As I was tramping over the clitter scattered in the moorland of Manga Hill, on the approach over the brook to the ruins of Teignhead Farm, I noticed that adventures, like most stories, follow a three act structure.
The adventurer-to-be is going about their mundane daily life when they first hear the ‘call to adventure’. A conversation overheard on a bus, an interview on a radio station, a tantalising glimpse of a map — or a nagging question in the back of their mind that won’t go away.
But they ignore the call because mundane daily life is kind of okay.
Then, perhaps all-of-a-sudden, perhaps in a glacial process unfolding over the course of decades, the adventurer-to-be realises that mundane daily life is not kind of okay anymore — and it won’t be until they scratch that itch and answer the call.
Emboldened by wise mentors, whether in person or culled from books, documentaries or the internet, the adventurer-in-waiting prepares for the journey ahead.
Preparation doesn’t have to mean much, maybe just a toasted bagel, but generally there will be at least an intake of breath between the adventurer accepting the challenge and then leaving the comfort zone world of Act One.
This is what we usually think of as the adventure. It begins the moment we cross the threshold, board the train, slip our mooring, or step through the looking-glass.
Even though we may very well still be sitting in our own living room, everything has changed. We have entered the topsy-turvy, ‘funhouse mirror’ world of adventure.
They do things differently here. There’s a different logic, different rules for us to learn.
Strange things happen in this strange new world. With any luck, some of those things will be great fun and we’ll feel excitement rather than fear.
But, guaranteed, some of those things will be scary. They will challenge us. This is built into the definition of adventure. We left behind our comfort zone at the end of Act One, remember?
In adventuring terms, Act Two can last as little as five minutes or as long as five decades. There might be one little hurdle to jump or a seemingly endless series of Herculean obstacles to overcome.
However long the adventure, there will come a ‘point of no return’ when to push onward is easier than to return. For me, on my ride around the coast of Britain, this happened at Scarborough, the first town I came to where a return ticket home tipped over the £100 mark.
There may also be some sort of ‘crisis’ moment where the adventurer can fall no further and a ‘revelation’ when they realise how they must change or adapt before they can come through alive.
There are all kinds of other story elements that may or may not appear in an adventure: a moment of false victory or false defeat, ‘bad guys’ closing in, ‘the dark night of the soul’, a brush with death that ‘raises the stakes’, a ticking clock and so on.
Whatever happens, our adventurer does eventually have to leave the adventure world and return to the comfort zone world of Act One — where they discover that the world or they themselves have changed.
Change is a baked-in part of adventure. Greek philosopher Heraclitus once wrote:
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.
If that’s true for an adventure as small as stepping into a river twice, then bloody hell it’s true for whatever happened in Act Two.
Even if an adventurer finishes Act Two by building a cabin in the woods and never returning to the physical world of Act One, they’ll find one day that the cabin in the woods is no longer the world of adventure and has become their new comfort zone.
The world, and the adventurer, have changed.
Or is it?
What I found exciting about the parallel structures of story and adventure is the implication that, just as you can tell a story about anything, so you can have an adventure about anything.
Back in the olden days, most stories were written about adventurers, and those adventurers were usually called ‘heros’ and they were usually men and they were usually fighting or being smartasses or harassing women or looting dragon caves or whatever.
But nowadays most stories are not written about these ‘heros’. The stories of humanity have become much more complex, much more interesting and cover every imaginable subgenre of human experience.
Paranormal romance, fine, but how about extraterrestrial sex fetish with a twist of French philosophy? It’s a thing.
The same is true of adventure. Adventure today is not man versus wilderness. Adventure today is so much more complex, so much more interesting and covers every imaginable subgenre of human experience.
I happened to be wandering the moors when I made this connection. But, in many ways, this kind of classical wilderness adventure is the least adventurous thing I could be doing.
My experience is now more heavily weighted towards a familiarity with wilderness; wilderness is creeping into my comfort zone. (Doesn’t stop me getting sucked into the mire up to my thighs, mind you.)
After two years of walking Dartmoor, I find myself heading back to Act One. Perhaps now I need to step through the looking-glass and into another world, another genre of adventure.
Anyone know any decent French philosophy?
If you like reading about how adventure fits into everyday life, then I can recommend Al Humphreys’ book The Doorstep Mile.
A note on the title of this piece
It’s unfortunate that Joseph Campbell’s problematic description of ‘the hero’s journey’ has become the abiding popular reference point for story structure.
Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ is not only a hugely reductionist and wildly inaccurate piece of folk story analysis, it’s also been unhappily described as perpetuating racist, sexist, classist and despotic norms.
I like to think that the Adventurer’s Journey is not so much these things. At the very least, ‘adventurer’ is not a gendered word like ‘hero’.
However, I am conscious that artist and comic book illustrator Alice Meichi Li’s criticism of Joseph Campbell is still applicable to my description of adventure:
[It’s] the journey of someone who has privilege… In the final chapter, they may end up on equal footing. But when you have oppressed groups, all you can hope for is to get half as far by working twice as hard.