For thousands of years, people have travelled great distances to discover new sights and experiences. The thrill of the new has often inspired us to put down those experiences in writing, and in turn for centuries we’ve been inspired to travel by these epic and intimate accounts of journeys taken.
Get some travel inspiration with us as we look back at some famous literary icons whose depictions and accounts of their travels continue to inspire millions of people around the world to this day. From a millennia ago to recent blockbuster adaptations, hear a selection of writers through the ages that have spurred our travel bug.
The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 1800 B.C.)
It’s only fitting that we start with one of the earliest surviving great works of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Written circa 1800BC, in Mesopotamia, the fertile crescent in the middle east which today encompasses south-eastern Turkey, and parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Kuwait, and tells of a great king’s epic journey.
There are many translations of this classic poem, but one you’re most likely to come across is the version of the story by Herbert Mason. In it, the great king Gilgamesh, inconsolable over a friend's death, goes off on a pilgrimage in search of "immortality and a way to keep loss at bay," a desire we can still identify with today. Poet and essayist Julia Alvarez points out the wisdom Gilgamesh receives from a barmaid, still applies to any modern traveller: “Fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice.”
Despite the thousands of years between present day and ancient Mesopotamia, current holiday-goers can still appreciate the deeper motives that send us abroad, and the joy of filling our bellies and being merry while travelling.
Captain James Cook (1728 - 1779)
Like many keen travellers, Captain James Cook made it his life mission to explore untouched corners of the world and see as much as possible in his lifetime. Captain Cook’s journeys were geographically significant, spanning from Newfoundland in Canada to The Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
His extensive diaries and journals capture the variety of his experiences, and give an insight into his determination and ambition, with motivating thoughts like ‘Remember, the greater the opportunity, the fewer are those who see it’ or ‘Do just once what others say you can't do, and you will never pay attention to their limitations again.’ Captain Cook pushed himself out of his comfort zone like no one had before and was deeply committed to the exploration of other cultures (even when it meant testing rumours of cannibalism!)
The collection of his diaries are still available in paperback, or in full for free online. His commitment to discovering new and unique experiences continue to motivate and inspire travellers. How can you step out of your comfort zone on your next trip?
Jules Verne (1828 – 1905)
Late 19th Century French author Jules Verne wrote more than 50 books in his influential series ‘Extraordinary Voyages’ which coupled his sense of wonder and exploration with scientific trivia and detail of the day. In describing the sights to be found abroad, Verne declares “Reality provides us with facts so romantic that imagination itself could add nothing to them.” Including works such as 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, perhaps the most famous work in this collection Around the World in Eighty Days, stands out as one of the key travel narratives of the 20th century – full of the excitement and adventure of travelling to new lands.
Following the journey of Phileas Fogg, a gentleman living in London that spends most of his life in solitude. However, that all changes when he sets off to distant locations on his quest across the globe. He passes through exotic lands and dangerous locations, overcoming setbacks and always racing against the clock. Many people comment on the protagonist’s development throughout the plot – with the main catalyst of change being his exploration of new places and cultures.
Around the World in 80 Days, was most recently adapted to film in 2004, showing that modern audiences still thirst for global adventure and travel’s power for transformational positive change.
Oscar Wilde (1854 - 1900)
Author of books like ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and numerous plays, including ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, Oscar Wilde was famously an outsider in his life, simultaneously lauded and vilified for his commitment to the arts, his writing and his sexuality. His desire to discover new aesthetics and being something of an outsider likely motivated the many journeys abroad he took during his life.
In Oscar Wilde’s writing you can see the importance he places on travel towards our wellbeing and personal development. “Travel improves the mind wonderfully and does away with all one’s prejudices,” Wilde reminds us in “The Happy Prince and Other Tales.” Touring the USA, aged 27 and at the height of his fame, his essential curiosity and kindness showed in his equal interest in the country’s farmers and cowboys as in its well-connected writers, wits, and politicians. He observed, that “America is not a country, it is a world” and had many quips about the nation, including “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between,” “In America the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience” and "We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language."
