Adventure: Dangerous Freedom

The best adventures treat characters as free moral agents faced with real decisions. In The Lord of Rings, the most successful adventure story of the 20th century, the plot hinges on the choices of the characters. The whole council of Elrond is about deciding what to do with the ring. A wrong decision is made when Gandalf first attempts to lead them over the mountains to Lothlorien. Aragorn, in the midst of great danger, takes time to decide whether to follow Frodo into Mordor or pursue Merry and Pippin into Rohan. Eomer must judge whether Aragorn is to be trusted. Boromir, Faramir, Galadriel, and even Gandalf must decide whether to use the ring’s power. Frodo decides to show Gollum mercy despite Sam’s objections. Choices drive the plot and Tolkien emphasizes again and again that no good outcome is guaranteed; that they are pursuing “a fool’s hope”. It is hope and morality, not pragmatism, that drive decisions.

In a pivotal scene of Treasure Island, the captured Jim Hawkins is allowed to talk alone with Doctor Livesey after promising not to attempt an escape. Despite the urgings of the doctor, Jim steadfastly refuses to break his word to Long John Silver. Silver later tells Jim he had noticed his decision to keep his word and pledges to protect Jim from the other pirates. When the main characters are given freedom of choice, their moral character matters. The pity Frodo shows Gollum matters, not just for the final plot twist, but for Frodo to maintain the moral character needed to resist the ring’s power.

In adventures, decisions are the razor’s edge which determine the direction of the plot and fate of the characters. Therefore, it is no surprise that adventure stories became unfashionable in the 20th century. At the end of the 19th century, western culture was awash in deterministic theories that denied or reduced the possibility of free decisions. Karl Marx insisted that history was governed by large and impersonal economic forces—not the decisions of leaders. Sigmund Freud began exploring the many ways in which what we think are free decisions are actually the result of subconscious urges and neuroses. In the 20th century the behaviorist theories of B. F. Skinner insisted that all decisions are the result of our past conditioning. Later Francis Crick argued that all that we are and do is the result of genetic determinism—that we are a bio-chemical machine. Because of the dominance of these reductionistic theories, many literary critics regard the idea that characters can freely choose good or evil as naïve and unsophisticated.

In literary naturalism, the main characters are victims of their environment: the economy, society, or the stifling conventionality of the middle class. Life acts upon them but they do not freely act upon the world around them. Zola, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser presented characters who are victims of not only their environment but social and economic injustice. Part of the irony of literary naturalism is its insistence that we are not free moral agents and that we should all choose to end social injustice. Of course, part of the rejection of adventure is founded on the conviction that only the upper classes—the knights—have the luxury of going on adventures. For the poor, naturalists point out, the next meal is an adventure. Naturalist writers, therefore, have both political and philosophical objections to adventure novels.

Although it certainly true that the average person during the Middle Ages could not gear up like an Arthurian knight and wander aimlessly in search of adventure, we should note that in many fairy tales it is the common folk who have adventures. Boys who sell a cow for magic beans kill giants and any girl can become Cinderella. George McDonald, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and G. K. Chesterton all wrote eloquently about the important truths expressed by fairy tales. Any person may suddenly find themselves in a fairy tale that demands they decide rightly. In a fairy tale evil is real but limited, and at any moment goodness, joy, or truth may pounce upon the humblest character.

We, however, are not forced to choose between fairy tales and science. All reductionistic theories that deny people freedom of choice represent the triumph of half-truths. Marx is right to point out that much of history is driven by economic self-interest. And much of who we are and what we do is a product of our environment and conditioning. Subconscious and unconscious impulses do influence us. The instinct to survive is strong. But all these theories over-reach when they claim to explain all human behavior. Over all these conflicting riptides of influence, there is a self which makes free decisions. So although all these theories provide writers with insight into the motivations of characters, for adventure to be possible a writer must create morally free characters.

Free moral agency isn’t important just for heroes. It is essential for true villains. If we embrace a purely sociological or biochemical explanation of a villain, he or she ceases to be truly evil. The villain may still be frightening, but has been reduced to a case study in social pathology—is now pathetic more than evil. Although writers can certainly outline influences on a villain, for an antagonist to be truly evil, he or she must consciously choose evil despite knowing what is good. Sometimes the descent into villainy may be many small steps—small decisions made over a long period.

It is ironic that reductionistic theories that deny freedom of choice claim to be realistic and scientific. Yet, even those presenting these theories cannot live by them. Freud did not present his theories as the product of irrational subconscious resentment toward his father and Judaism. B. F. Skinner did not present his theory as merely the result of his environment and conditioning. Francis Crick did not admit that he was genetically determined to believe in genetic determinism. Adventure novels ring true, seem more realistic, to average readers because we all live as though we must take responsibility for our actions. We struggle daily to decide rightly. As G. K. Chesterton insisted, the adventure novels written for boys grasp this truth better than most modern novels. Chesterton was right to trust the commonsense of the man on the street more than the reductionist theories of 20th century intellectuals.

This commonsense insistence on human freedom and responsibility explains why readers continue to love adventure novels—why Lewis and Tolkien’s works continue to be popular in books and film. Adventure novels, rather than being escapist, express the most fundamental truths about the human existence: the universe has a moral structure, character matters, evil exists, and we must choose good over evil. Tolkien and Lewis offer us the opportunity to escape the delusions and dark fantasies of those who reduce humans to animals, pawns, or lab rats. London street urchins who read Stevenson’s Treasure Island saw that their character and choices put nobility and heroism within reach. If the choices and character of hobbits matter in Middle-earth, then our character and decisions matter today.

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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