Travel and literature: Broadening your horizons
‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to’.
– Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, J R.R Tolkien.
Fiction is a heady, fascinating thing. With the ability to transport its readers to the far-flung corners of the universe, we can find ourselves immersed in brand new worlds without so much as moving a muscle from our seats. But what about the places on earth that inspired those authors? Whilst reading, our imaginations are able to conjure up beautiful and terrible images of just about anything we can think of. But, they are also fed by what we see and experience around us.
Travel, then, is one such experience that provides us with inspiration. Moved away from the familiar, in travelling we are thrust into the uncomfortable spotlight. We make mistakes, get lost in a town or city that is unknown to us, but most importantly, are introduced to new experiences and perspectives we had never thought to pay attention to. As Mark Twain once said in his book The Innocents Abroad, ‘travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness […] things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.’ But, what is it about travel that could be said to affect our brains in such a way? Generally speaking, the majority of us like routine and stability. We like the feeling that we are master’s of our own little patch of ground on a planet that holds near over 7 billion other people. In an era where travel to far-flung corners of the globe is becoming increasingly accessible, pushed by the advent of social media, the argument could be made that we are less in awe of our surroundings. The boundaries of Twain’s ‘little corner’ are slowly being demolished.
Yet, I would disagree. Now, more than anything, people want to be inspired by new places and experiences. Articles on many trip websites (such as this one) capitalise on the assumption that, now more than ever, “getting away” is one of the best ways writers can be inspired. By that same logic, travel – more specifically, the landscapes to be explored in travelling – can most definitely be said to have inspired, and continue to inspire, some of the world’s best known authors and their works.
What are men, compared to rocks and mountains? – Jane Austen
If we take this question, posed by Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, to mean ‘men’ as in ‘humankind’, we can ask a similar question. How does the landscape – found and experienced by travel – affect writers? Here, I would look to the 19th century for answers. Bathed in the smoky light of the Industrial Revolution lay Romanticism; a key literary movement which shifted away from society’s focus on scientific and rational ideas to instead focus heavily on nature as one of its main themes to promote the power of the individual’s imagination. Therefore, it is not so far a leap to suggest that authors and poets, such as Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, already so receptive to their surroundings, used their travels around the country and abroad to inspire their works.
Alongside Byron and Shelley, it is the experience of Mary Shelley (then, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) that stands as one powerful story of how travel inspired one of the greatest modern science fiction novels of all time. The place? Lake Geneva in June 1816. Challenged to write a ghost story and confined indoors (she complains of ‘a wet, ungenial summer’ in her diary), it was not so much the lake itself, as the atmosphere that urged Shelley to pen the beginnings of her story. Thus inspired by the unusually dark and inclement weather due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies the year before, Mary’s imagination gave birth to Frankenstein.
Yet, consider more modern examples of authors being inspired by travel, and we can look to the genesis of the world’s most famous boy wizard; Harry Potter. One of the most well-known travel stories is of J.K Rowling’s train journey from Manchester to London in 1990. Not only did it herald the start of a new journey for her, but when The Philosopher’s Stone first saw publication several years later, the starting inspiration from one delayed train journey birthed a franchise that would soon span the globe.
The Darker Side of Travel
However, whilst travel is an activity usually done by choice, there are other types of ‘travel’ to consider when discussing authorial inspiration: war, for example. Inspiration fed by such changes of scenery in war-torn fields can come from the darkest of places. In war, there is an immediate, raw horror of experience as shown in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Wilfred Owen’s poetry, and to a lesser extent as Tolkien describes in his letters, the dead marshes in The Two Towers. Tolkien and Hemingway both served on the front lines in the First World War: Tolkien, most notably, in the Royal Fusiliers at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and Hemingway in the Italian campaigns. From these works stem haunting, poignant scenes, that attest not only to the horror of war, but the change in the landscape that modern warfare brought.
Travel for authors, therefore, is not just about escapism. It is one shaped by world events, and circumstance. Certainly, the extent to which travel can inspire is dependant on the author and of the time they lived. Would Shelley have been so inspired to write Frankenstein had not bad weather and ghost stories kept her to the house? Would J.K Rowling have ever written Harry Potter if she had never taken that train journey? These are questions to ponder. However, in this modern age, we must also think of our finances when we think of travel. Romantic notions of writing the next bestseller in a leather bound notebook in a Parisian cafe are replaced with practicalities such as ‘how could I afford this?’ As one blogging travel writer comments, ‘dispel any romantic notions you might have’ – travel writers are constantly on the go and to move about is an activity that does not come cheaply.
That is not to discourage budding writers. Landscapes and situations on earth have done much to push the boundaries of imagination for better or worse, and it is always one that is continually full of surprises. You need only step out of your door to find them.
What do you think? Leave a comment.