5 Fictional Travel Narratives: 100 Books to Read #3

I don’t know about anyone else, but I had travel plans for this spring. I needed a getaway, a change of scenery. Instead, I got confined to home. So I’m using the time to write. And read. And what better thing to read when you’re stuck at home than books about travel? I broke into my “100 books to read list” to form a small section of 5 Fictional Travel Narratives. These aren’t just any travel narratives, either, they’re narratives of imaginary places on earth that the characters spend time travelling to/finding. Which means portal fantasies, space travel, and ordinary travelling from place A to place B on earth don’t count. I even left Around the World in 80 Days out of this list. Technically, The Wizard of Oz would qualify, as it is presented as a place on earth, however fantastical, that Dorothy gets to by air, sea, etc. but I already included that one on a previous list. And as a result you don’t have to feel bad about not being able to visit these places—they only exist in the books anyway.

  1. Utopia by Sir Thomas More—Written in 1516, Utopia is the fictional account of a fictional explorer encountering a fictional island, modelled in part after Plato’s Republic. As the title of the work suggests, this island is completely self-contained and its society perfectly balanced and harmonious. Throughout this short book, the island’s practices and philosophies are laid out in great detail, with a snide commentary on More’s contemporary English society thrown in. It is indubitably satirical, but satirical at whose expense, is the question. Is it mocking those who envision the possibility of such ideal “utopias”? Some of the details outlined might seem to indicate it is. Or is it at the expense of the distinctly un-ideal society More lived in? There is at least as much evidence for that, perhaps even m(M)ore.

We made no inquiries [of the explorer], however, about monsters, for nothing is less new or strange than they are. Scyllas, ravenous Celaenos, man-eating Lestrygonians, and that sort of monstrosity you can hardly avoid, but well and wisely trained citizens you will hardly find anywhere.


2. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift—Hard on More’s heels, just over 200 years later, the Irish writer responsible for the gem of satire that is “A Modest Proposal” wrote this 1726 travel epic under the guise of the naval adventurer Lemuel Gulliver. Gulliver encounters tiny people, giants, flying people, and horse people and they all have a comment to make upon real people and their society, whether our hero interprets it correctly or not (which he mostly doesn’t, to be honest). It is a longish piece of work, but worth it for the sheer sarcasm value. It is also divided into four parts, per each group he meets roughly, and so may be read casually with breaks in between. It is not everyone’s cup of tea, as a close friend of mine who shall-not-be-named would passionately attest, but as Swift said he wrote the book “to vex the world rather than divert it,” he succeeded at both.

These unhappy people were proposing schemes for persuading monarchs to choose favorites upon the score of their wisdom, capacity, and virtue; of teaching ministers to consult public good; of rewarding merit, great abilities, and eminent services; of instructing princes to know their true interest by placing it on the same foundation with that of their people; of choosing for employments persons qualified to exercise them; with many other wild, impossible chimeras that never before entered into the heart of man to conceive.

Gulliver’s Travels

3. King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard—This adventure tale is quite a departure from the two strictly travel narratives above, but I started doing the list in order of publication, so I might as well continue on that way. Alan Quatermaine, semi-retired, gets dragged into a quest for a man’s lost brother who was last known to be following an archaic map to the fabled King Solomon’s Mines. They set out with a small party on their journey into the heart of Africa, encountering elephants, tribal wars, and a seemingly immortal witch. There’s a long lost prince subplot and a surprising development about where the brother actually went. And diamonds. Lots of diamonds. Fun fact: Haggard was discussing the new hit Treasure Island with a friend and said he thought he could write a better adventure story. His friend said, “Then do it.” So he wrote King Solomon’s Mines.

It is a hard thing when one has shot sixty-five lions or more, as I have in the course of my life, that the sixty-sixth should chew your leg like a quid of tobacco. It breaks the routine of the thing, and putting other considerations aside, I am an orderly man and don’t like that. This is by the way.

King Solomon’s Mines

4. The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—I have spoken about this book in another post, so forgive me if I repeat myself. The main character, being challenged to prove himself worthy by the woman he hopes to marry, signs up for an ill-advised journey to South America to look for a prehistoric environment that has lasted due to its isolation and peculiar situation in the landscape (read: inaccessible to normal predators). Throughout the harrowing events of the novel, public meetings, ship travel, and jungle trailblazing, he finds a new frontier of possibilities inside himself. And manages not to be consumed by lizards in the meantime, whether they be pre-historic dinosaurs or his erstwhile fiancee.

It was surely well for man that he came late in the order of creation. There were powers abroad in earlier days which no courage and no mechanism of his could have met. What could his sling, his throwing-stick, or his arrow avail him against such forces as have been loose tonight? Even with a modern rifle it would be all odds on the monster.

The Lost World

5. Lost Horizon by James Hilton—Another one with “Lost” in the title. Shangri-La, high in the Tibetan mountains, promises to be a land of paradise and spiritual peace where those who find it and remain can live for hundreds of years. Told as a story within a story, a plane hijacking and subsequent crash reveals the nearly impossible to find location of this isolated oasis. But though love is in the air, there are those who are not content to live out their lives disconnected from the world, watching the centuries go by without making any impact on it. What follows is a risky escape which may result in a truly lost horizon.

My goodness, if you think of all the folks in the world who’d give all they’ve got to be out of the racket and in a place like this, only they can’t get out! Are we in the prison or are they?

Lost Horizon

So, get a little Emily Dickinson up in here and take that book-frigate to unknown lands. Happy travels!

Inkheart (2008)

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