One of the enduring types of fiction, one of the most prolific types of stories told to this day, through whatever medium, is the adventure story. There are quests, colourful characters, cut-throats, intrigues, losses, rescues, betrayals, cloaks, daggers… the works. I’m categorizing ten of my 100 books to read as predominantly adventure stories.
1. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
Probably akin to Scrooge, another miserly Ebenezer is responsible for the titular kidnapping that sets this swashbuckling adventure into motion. Lowlander David Balfour goes to live with his uncle after his parents’ deaths, only to be quickly dispatched to the high seas. He meets up with the dashing cavalier Alan Breck, on the run for his life, who then drags him into various political shenanigans in a roundabout route home to reclaim what’s his. Expatriated Scots, ominous prophecies, blood feuds, menacing blind “beggars,” unforgettable characters and thrilling action… yep, just another Stevenson book, and it’s so good.
The woman’s face lit up with a malignant anger. ‘That is the house of Shaws!’ she cried. ‘Blood built it; blood stopped the building of it; blood shall bring it down!…Black be its fall!’Kidnapped
2. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne
With a name like a J.K. Rowling character, Phileas Fogg takes on a bet with members of his club, who wager that, even with the conveniences and speed of modern travel, he cannot get around the world in eighty days. Fogg sets out to prove them wrong and maybe prove something to himself as well, but of course his perfectly timed schedule of traveling plans gets upset along the way by unforeseeable catastrophes, kidnappings, rescues, disasters, and an incredibly longwinded train companion. I appreciate Fogg as a character, although he is one of “Verne’s cold, soulless heroes” (The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte), and the novel setting of a gentleman’s wager as inciting incident to an adventure.
“Suppose we save this woman.”
“Save the woman, Mr. Fogg?”
“I have yet 12 hours to spare; I can devote them to that.”
“Why, you are a man of heart!”
“Sometimes,” replied Phileas Fogg, quietly; “when I have the time.”Around the World in Eighty Days
3. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
Aspiring musketeer D’Artagnan travels to Paris where he meets the three disparate but amicable musketeers who will become his mentors and companions through international intrigue, internal politics, and civil unrest, not to mention personal affairs of heart and spleen. Together with Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, D’Artagnan learns the ways of the musketeers in serving king (or queen) and country while fighting a personal campaign. Milady De Winter, the 17th century femme fatale; Rochefort, the villainous henchman; Cardinal Richelieu, the wily statesman; the Duke of Buckingham, the forbidden lover; and of course the Gascon horse who is probably the inspiration for the iconic scene with Eastwood’s donkey in A Fistful of Dollars, are a few of the unforgettable characters Dumas created in this epic chivalric romance.
Don Quixote took windmills for giants and sheep for armies; d’Artagnan took every smile for an insult and every glance for a provocation.The Three Musketeers
4. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Purely escapist, elitist, and idealist, somehow Tarzan still manages to be compelling. When his parents die, shipwrecked on the edge of an African jungle, Tarzan is raised by an ape of some obscure (possibly fictitious) family (not gorilla: bigger, better, and more intelligent). He learns the ways of his adopted family, but also adapts to survive, and indeed conquer, by cunning and skill to make up for his lack of claws and fangs. Although he is also ridiculously strong and chiseled, a perfect Adonis among men and beasts, as the narration never ceases to remind us. Enter Jane Porter & co. and suddenly Tarzan is faced with challenges like he has never encountered before, including coming to terms with the truth about his identity. Full of gore and violence, the contest begins between wilderness and civilization as Tarzan is torn between his blood and adopted legacies.
It is mind, and not muscle, that makes the human animal greater than the mighty beasts of your jungle.Tarzan of the Apes
5. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle
Growing up on the Warner Brothers’ live-action and Disney’s brilliant animation of Robin Hood, I have since encountered many other versions of the original robber in Lincoln green, including several questionable movies and a couple of delightfully corny television shows. There is no denying that most of these stories still get their inspiration for the main characters and incidents from Pyle’s novelization/compilation of the legend. Chronicling Robin’s descent into outlawry, his iconic meetings with Little John, Friar Tuck, and Will Scarlet, and the rivalry with the loathsome Sheriff of Nottingham, as well as his unswerving devotion to the absent King Richard, Pyle’s version of the legend is a delightfully atmospheric rendition of the old story. It may be temporarily awkward to begin reading the imitation-Elizabethan English vocabulary, but as the story unfolds, the rhythm and style fits perfectly with the “merrie” lords, ladies, and doings of all kinds.
