RESOURCEFUL Robinson Crusoe’, illustration by NC Wyeth (1920).
Accept the hand you’re dealt, but be ready for the unforeseen
The Circling Fin
One of the striking features of the novel Robinson Crusoe is that the hero doesn’t speak a word to another human for more than a quarter of a century, a span that brings us almost 200 pages into the book before Man Friday makes his appearance and Crusoe’s long solitude becomes significantly less absolute.
That isolation, though striking, is hardly a surprise since the one thing everybody knows about Mr Crusoe, even if they’ve never read the book or seen one of the many film adaptations, is that he was washed up onto the beach of an uninhabited island where, by definition, human fellowship is impossible – especially when the only other visitors are day-tripping cannibals.
The castaway diligently records his thoughts and discoveries as he figures out his new place in the world. Naturally, waking up as the lone survivor of a shipwreck, he curses his luck. But, over time, he actually feels grateful for his lonely destiny. In our lives too we can sometimes retrieve wisdom from the losses and disappointments with which life has strewn our path.
If we mature at all, we more or less undertake a stoic journey in life, and so Robinson Crusoe, like all great heroes from Odysseus to Obi-Wan Kenobi, makes dignified peace with what he cannot overcome.
But even when you have your philosophical armour in place, and assume Dame Fortune has finished aiming missiles your way, you can be caught unawares. Robinson Crusoe’s most dangerous adventure turns out to be the trek from Madrid to Paris on his way home to London.
Nowadays that inter-city trip is about as safe a journey as it is possible to take. The worst that might happen is digestive revolt if you switch too abruptly from tapas to escargots. But 300 years ago you could easily lose your life crossing the Pyrenees. Running the cannibal gauntlet turns out to be considerably less life-threatening than contending with packs of starving wolves in snowy midwinter.
Crusoe’s European journey reminds us that certain hardships that we now remember only in our fairytales were once commonplace. Outside of Iberia and its borderlands, wolves have vanished now from Western Europe, although Der Spiegel recently reported the first sighting of a wolf in western Germany in 123 years. Unfortunately for the beast that sighting was through the scope of a high-caliber rifle, from which there issued a bullet that proved fatal.
Crusoe himself was no mean shot with musket and pistols: Man Friday, never having seen a firearm in action before, almost dies of fright from being rescued by Crusoe’s massacre of his captors. But, in time, he is trained in the use of the magical instruments and plays his part in defending Crusoe’s party from the wolf-pack of the low Pyrenees.
In the end five dozen of the creatures lie dead and Crusoe carries on: brave, resourceful and steeped in blood.