In front of me are copies of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey (the wonderfully condensed Samuel Butler translation, if you’re wondering). All three are hailed as landmark pieces of literature, and all three share a common theme: travel. The hero’s journey, known in literary circles as the monomyth, is a narrative technique ubiquitous across storytelling traditions. A hero must leave behind all that is familiar, all that is safe, wherever or whatever they call home, and venture into the unfamiliar.
It’s easy to see why this theme has been so successful in fiction. When Bilbo sets off with the company of dwarves, he sheds the daily monotony of the Shire—and how many of us fantasize about doing just that? It resonates with something inside us, a gut feeling that we are the heroes of our own stories. We crave danger as much as we fear it, if only to look back on a life well-lived. But adventures are few and far between in the real world. There are relatively few of us who do it for a living, and even then—adventuring full time is a slightly more nuanced exercise than we’d find in the pages of Melville, Tolkien, or Homer.
And that’s where travel comes in. It’s the one element of the monomyth we can successfully replicate. There may be no gold-hoarding dragons, or obsessive ship captains, or wine-loving cyclopes—but they aren’t needed. In the real world, travel alone suffices. To leave behind that which is familiar is to challenge oneself, and meeting that challenge is all the adventure we’re likely to need.
We are the heroes of our own stories