I first heard about The Explorers Guild last year, when a news story, claiming that "those kinds of grand escapades [had] vanished from children's bookshelves," got a significant amount of negative attention on my social media feeds: its implicit suggestion was that no one was writing adventure stories for children anymore, now that Kipling and R. L. Stevenson had left us. But the key phrase in that pull-quote, of course, is "those kinds." It's immediately clear that the authors are harking back to a very specific tradition of adventure stories, one that belonged to the long nineteenth century. That "those kinds" of stories are no longer written is not only one of the major threads of this review, but, as you'll see, something of a plot point within the book itself.
The first thing you notice about The Explorers Guild Volume One: A Passage to Shambhala is that Kevin Costner is credited as one of its authors. I'm . . . not sure what to do with that knowledge, though presumably celebrities who are famous for one thing may have other interests and skills. Costner's one of multiple authors—the text seems mostly to be the work of Jon Baird, though Costner and Stephen Meyer are also credited, while the (excellent) illustrations are by Rick Ross. This is not an unreasonable number of authors, because the second thing you notice about The Explorers Guild is that it is both huge (over seven hundred and fifty pages) and beautifully produced. Part of the heft is a result of format—it moves constantly between regular prose and comic-style panels. The art is sepia-tinted and all the pages are lightly browned, the cover and dust jacket are gold-embossed, and occasionally there are gorgeous colour plates. The five books into which the whole is divided come with detailed and tantalising descriptions of what is to follow. The whole thing is designed to resemble a period text, a particularly elaborate Boys’ Own adventure novel, and you're left wondering to what extent this book is for children at all, to what extent it relies on its audience's recognition of the body of work that it is invoking.
The plot: in 1912 the Anglo-American Arthur Ogden sets out to find an alternate Northwest Passage, provoked into doing so by a smug English cousin. Something happens to him, out there in the frozen wilderness: he is the only member of his party to return alive; he is affected with a mysterious, debilitating illness, and he is found clutching a piece of jade. Some years later Arthur's brother, John, a British Army captain gone rogue, leads his loyal band of violent misfits on a journey across the world to find a cure for his brother. It's now 1917, and we're well into the First World War. Ogden's troop is supplemented by an upstanding young British soldier, Corporal Buchan; an actress-turned-adventurer, Evelyn Harrow; a horse; and Bertram Barnes, a small boy who is somehow crucial to curing Arthur. For most of the journey their footsteps are dogged by a mysterious order of monks and the even more mysterious Mr Sloane, who seems to know more about Arthur's illness than anyone else. The solution is in some way bound up in the mythical city of Shambhala.
This isn't so much a pastiche of a nineteenth-century adventure novel as it is a pastiche of about five nineteenth-century adventure novels smushed together. We're treated to hidden cities, underground rivers, séances, Theosophists, monks, zeppelins, intrepid lady explorers, battles at sea and in the air, horrifying experiences in the frozen north, trepanning; all the tropes of a genre that (while usually restricting itself to a mere three or four off that list) glories in excess. I was a little alarmed to find out how much I was enjoying it.
But then it's easy, in 2016, to find oneself responding to this sweep of narrative and subject that can move so easily from the subcontinent through West Asia, briefly stopping in Africa and South America, glancing off Eastern Europe and making a detour to the US—which, it is understood, stands largely outside the events of the plot, except as a place for its powerful actors to find refuge. Part of the attraction is that empire itself comes with a sort of cosmopolitanism that can be very appealing—this sense of a vast, interconnected network of people and spaces. Here, for example, Irish and English soldiers speak some form of Hindi , and the book doesn't bother to translate. It's particularly appealing when one considers that this is a book about and set in/around World War I. At one point the book provides us with an "Interlude: A Suggested History of the World, 1914-1918, or, Never Mind the War in Europe." The section doesn't do all that it promises (it is, alas, mostly focused on Europe); but in the century or so since the war, English language literatures have worked so tirelessly to represent those years as solely a tragedy about sad white boys in France, that even the mere acknowledgement that war "has opened on six continents" (p. 147), and the visible presence of non-white soldiers (including Ogden's Sikh second-in-command, Subadar Priddish) feel like progress.
It's all rather deceptive though. The problem with the British Empire was not a lack of diversity (most of its victims would presumably have preferred that it be less inclusive in the range of peoples it chose to subjugate), and images of the empire as a glorious, interconnected, international family are a bit too close to propaganda for Edwardian children. If The Explorers Guild is vast and sweeping and global, it's for the same reason that the traditional imperial romance is able to be vast and sweeping and global, and the reason that movies about James Bond and superheroes are able to be those things—to sweep, you've got to have sufficient space in which to move, and the protagonists of those narratives are traditionally entitled to any territory they wish to traverse (while the rest of us are stuck in the queue at immigration control). It's probably an unfair generalisation to suggest that the whole adventure tradition is about establishing sovereignty over space, but it's also broadly true.
