Is your journey really necessary?

Lundy, Bristol Channel: map by Henry Mangles Denham 1804 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lundy, Bristol Channel: map by Henry Mangles Denham 1804 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

During World War II the British government tried to discourage travel at Christmas time with the slogan “Is your journey really necessary?”[1] But, as popular culture, psychology, history and of course literature all tell us, journeys are as necessary to human beings as love, food and shelter.

Time was that any reality or talent show featuring wannabe celebrities would feature the phrase “I/you/we’ve been on a journey,” implying that the individuals concerned had somehow grown or matured due to the experience regardless whether or not they had actually changed location.[2] The Journey has however always been a metaphor, sometimes characterised as a tripartite image schema: ‘source-path-goal’.[3] Though not all elements need be present whenever the metaphor is employed, the sense of beginning-middle-end is nearly always implicit, with the journey – the ‘path’ – as the central core. In this the metaphor encapsulates the Aristotelian definition of narrative plot as a ‘whole’: “A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” Aristotle asserted in Chapter VII of The Poetics, a principle that can be applied not just to tragedy (as Aristotle did) but to most narrative structure.[4]

Campbell: Hero's Journey
Campbell’s schema interpreted by Christopher Vogler 1985 [public domain]

This schema is explicit in Joseph Campbell’s postulate of the monomyth, the template supposedly underlying all mythic narratives: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”[5] In the monomyth the observer is usually encouraged to identify with the protagonist, a process which we are predisposed towards by the very fact of existing, going on a path from birth to death.

Many of our dreams are suffused with this schema. When Jung was in India he dreamt of being on an unknown island, “presumably situated not far off the coast of southern England” (perhaps a little like Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel). He finds himself in what he understands is “the castle of the Grail,” being lectured to by an unimaginative German professor who could see nothing unusual, least of all “a tiny, iron, hooded gnome” scurrying through leaves on a castle wall. In his dream Jung embarks on a day’s hike to the north of the island where he is to find the Grail. When, near the end of his quest, he reaches the point where he is about to swim across a channel to fetch the Grail he suddenly wakes.[6] Jung reached his own conclusions about the significance of this dream, but here we can surely see the schema in action, the journey bookended by the castle at the beginning and, at the end, the “small, uninhabited house” where the Grail was to be found. The reverie interrupted at the point where a secret is about to be revealed is a common feature of many reported dreams.

The underlying pattern and inspiration for Jung’s dream is of course the medieval legend of the Quest for the Holy Grail. Whether the quest is undertaken in the mind or in reality the focus is always on the outward journey: travelling on a figurative one-way ticket leads to a reward – whether the Holy Grail, Paradise, Enlightenment or simply Happy Ever After. Voyaging has long been in humanity’s genes. Hunter-gatherers have always tracked their quarries over distances; the practice of transhumance has required the seasonal moving of grazing stock; and the desire to find new sources of raw materials, to expand trading contacts or simply to find answers has marked mankind’s history, from the year dot through the Age of Discovery to the Space Age. The wish to weave stories has gone hand in hand with this travelling. Bruce Chatwin reported on journeys made in Australia, called Songlines: he was told ‘Anywhere in the bush you can point to some feature of the landscape and ask the Aboriginal with you, “What’s the story there?” or “Who’s that?”’ and get an answer.[7]

Along with real landscapes come ‘mindscapes’, or mental landscapes. Sometimes the journeys taken here simulate those taken in the real world, as with the lands and marvels reportedly seen by Sir John Mandeville in the 14th century, where real-life travellers’ tales are mixed in with fantastic Biblical and medieval lore.[8] Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) satirised his own 18th-century world while aping such mendacious material.[9] Despite the imaginings of conspiracy theorists the world’s surface holds fewer mysteries now than formerly, meaning that writers increasingly have had to create maps of fictional mindscapes in which to wander. Fantasy has taken to such conceits with a will: Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings would both be unimaginable without their maps in which to track the journeys of Bilbo and Frodo, and their example has established the frontispiece map as a staple of epic fantasy.[10] [11]

Another staple is the journey ‘there and back again’: this conceit, firmly established by the subtitle to Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is also a pattern mirrored closely in his The Lord of the Rings. This significant extension of the simple journey – where the protagonist comes back home after following an outward journey and the achievement of a goal — is also known as ‘Voyage and Return’, and identified as one of seven basic plots told the world over (along with The Quest) by Christopher Booker.[12] The essence of this plot (which is often allied with a Quest plot) is that the protagonist travels “out of their familiar, everyday ‘normal’ surroundings into another world … where everything seems disconcertingly abnormal.” After various vicissitudes the protagonist is “released from the abnormal world, and can return to the safety of the familiar world where they began.”

