Home » stevereads

The Royal Road to Romance!

By (March 5, 2014) No Comment

the royal road to romanceOur book today is The Royal Road to Romance by Richard Halliburton, a rollicking travel-adventure book that became a runaway bestseller when it appeared in 1925. It had been a gamble on his part, a gamble taken in the teeth of the odds and over the doubts of his friends and family – circumstances with which he was intimately familiar and which always filled him with a defiant joy. This first book of his – and all the books he’d go on to write before he was lost at sea in 1939 – is born of that defiant joy. The Royal Road to Romance opens with Richard pining in his student apartment at Princeton, staring out the window while his four roommates dutifully study back in the room. His heart is full of yearnings for adventure, and all his senses are alive to the calling world:

A rebellion against the prosaic mold into which all five of us were being poured, rose up inside me. I flung my book away and rushed out of the apartment on to the throbbing shadowy campus. The lake in the valley, I knew, would be glittering, and I turned toward it, surging within at the sense of temporary escape from confinement. Cool and clean, the wind, frolicking down the aisle of trees, tousled my hair, and set my blood to dancing. Never had I known a night so overflowing with beauty and with poetry.taj mahal

Needing very little more prodding, he sets out, Ishmael-like, as a crewman on the first seagoing vessel. He hikes and bikes across Germany; he fulfills a life-long dream of climbing the Matterhorn; he treks through India with virtually no money (“Had I become a soft tourist that I must have money to travel? Was my vagabond stamina, ridiculed by my friends in America before departure, really as feeble as they prophesied it would be?”), and he reaches the pinnacle of his imagination in the form of the Taj Mahal, to which he gets a hilariously nonchalant introduction:

It was almost night, and the first shy breeze we had felt that day came from the Jumna. Across the river, through the twilight haze, a huge and swelling dome could be dimly distinguished from the dark sky behind. Soaring from the tree-tops into a bank of clouds, it seemed a Maxfield Parrish picture come to life.

“What’s that?” I asked of Ahmed, my Punjabi companion.

“That’s the Taj Mahal.”

Had it been the post-office or the mission church he could not have spoken with less enthusiasm, yet it would be impossible to describe how deeply I was stirred by this casual reply. It was as if Columbus on his first voyage had asked Roderigo: “What’s that dark line over there?” and Roderigo had answered: “Oh, that? That’s land.”

One of the curious highlights of the entire book, in fact, is his decision to evade all guards and attendants, wait until nightfall, and then swim in the Taj Mahal’s grand pool by moonlight:

Only an insomniac owl watched me remove my clothes, or heard the faint ripple as I dropped into the alabaster pool. This was a page from the Arabian Nights, a reversion to the fabled luxury of ancient emperors – this, at last, was Romance.

(“A strange ecstasy came over me,” he tells us, “I heard myself laugh deliriously”).

mount fujiThe Royal Road to Romance has a great many comic vignettes; its author was an incurable optimist with an endless ability to talk to people. He was completely at ease with strangers, and the adventures he records here couldn’t have happened without his skill at drawing strangers into his fun (he also picked up new languages with ease – always a handy traveller’s skill). His books have the comic scene-setting of Mark Twain’s great travel-writing, and like Twain (although Twain’s not often remembered for it), he can swerve from the human comedy to the majesty of nature whenever the mood strikes him, as when he describes the awe-inspiring experience of weathering a storm while inside a jungle:

All morning the wind rose higher and higher, until by noon it was blowing with hurricane force and driving a veritable cloud burst against us. A storm in the mountains, an awesome sight to be sure, is no more spectacular than a storm in the jungle. The roar of the wind rushing through the walls of vegetation was deafening. It was a mighty conflict between the storm and the forest – the wind attacking, the jungle resisting – all in vain, for the storm tore into it, gnashing, raging, lashing the branches against one another, ripping up the underbrush and leaving chaos and havoc in its wake as a warning to other jungles that might defy its passage.

(Since the storm in question happens in the jungles outside Bangkok, I feel behooved to add that it’s not all majesty-of-nature; in the immediate aftermath of such a storm, there are highly-agitated – and needless to say highly venomous – snakes everywhere)

Books like this one don’t really have – shouldn’t really have – a novelistic structure; their various incidents aren’t working toward a climax, they’re just happening. And yet, our author supplies a kind of climax to The Royal Road to Romance when he shares his trip to old Japan, specifically when he’s seized with a desire to do what he believes nobody has ever done before – make an unaided winter ascent of the much-storied Mount Fujiyama:

In the dim light the ghostly peak before me, barren of all vegetation, glimmered like a colossal cone of white sugar. Cold thrills ran through me. This was a lucy reading the royal road to romanceclimax of adventure, the glorious finale of months of sensational living. I had defied everybody, risked everything on this one throw. It was to be the acid test, the iron trial of endurance. This was my twenty-third birthday, and here was a chance to celebrate it by dashing to pieces the age-old tradition that Fuji could never be climbed in winter single-handed.

Naturally, he infuses this dream with all the personal, Arthurian-legend high drama he possibly can; in the book, it takes him about five seconds to turn the whole thing into a dialogue like straight out of Tennyson:

I glared at my enemy. It glared back at me. “Fool!” it seemed to say, “you presume to do alone that which has been fatal to whole parties of climbers! Go reach for the moon – you’ll get it as easily as my summit.” The danger of my adventure suddenly appalled me. I quaked with apprehension, but Danton’s clarion call to his hard-pressed French again came to me: “L’audace, encore l’audace, toujours, toujours l’audace!” To hell with discretion! I would not turn back!

(There is still discretion here, of course, and throughout all of Halliburton’s explorer’s notebooks; he may have travelled to the furthest, most exotic destinations on the globe, but in his own lifetime – and, curiously, ever since – what he felt for other handsome, virile young men was one far-flung destination too many)

As for whether or not he succeeds in conquering Mount Fuji in the snow: need you even wonder?