Richard Halliburton, The Royal Road to Romance (Travelers Tales Books, 2000; originally published, 1925)
An ever-present concern for writers of fantastic fiction be it fantasy, science fiction, mythic fiction, interstitial fiction, comics, whatever is creating the strange and wonderful customs that exist amongst the peoples of the fictional worlds they write about. This is a big part of what practitioners of the trade call "world-building," and as in many things, one of the keys to world-building is reading: reading history, reading science, reading anthropology, and more. It's all a way of stocking one's mental database, from which one can draw the various customs and locales for one's own work. One genre that I've always found works particularly well in this regard is travel writing. The more exotic the better: tales of people from a background not unlike mine venturing into "parts unknown," going wherever the map and the few coins in their pockets will take them, documenting what they see and who they meet. And one of the finest writers in this genre is Richard Halliburton who has been dead for nearly seventy-five years.
Halliburton lived from 1900 to 1939. Coming of age just in time for the end of World War I, he died just before the outbreak of World War II; thus he lived his entire adventurous life in that span of years that saw the Roaring Twenties; the Great Depression; the rise of Communism, Fascism and Naziism; and so much more. He traveled a dangerous world shaped by the Treaty of Versailles, and yet everywhere he went he found wonder enough to make a living writing articles for magazines back home, and later, books for popular audiences. He folded the proceeds of his writings right back into more travels, and he finally died as probably all adventuring travelers should while in the midst of one of his exploits, sinking while attempting to sail a Chinese junk across the Pacific from Hong Kong to San Francisco.
The Royal Road to Romance is Halliburton's first book. In it he describes how, upon his graduation from Princeton, he decided to eschew a life of business and career for a life of "romance," journeying to far-off lands. As he writes:
"I hungered for the romance of great mountains. From childhood I had dreamed of climbing Fujiyama and the Matterhorn, and had planned to charge Mount Olympus in order to visit the gods that dwelled there. I wanted to swim the Hellespont … float down the Nile in a butterfly boat, make love to a pale Kashmiri maiden beside the Shalimar, dance to the castanets of Granada gypsies, commune in solitude with the moonlit Taj Mahal, hunt tigers in a Bengal jungle try everything once."
This book is the story of just that journey. Literally the tale of a trip around the world, The Royal Road to Romance begins with the passage across the Atlantic and Halliburton's decision to climb the Matterhorn (which, while still a very daunting peak, was especially formidable in the early 20th century), despite the small details of climbing season being over and of his having absolutely no climbing experience. Still, he and his friend (the first of several traveling companions he has throughout the book) reach the summit, where his friend makes a discovery that only an overgrown adolescent male could make:
""'Oh, Dick,' he whispered in such unusually solemn tones that I awaited some great inspired utterance about the sublimity of nature and the glory of God.... 'At last... after talking about it and dreaming about it all these years, at last, I can actually SPIT A MILE!' Only the guides restrained me from pushing him off."
The exploit atop the Matterhorn is over fairly quickly, as are all the exploits in this book; Halliburton lurches exuberantly from one adventure to another, always seemingly getting into trouble or nearing financial desperation. At one point he tempts fate by sneaking onto restricted property on the Rock of Gibraltar (which, incidentally, Halliburton reveals was a mainstay of the Prudential Insurance Company's advertising even way back then); later on, he wanders with another friend into Kashmir, a region that was as bloody and dangerous a spot then as it is now; he engages in all manner of subterfuge with train conductors who don't take kindly to his riding their trains with no ticket; and so on. He survives each encounter with his sense of humor intact, though, and we usually root for him.
Other aspects of Halliburton's personality are slightly more problematic for me, as a modern reader. This is one of those books where one has to remind oneself occasionally that it was written in another day and age, because of different attitudes and beliefs. In this case, Halliburton's view of "Western superiority" begins to show as he moves from Europe and the Middle East into Asia and the Far East, and at times he's directly condescending to the natives he encounters. The bit with the train conductors, mentioned above, is a good example of this it starts out being funny, but after a while it takes on a tone of "Look how I, the smart American, outwit the dumb Hindoo." But again, there is a certain sense of inevitability here: while it does detract a bit from our enjoyment of the book, it doesn't seem fair to label it a fault inasmuch as Halliburton couldn't really avoid it. The same applies to a small amount of sexism here; Halliburton doesn't seem to view the few women he tells us about as real people, but this might be particularly unfair, since he only encounters them for moments at a time and then he's off to the next adventure. His male travel companions don't come off as "developed" people, either, so this may be one of those "It's not a bug, it's a feature" moments. And the book could do with some photographs, as iconic as many of the locations Halliburton visits may be.
Those are fairly minor quibbles. What is most fascinating about this book is the way Halliburton manages to give each event, each location, a distinct feel. He was probably well aware of the fact that reading about a place is the poorest possible substitute for actually being there, but he still manages to use words to convey something of the emotions he feels in each site and the way each place is unique and special to him. What's most valuable here are the way Halliburton continually finds wonder and beauty just about everywhere he looks, and his clear belief that the world is not a place to fear but rather a place in which to take joy.