When we go abroad, we could all do with taking Wilde’s essential philosophy to heart, to “Live life with no excuses, travel with no regret.”
Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961)
Ernest Hemingway is renowned for his works such as ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls.’ He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, and was one of the most prolific writers of American literature in the 20th century.
Travel isn’t necessarily always the central theme of Hemingway’s literary work; however, he used his personal travel experiences as a catalyst for literary inspiration. He famously told us, ‘If you need travel inspiration, look no further than the literary world and its luminaries. Writers really know how to take vacations. And the great thing is, writers frequently turn their travels into art, compelling you to want to follow in their wake, see the things they saw, do the things they did, feel the things they felt.’
We can absorb Hemingway’s advice in two ways: First, if you need some inspiration for your next holiday, why not go old school and grab a book? Writers, like those we’ve mentioned here, have the ability to compel you to follow in their wake.
On the other hand, if you feel you’re lacking motivation and drive in your profession, Hemingway’s turning ‘travel into art’ suggests that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, such as solo travel, could boost productivity in work.
Jack Kerouac (1922 – 1969)
Jack Kerouac is an American novelist and poet, most famous for his 1957 novel ‘On The Road.’
A peripatetic continent spanning road-trip across the United States forms the centre of ‘On the Road,’ as the title suggests. The meandering novel is a celebration of adventure, Kerouac describes the joy of setting out, “I was surprised… by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”
It’s through this world, ‘rich with possibility’ that the main characters’ coming-of-age is instigated throughout the novel.
Jack Kerouac famously proclaimed “Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” Kerouac was an advocate of stepping away from the everyday, mundane routines and embracing all the challenges that places before us. Sometimes, instead of worrying about getting the right hotel, or the perfect location, we need to just get out there and ‘climb that goddamn mountain.’
Hunter S Thompson (1937 – 2005)
The larger than life persona of Hunter S Thompson inspired many to look at the world through his off-kilter lens. As a journalist and author, he founded of the ‘gonzo journalism’ movement, and was no stranger to using his personal life as inspiration for his work. His travel experiences in particular played a significant part in his literary accolades, and Thompson travelled far and wide during his career.
His early novel ‘The Rum Diary’ was drafted after Thompson packed up his everyday life as a journalist and moved to South America. Blurring the distinction between author and protagonist, a technique he’s become synonymous with, ‘The Rum Diary’ protagonist also experiences a similar life upheaval. Thompson depicts the senses evoked when moving away, “With the palms zipping past and the big sun burning down on the road ahead, I had a flash of something I hadn’t felt since my first months in Europe – a mixture of ignorance and a loose, “what the hell” kind of confidence that comes on a man when the wind picks up and he begins to move in a hard straight line toward an unknown horizon.”
Couldn’t we all use a bit of that ‘what the hell’ kind of confidence when travelling to ‘The unknown horizon’ that Thompson so vividly evoked.
Elizabeth Gilbert (1969 – present)
Bringing us up to the 21st century, Elizabeth Gilbert introduced her debut novel ‘Eat Pray Love’ in 2006 – as a heartwarming, present-day approach to travel.
The protagonist begins her journey at a low point in her life: post-divorce, lacking in confidence and a lust for life. She seeks new adventure and a change of perspective by embarking upon an around-the-world trip.
Using international travel and exploration of different countries and cultures, including Italy, India and then Bali, enabled Elizabeth Gilbert personal journey to Eat (indulge in good foods,) Pray (find her spirituality) and ultimately find Love.
Fans will tell you this book captures exceptionally well the way we can find ourselves in a period of uncertainty in life, and use travel to help you re-connect with the self or ‘find yourself.’
If you look further throughout the ages, the love for travel has always been with us, and has been the inspiration for many of our great literary works. Finding travel inspiration does not need to be limited in present day to Instagram or Travel Agents. Don’t limit your search to simply the #travelgram hashtag - pick up a great work of fiction, and let it inspire your next great journey.