left me rattled and not entirely sure which way to go. It was particularly compounded because for the last couple of months I’ve been struggling to stay on track with a bunch of things I’m trying to achieve. It’s felt like I’ve been treading water; without the strength to swim where I need to go, hoping nervously that a large wave doesn’t come to wash me further out to sea.
Another thing on my mind this last week was one of my favourite poems: Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses. Written in the nineteenth century, it picks up the story of Homer’s great adventurer-hero Odysseus (the Greek for Ulysses) as he neared death.
Sitting on his throne, meditating on his existence, Ulysses reflects on how he lived his life:
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
He expresses frustration at that ‘untravell’d world’ which is approaching, the perceived end getting closer and closer all the time, and how his life now seems to be about sitting around waiting for it:
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life.
But then Ulysses realises that it is inertia not death which he hates. Looking at his son, Telemachus, Ulysses realises that his kingdom is in good hands. He respects that Telemachus is different to him in nature, and perhaps even more capable of the task in front of him than his father.
Ulysses understands what he needs to do. He calls on his old friends and companions, his mariners, ‘souls that have toil’d and wrought and thought with me’ to set out with him on one more great adventure:
Come my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars until I die.
Ulysses doesn’t know what will happen after that, whether his existence will go on after he dies, whether he will be reunited in death with old friends like Achilles. He knows he might not succeed, that the forces of time have changed and challenged him, yet he pushes on and refuses to give up:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Mov’d earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Last week, on the first day of my own cauldron (Luke Skywalker arriving on the Death Star, Oliver Tate discovering his father’s depression and mother’s potential affair, Ulysses realising his mortality) I reached out and contacted a few people I knew to tell them what had happened. I didn’t know if I was going to need help, but I knew I’d find help with these people if I needed it.
On the third day I received the news my friend had died. I’d messaged back and forth with him two days earlier, and was hoping to see him later in the week, on the day we ended up burying him. Amidst the shock and sadness and added confusion to what I was already feeling, it was his character that shone through. He was fierce and generous and brave and determined in life, including how he approached his illness. He reminded me of Tennyson’s Ulysses.
I don’t want you to think I think this man was an angel, just like the one who chose to try and hurt me days earlier is no devil. We’re all human. Most of what we do we don’t really know why, or what effect it’s going to have. Like injured animals, sometimes we bite at the hands that care for us and mean us no harm.
I stepped out of that battle in myself Friday afternoon, leaving behind the churning steam of indecision, self-doubt and malaise that had pestered me for months. Part of that was the events that had occurred, and the people that I’d talked to. Part of it was some choices I made.
I choose to see life as a series of adventures for a variety of reasons. Partly because, like last week, I can draw on the lessons I’ve learned and work through difficult times; partly because it makes me more aware of where I am and what I’m going through; partly because it can make things fun; partly because I have a hero complex and want to be part of saving the world.
Once the hero has been through the transformation, the next stage in the journey is the return to an ordered world and the creation of a new status quo. That’s what’s ahead of me this week, if, like Ulysses, I have the will to set myself back on track (to blow up the Death Star / apologise to Jordana Bevan / set sail with my mariners for exciting new shores).
In the stories this is where it ends: the credits roll, we close the book, turn off the TV and go to bed. Sometimes we start consuming the next story straight away: the next episode of that show on iView, a new video game to play, turning to the next story in the newspaper, picking up the next book for book club.
We are forever immersed in stories: the ones we consume, the ones we’re at the centre of, the ones we play small but important roles in. And each time we pass through a cauldron of turmoil we start again from whatever stable ground we’re now on. We move forward to the challenges of the next adventure, either one we chose or one that chooses us.