‘It doth make a man better,’ quoth Robin Hood, ‘to hear of those noble men so long ago. When one doth list to such tales, his soul doth say, “put by thy poor little likings and seek to do likewise.” Truly, one may not do as nobly one’s self, but in the striving one is better…’The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
6. Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini
A deadly duel, undercurrents of revolution, and the determination to revenge a fallen friend upon an unscrupulous nobleman. These and other events set the phlegmatic protagonist Jean-Andres upon a harrowing journey of adventure, love, heartbreak, and self-discovery. Along the way, he adopts a character to embody his transforming identity—Scaramouche, the “little skirmisher, the astute intriguer,” of French theatre. The wit and flair of Sabatini in terms of dialogue, plot, and character is shown to the best advantage in this novel, out of the three of his books I’ve read.
“I am afraid, monsieur, you will have to kill me first, and I have a prejudice against being killed before nine o’clock.”Scaramouche
7. The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
Set during the French-Indian War, or the Seven Years War for those in Canada (which wasn’t Canada yet, but neither was the United States the United States), this is a story of survival and seduction in the war-torn wilderness. When a group of travelers including the two daughters of a British colonel is betrayed by their guide, the marksman Hawkeye and his friend, Uncas, undertake to bring the group to safety at a British fort. But not for long. The treacherous guide returns, aiming to steal away one of the colonel’s daughters, Cora, for himself. Battles, scalping, romance, tribal feuds, and revenge ensue until a final showdown reveals the last of the Mohicans.
“My day has been too long. In the morning I saw the sons of the Unamis happy and strong; and yet, before the sun has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans.”The Last of the Mohicans
8. Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace
Immortalised by the iconic chariot race scene in the 1959 movie, which was a landmark in modern cinematography, Ben-Hur is the tale of a Jewish man during the time of the Roman occupation. Betrayed by his friend, Ben-Hur buys his way back from slavery to find his family and his revenge. Through shipwreck, reversals of fortune, travels with Bedouin, love, politics, and heartbreaking reunions, Ben-Hur witnesses events that will change not only his life but his soul forever. Part The Count of Monte Cristo, part The Robe, Ben-Hur is a fictionalized account of biblical times, places, and people who may have had firsthand encounters with Jesus of Nazareth.
Pride is never so loud as when in chains.Ben-Hur
9. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
When Saxon prince Ivanhoe returns from serving under Richard the Lionheart in the crusades to find his place in his father’s house given over to another, he sets out to try and win honour for himself in a tournament. He soon gets embroiled in Saxan-Norman frictions, castle sieges, kidnappings, rivalries, treasonous plots against the absent king, and a religious witch-hunt. Though by no means as popular as Robin Hood, Ivanhoe has a special claim to popular consciousness that is closely tied to Pyle’s Merry Adventures. Set during the regency of Prince John, Scott taps into the Robin Hood legend to bring Robin of Loxley to life as the leader of a band of noble outlaws in Lincoln green. We encounter such familiar characters as the friar (Tuck), the drunken minstrel (Alan-a-Dale), and more, as they weave in and out of the story of Ivanhoe.
“Of Prince John thou thinkest as I do; that he is too weak to be a determined monarch, too tyranical to be an easy monarch, too insolent and presumptuous to be a popular monarch, and too fickle and timid to be a long monarch of any kind.”Ivanhoe
10. Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory
The most popular of all the Arthurian legend compilations, Malory’s text is a readable account of all the most significant occurrences in the reign of King Arthur of Camelot. To categorize this as an adventure story is perhaps simplistic, selling it short of its real value as a Britannic epic, but it cannot be denied that much of the driving action of the plot (if plot it can be called) falls under the unequivocal label of “adventure.” Knights often literally go out on a venture: without a goal or any destination in mind, to meet whatever fantastic circumstances may befall them, so they can ride back to the court in triumph with a story to tell, and maybe a prize to present to the king or queen. It may ruin BBC’s Merlin for you, but it tells the core of the great legend: the sword in the stone naming Arthur true heir of Camelot, swoony sequences of starcrossed lovers Tristram and Isolde, the fantastic Grail quest, and the degenerate Mordred’s triggering of the cataclysmic events that led to Camelot’s downfall.
There was seen in the churchyard, against the high altar, a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone; and in midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword that said thus:—Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil, is rightwise king born of all England.Le Morte d’Arthur
Pirates, knights, soldiers, slaves, indians, outlaws, castaways, actors, or out-and-out adventurers: pick whatever strikes your fancy and buckle some swash. Or whatever.