Armchair Adventuring


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.

Map of Robinson Crusoe’s island, 1720

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.

swiss familly robinson

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.

The Martian


The last film about space I watched was Interstellar.  My wife wouldn’t watch it with me. She suspected it would get all scientific. Well, movie scientific, anyway. She was right.

I liked the film, but the science (which I know was done carefully) gets wonky and farfetched in the end. Still, I’m planning to watch another space film, The Martian , when it comes out in November.

The novel it is based on is a first novel by Andy Weir. It is science fiction. An American astronaut, Mark Watney, becomes stranded alone on Mars and must improvise in order to survive. A review I had read described it as Apollo 13 meets Cast Away.

You never know how a film adaptation will turn out, but the director is Ridley Scott and it stars Matt Damon. That’s a good start.

The author is the son of a particle physicist and I had read that he researched the science to be as realistic as possible based on existing technology.

It has an interesting publishing history. Weir hadn’t had success with publishers in the past, so he put The Martian online in serial format one chapter at a time for free at his website, and the he made an Amazon Kindle version available at 99 cents. That is where I found it on the advice of a friend.

It sold 35,000 copies in three months, got the attention of publishers, was “legitimately” published and debuted on the New York Times Best Seller list on March 2, 2014

I watched the Official Trailer for the film. The basic story is there. Stranded alone on Mars with few supplies, Watney must survive and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. Back on Earth, scientists work to bring home “the Martian” and his crewmates also plan a rescue mission.


The story reminded me of an old sci-fi film, Robinson Crusoe on Mars. This 1964 film is a science fiction retelling of the classic novel Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe.

It sounds like it would be a truly “B” film, but is more thoughtful than you would expect. I hope the same will be true of The Martian.

A spaceship crash landing on Mars leaves astronaut Paul Mantee abandoned. He must figure out how to survive in this hostile environment. (They shot most of the film in Death Valley.) Now hang on to your credulity. He is aided by a monkey from his ship.

It is a vote of quality that the DVD of this film is one of the Criterion Collection which gives it a nice presentation including a commentary track, interviews, a featurette and an odd little “music video.”

Before the 1960s, all the sci-fi about Mars was about aliens that lived there. Now, the “Martians” are us.

If you want to follow The Martian film pre-release:

The Man Who Loved Islands

As a kid, I was always drawing maps. I used to draw maps of islands in my school notebooks. There was something about islands.

Maybe it was just that you could put the whole thing there on one page. There’s the castaway-on-an-island romance thing that had been planted in my mind by reading Robinson Crusoe. Maybe it was a way that a kid could “rule” and have control over his world – something that wasn’t at all possible in the real world.

I did want to be stranded on an island. I especially wanted to have that treehouse from The Swiss Family Robinson (at least the version that was in the Disney film). (Before you ask, I did not get into the TV program Lost. I tried 2 episodes and it didn’t click. Seemed like I should have enjoyed it.)

In college, I came upon D.H. Lawrence‘s short story “The Man Who Loved Islands.” Overall, the story is not a story about me at all – but in the opening, I did find my island fascination was shared by at least one person.

There was a man who loved islands. He was born on one, but it didn’t suit him, as there were too many other people on it, besides himself. He wanted an island all of his own: not necessarily to be alone on it, but to make it a world of his own.

An island, if it is big enough, is no better than a continent. It has to be really quite small, before it feels like an island; and this story will show how tiny it has to be, before you can presume to fill it with your own personality

That was what I wanted as a boy an island all my own, but not to be alone on it, but to make it a world of my own.I did want ones that were small. No Australia for me. I wanted to be able to see it all from the mountaintop and walk it all in a day.

The story I was assigned to read for that college course was the more popular Lawrence story, “The Rocking-Horse Winner.” But “The Man Who Loved Islands” was the one that got me drawing in my notebook during class.

I ended up writing my paper about “The Man Who Loved Islands” (with permission). Written in the late 1920s, it’s an interesting parable of modern man – especially if you see modern man as a kind of “bloodless” man.  The protagonist, Cathcart, is actually everything Lawrence hated and not meant to be some hero to the reader. A very twentieth-century Robinson Crusoe with money, who tries to regain a personal paradise.

Unlike Cathcart, I was not born on an island. In the story, he still lives on one, but dislikes it because there are too many other people on it. The one he buys fits my criteria pretty well – four miles around, with a few cottages to get started. He also owns a smaller island lying off it, which was something I often drew on my maps. I’m not sure why I did though. An island to escape to when the island is too much?

Escape. I guess that’s what the island or the treehouse or the cabin in the woods that I sometimes write about and have on my wish list are really all about.

Of course, it’s a mirage. I don’t think you can escape. It’s like the person who says that they could write that novel if they could get away to that mountaintop cabin for a year.  That’s not what is stopping you from writing the novel.

I know that I would end up working on the cabin’s leaky roof and fixing the island’s sagging dock more often than the other things, but I still want to give it a try.