Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, July 13, 2018


Until recently, all of my remarks on ROBINSON CRUSOE have been based on summations and adaptations, for I had not read either Defoe’s famous novel or its four-months-later sequel. In July 2009 I corrected myself on the question as to whether there could be a subcombative (I used the term "noncombative" then) form of the adventure-mythos. From ADDENDA EST:

...on further consideration I did think of a type of adventure-story that could take place in a "noncombative mode:" namely, the so-called "Robinsonade," the subgenre of lost-on-a-desert-island stories that were spawned by the considerable influence of Defoe's ROBINSON CRUSOE.

I also wrote that there was some "man vs. man" conflict in the first novel, which was correct, though the combat-scenes are rather niggling compared to the novel's emphasis upon Crusoe's efforts to survive and make a comfortable haven on his deserted isle. Today I would still say that it is a novel that aligns largely with the invigorative mode of the adventure-mythos, though the invigorative elements spring from the protagonist's struggles to survive rather than his fairly brief conflicts with cannibals and mutineers.

In 2013's A SHORT HISTORY OF HEROIC FANTASY-ADVENTURE, I touched upon another Defoe work-- which I still have not read today-- as an example of naturalistic adventure.

Examples of such naturalistic adventures include Defoe's 1720 novel CAPTAIN SINGLETON, Walter Scott's breakthrough 1814 historical epic WAVERLY and Schiller's 1781 play THE ROBBERS.  Even some poets began to emulate these more or less naturalistic "swashbuckling" themes, discernible in some of Byron's long poems of the early 19th century, like CHILDE HAROLD (1812) and THE CORSAIR (1814).  And undoubtedly there were many forgotten novels that trod the same basic territory, particularly the anonymously written "highwayman stories" popular in the 1700s. 

In 2014's ADDRESSING DISTRESS PT. 3, I advanced this hypothesis:

....I think 1719 brings a far more credible progenitor for pop culture: Daniel Defoe's ROBINSON CRUSOE.  In contrast to many of the novels aimed at more educated readers-- those of Swift, Fielding, and Voltaire, for three-- CRUSOE can be read for nothing more than visceral entertainment.  True, the novel has its deeper themes, but I don't think that its perennial popularity rests on them.
To date I have not found a better example of a "progenitor for pop culture" than ROBINSON CRUSOE. It's a little harder, though, to suss out its place in the history of adventure-fiction.

In SHORT HISTORY I cited a Wiki-quote to the effect that the genre of the chivalric romance had fallen out of fashion by 1600. I've heard it said that Edmund Spenser's 1590-96 poetic epic THE FAERIE QUEENE was not popular with contemporaneous reviewers, and this stands in strong contrast to the overwhelming success of Cervantes's DON QUIXOTE in 1605, a work often credited with demolishing the reputation of the chivalric romance. As I look at this list of 17th-century works of repute, I see nothing that does not shout "elite culture," even if certain works, such as the plays of Shakespeare, were apparently popular with the masses. Most of these works, IMO, would align with the other three Fryean mythoi-- drama, irony, or comedy-- but not with adventure. Even Milton's SAMSON AGONISTES, which like the Biblical story ends with Samson exacting a pyrrhic victory over the Philistines, aligns more with drama than with adventure.

 So is ROBINSON CRUSOE not only the first pop-culture novel with broad appeal to the increasingly literate masses, but also the 18th-century's first articulations of the adventure-mythos? It would seem so at present, though both the first book and its sequel are clearly subcombative works, in which some violence takes place but is not arranged to center upon the act of combat. From what I can tell, the 18th century's intellectual currents-- often represented as the "Age of Enlightenment" (1715-89)-- were still too allied to elite culture in order to allow for the invigorative mood of the fully combative adventure.

ROBINSON CRUSOE, in contrast, presents its contemporaneous readers with a picture of a European who has many lesser adventures in which he largely wins out over cannibals, mutineers, and Tartar raiders with his superior firepower, as I attempted to show in the first part of this two-part essay. Based on the way Defoe arranges his scenes of violence, I would say they are characterized more by "struggle" than by "combat." I''m not sure that any single literary work, whether of elite or popular culture, captures the attractions of the combative mode until Walter Scott makes his great breakthrough in the early 19th century with novels like ROB ROY and IVANHOE.

In the first part of CRUSADER I've detailed my problems with Crusoe's character: his priggish piety, his mental isolation from both his pets and fellow humans like Xury and Friday, and his questionable courage. But many of these traits are somewhat more forgivable in a character more defined by "persistence" than by "glory:" that is, a demihero rather than a hero.

In one of my early essays on the distinctions between these personas, I wrote this of the characters of the LOST IN SPACE series, which was perhaps only indirectly modeled on ROBINSON CRUSOE, through the later work SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON:

Despite the family's original purpose of space-exploration, the majority of the castaways-- mother Maureen Robinson, children Judy, Penny, and Will, and the cowardly stowaway Doctor Sniith-- are presented as being far from inclined to fight under most circumstances.  Only two of the male protagonists-- "alpha male" John Robinson and "beta male" Major Don West-- show much competence in the combat department, and even then, Major West only rarely shines as being more than just a "good" fighter.  John Robinson-- played by Guy Williams, the former TV "Zorro"-- is more frequently positioned as an above-average combatant, occasionally even displaying Zorro-style swordfighting skills. Though the Robinsons are portrayed as being willing to go to the wall to save persecuted or put-upon victims from aggressors, they only do so as a last resort, which makes them very different from the concept of the hero as a more active defender of right.
As discussed elsewhere, there is no reason a demihero cannot be a competent combatant, as was certainly the case with John Robinson. But this indirect namesake of Defoe's character is closer in spirit to Crusoe, in that both of them are largely concerned with day-to-day survival rather than with remaking the world.

No comments: