I have been doing some armchair adventuring that sent me back into my past. As a boy, I read the Classic Illustrated comic book version of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and imagined myself a castaway on some island.
It is an old tale, first published in 1719. At that time (and I suspect still today) many readers and non-readers took the adventures of Robinson Crusoe to be a true story of a real person and an actual adventure. The title for that first edition, in the style of the time, was The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates.
I don’t think many people today are reading Robinson Crusoe but they may be familiar with the story or name – even if only because in the theme to Gilligan’s Island they sing “Like Robinson Crusoe, it’s primitive as can be.”
It is structured as an autobiography of Robinson (birth name Kreutznaer) and his time as a castaway for thirty years on a remote tropical island near Trinidad. Before he is rescued, he encounters cannibals, captives, and mutineers. Exciting stuff for a 10-year-old boy to encounter curled up in an armchair while eating some beef jerky for additional castaway effect.
I liked that even in the comic book version, it read like a journal. He builds a shelter and makes clothes and eventually befriends a native islander who he names Friday. Eventually, I saw a movie version of the story, but when I was reading the comic back in 1962, I also saw a cleaned-up, family film version of island survival called In Search Of The Castaways. No one should want to be stuck on some deserted island, but. of course, I did. As an adult, it all came back to me with the Tom Hanks’ film Castaway.
It wasn’t until I was an English major in college that I learned that Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was regarded by many to be the first novel in English. I read it for a class and it was a serious reading. James Joyce noted that the true symbol of the British conquest is Robinson Crusoe: “He is the true prototype of the British colonist. … The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit in Crusoe: the manly independence, the unconscious cruelty, the persistence, the slow yet efficient intelligence, the sexual apathy, the calculating taciturnity.” The interpretation in that classroom was that Crusoe tried to impose his society on the island via agriculture and his politics of being “king of the island” and by redeeming the savages, especially Friday, with his European ways. (Even though Defoe simultaneously criticizes the Spanish conquest of South America.)
I discovered in writing this that Daniel Defoe wrote over 250 books on economics, history, biography and crime, although we still know him best for the fiction, especially Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and Roxana.
As an English major and teacher, I should say that Defoe’s books had a big impact on me, but honestly as a kid at that time the book that had a greater grip on me was The Swiss Family Robinson (1812) which had to have been influences by Defoe. It is another story I first encountered as a Classics Illustrated Comic but that I went on to read after in book form. (That was true of many of those comics for me.)
I recall that the book seemed to have a like of moralizing about the author’s, Johann David Wyss, beliefs about Christian faith, family values, and the virtues of self-reliance. I was more into the fishing, boat-building, guns and general camping-in-the-woods stuff that sounded like a lot of fun. And their treehouse. I loved that. I still dream of having a treehouse one day. And I still love islands.
The story has had many versions in comics, books and on television and in films. Again, I don’t know that kids are reading books like The Swiss Family Robinson these days. the style and vocabulary is tough, even if the general plot is appealing. The Disney film version was the one I saw as a kid and I haven’t seen it since, so I don’t know how dated it might seem to a kid today.
All of this revisiting of my youthful armchair adventuring was inspired by seeing that August 7 is the anniversary of Thor Heyerdahl’s raft Kon-Tiki landing in French Polynesia back in 1947. The book Kon-Tiki was one I read was I was a young teen for a school book report. This true adventure is about a journey of 4300 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean by raft.
Thor Heyerdahl suspected that the South Sea Islands had been settled by an ancient race from thousands of miles to the east who traveled by rafts. Those people had been led on their ancient journey by a mythical Incan god named Kon-Tiki who walked the ocean.
He decided to prove his theory by duplicating the legendary voyage and on April 28, 1947, Heyerdahl and five other adventurers sailed from Peru on a balsa log raft. Balsa – like those little airplanes I had been buying and building all throughout my childhood.
They travels for three months on the open sea and hit storms, whales, sharks and everything you would expect. Finally, they sighted land. They had come to the Polynesian island of Puka Puka and took this as proof that early South Americans could have traveled across the Pacific and settled in the Polynesian Islands.
Of course, Heyerdahl and his crew of five had a radio, navigational equipment, watches and other modern conveniences and safety equipment, but the raft itself was made entirely of pre-Columbian materials. The crude craft was balsa logs lashed together with hemp ropes with gaps for the water to drain out. It had a bamboo cabin with a roof of banana leaves. The mast was made of planks of mangrove, and it held a square sail. It was a replica of the rafts that native Peruvians were using at the time of the first European contact in the early 1500s. Heyerdahl named it Kon-Tiki.
I read the book, The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas, that was published in 1948, and I saw a documentary film about the journey. It may have been the one Heyerdahl made when the book was released. I searched for it online and there are several film versions of the story including a dramatic movie based on the book.
I came across a few clips from the 1947 Heyerdahl documentary including this one that shows their encounter with the worlds biggest fish, the whaleshark.
I’m sure when I was 15, this would have had an exciting Moby-Dick adventure quality to it, but now I view it and wonder if they were in any danger and if there was any reason to attack the whaleshark other than to get some action footage.
Almost all my adventuring these days is of the armchair variety, and my take on survival and “helping the natives” has certainly gone in a very different direction from the ideas I had as a kid curled up with a blanket in a chair reading.