Booker lists numerous Voyage and Return examples, from The Tale of Peter Rabbit to classic children’s fantasies such as the Alice stories, The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. Literary classics include Robinson Crusoe and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and we can think of further examples such as Homer’s Odyssey and the Biblical parable The Return of the Prodigal Son. The story arc is Voyage leading to Reward (Mr McGregor’s vegetables, the Cowardly Lion’s heart, Redemption or Reconciliation, for example), followed by Return and measured consideration (for instance, the Wedding Guest becoming “a sadder and a wiser man” following the Ancient Mariner’s tale).

journeyThe answer to the question “Is your journey necessary?” must surely be – if it makes us at least wiser, though hopefully not sadder – a resounding “Yes!”

This slight but dry essay — a non-fiction assignment for a Creative Writing course module — by happenstance fits in with a series of posts about literary maps on this blog, hence its inclusion here.

Notes
[1] Rees 1990:123 [2] Clarke 2013 [3] Turner 1998 [4] Butcher 2008 [5] Campbell 1975:31 [6] Jung 1963:310-12 [7] Chatwin 1988:16 [8] Moseley 2005 [9] Swift 1906 [10] Tolkien 1966 [11] Tolkien 1993 [12] Booker 2004:69-104

Bibliography
Aristotle The Poetics, in Butcher (2008)
Booker, C. (2004) The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories. London: Continuum Books.
Butcher, S. H. (translator) (2008) The Project Gutenberg EBook of Poetics, by Aristotle. Available at:
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1974/1974-h/1974-h.htm#link2H_4_0019 (Accessed 27 November 2015)
Campbell, J. (1975) The Hero with a Thousand Faces. London: Abacus.
Chatwin, B. (1988) The Songlines. London: Picador.
Clarke, R. (2013) ‘I’ve been on a journey…’ Available at:
https://lovetoreadtomyclass.wordpress.com/2013/02/01/quests-and-journey-stories/ (Accessed: 26 November 2015).
Jung, C. G. (1963) Memories, Dreams, Reflections. London: Collins.
Moseley, C (2005) The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. London: Penguin.
Rees, N. (1990) Dictionary of Popular Phrases. London: Bloomsbury.
Swift, J. (1906) Gulliver’s Travels. J. M. Dent.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1966) The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. London: George Allen & Unwin.
Tolkien, J. R. R. (1993) The Lord of the Rings. London: HarperCollins Publishers.
Turner, J. (1998) ‘Turns of phrase and routes to learning: the journey metaphor in educational culture.’ Intercultural communication studies 7, 23-36. Available at: http://www2.uwm.edu.pl/anglistyka/uploads/files/drogosz/ics-vii-2-turner.pdf (Accessed: 26 November 2015).

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8 thoughts on “Is your journey really necessary?

  1. Another excellent post, and one I thoroughly enjoyed. You will no doubt know that I have preference for fantasy and, in particular, ‘through the portal’ tales. In my own ongoing project – just such a story – each of my main characters is on physical journey that serves to create an internal quest to discover their individual strengths of character. Super stuff. I look forward to your next offering.

    1. As I explore your fine back catalogue of posts, Steve, I’m becoming more and more aware that your approach to narrative and use of motifs both chime in with what most of us look for in storytelling. And, yes, that includes portals, those physical (sometimes metaphysical) constructs that Campbell identifies as Thresholds to Adventure.

      In fact I’ve been mulling over a post on portals for some time (coincidentally reading the last of a fantasy trilogy which relies heavily on such features as a major plot device). On MyNewShy (sister photoblog to calmgrove’s prosody) I have a lot of pics of doors, windows and suchlike, testament to my fascination with portals and their latent promises.

      So, one of my ‘offerings’ in the near future will definitely be on portals!

    1. Sorry, Sue, was certain I replied to you earlier, but thanks! I skimmed the Chatwin some tens of years ago, but I’m determined to give it a proper go in 2016, having been passed on a battered copy. 🙂

  2. As I was reading this post I was thinking about the maps to these epic fantasy journeys that the authors provide us with. I am both awed and fascinated that not only do the writers create with words the journey of their characters, but that with a map we can follow along!

    Makes me wish sometimes that someone had given me a map of my journey in this world when I first came in!

    1. Seems like we’re all fascinated with maps, Laurie, and no wonder! There’s something special about having that bird’s eye view of the way things have gone and where they might go.

      Hmm, having a map with my life charted out before I embarked on it is not something I’d have welcomed, I don’t think, smacks a bit of predestination. I’d prefer to think of myself as author of my own story, charting things as I live them, and — with luck — mulling over that near enough completed map when I still have my marbles! (In fact, that must be just about now: my kids keep telling me to write an autobiography of my early years before senility and forgetfulness kick in …)

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