And it's a truth of which the book seems at least partially aware. The Guild after which the book is named is composed of members each of whom:
. . . has inked in his own blank space on one map or another [ . . . ] it may be that some of the newer memberships were won by dint of "discovering" a new way up Kilimanjaro, or by standing for a portrait in some square of desert or jungle where Christian man had so far, strictly, omitted to set his foot. But what of that? We needn't all be da Gamas. And you may appreciate, what with the advance of man and the dwindling of the undiscovered places and so forth, that the opportunities for today's explorer mightn't be what they once were. (pp. xi-xii)
Many readers may be reminded here of the beginning of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in which Marlow laments the loss of the "blank spaces of the earth." Arthur Ogden will later complain that all the romance has gone out of exploration—that "in place of the old basilisks and glowing grails and cliffs at world's end we must now 'quest' in the name of ethnology and botany and transits of Venus and I know not what else" (p. 135).
And yet the book's full title reveals it to be A Passage to Shambhala, and its plot is a quest narrative whose object is a mythical city. Shambhala in the novel isn't merely the perfect land of Buddhist myth; it's a composite of all the ideal, unattainable cities of traditions across the world. Or rather, those myths are glimpses of this perfect city, which is doubly unmappable: because it's unattainable except to the pure, and because it moves about in space, leaving behind it only a huge infinity sign when it disappears. Arthur's illness is attributed to the fact that he has, accidentally and unworthily, stumbled into Shambhala. He is not the only person in history to whom this has happened (the others also contract a form of the disease); but Arthur has also, in leaving the city, taken with him a broken piece of jade. It's this violation that has caused the whole world to plunge into chaos, and the war cannot end until the object is returned to the city.
The whole book, and the whole war, then, is about some spaces being off-limits to white western explorers. It's tempting to read this as a rather simplistic analogy—would the war have happened if the European powers had seen the continent of Africa as being off-limits?—but even if that reading doesn't hold up, we're quite explicitly being reminded that no one gets to sweep consequence-free through the world.
This is a fact of which we're reminded again later in the book, when (John) Ogden's men discover the entrance to an ancient network of underground rivers, around which an entire subterranean port city has grown. This city is about as far removed from Shambhala as it could possibly be, but it too resists the entry of this group of (mostly) British (ex) soldiers. As one of its citizens explains:
The Ceylon Company has long eyed these waterways as routes of trade, you see, and as lines of supply for their armies. And no doubt they would sooner annex us to the English Commonwealth than pay for use of these canals. We take that to be the company's modus operandi. [ . . . ] As to the Explorers Guild, they will not stand to have any blank areas on their maps of the world, and we seem to occupy rather a large one. (p. 670)
He makes a fair point, and one that, I think, we're invited to see as valid. And yet almost immediately after this moment, Ogden's troop will create a distraction, trash the city, and disappear, having taken from it what they need. We're reading an adventure story, and the quest demands that we move on.
The whole thing is a frustrating instance of a problem that afflicts a number of self-reflexive genre properties. We're vaguely aware that the structures of the stories we tell are a bit suspect, but seem not to know what to do about it. “What if superheroes were . . . bad?” we ask, while making superhero movies which rely on superheroes being fundamentally not-bad. “What if adventure quests require imperial thinking?” asks this adventure novel, before abandoning the thought to wander through Asia a bit more and complete its quest. “What if our faves are problematic?” asks fandom, hoping that the mere admission will make the problem disappear.
Between its scattered implications that the empire might be bad, its meditations on the genre (because that is, in essence, what the narrator's and Arthur's thoughts on the changing potential of exploration are), and the Dangerous Book For Boys format that draws attention to the element of pastiche, The Explorers Guild gives the appearance of a book that is self-aware—to the point that it's almost surprising when its understandings of race and gender relations conform to those of its originary genre. When, for example, Evelyn spontaneously develops a maternal instinct as soon as a small child appears, or when the harem women whose city was sacked early in the book gratefully help the British liberators who saved them from their (undeniably) evil oppressors, it's hard to be sure to what extent this book is sincere as an imitation of beloved authors by writers who genuinely regret that the passing of this moment in history has made these books impossible.
Unlike most beautifully-produced pieces of nostalgia, this one feels like it's by people who actually care—who have read and thought about Stevenson and Kipling (and Haggard, and Le Queux, and Henty, and Buchan, and Stoker) rather than lumping them all together as Ripping Yarns. I love the imperial romance, and when this book descends into the genuinely weird—when we encounter men who are islands and improbable architecture and the vastness and strangeness of the world—I know that the authors get it too. But if The Explorers Guild is an imitation, it can only ever be a pale one (are you really going to go toe-to-toe with Kipling?) and if it's a parody it doesn't go anything like far enough.
But I keep coming back to Shambhala, the object of that quest. Though the quest is completed, none of our heroes gets to enter its space—and we, in the privileged position of readers, only glimpse it briefly. It seems obvious that none of these characters will ever find the way back, and that too is in keeping with the traditions of the genre (the road to the hidden valley is always lost in some sort of cataclysm in the end). But to not enter it at all feels significant, and I wonder if there's something to be said about the endless deferment of this moving city, about what it means to accept (in this genre, of all others) that there are spaces that are simply off-limits.
In other words, Baird, Costner, Meyer and Ross have demonstrated pretty thoroughly why "those kinds of grand escapades" don't get written anymore. This was Volume One; but will there be a Volume Two?
- By "some form," I mean that I understood it, but I had to squint. Whether this was a failed attempt by the writers to transliterate Hindi, a successful attempt to transliterate the sort of Hindi a British soldier might attempt, or a dialect I just don't know remains unclear to me.[return]
Aishwarya Subramanian lives in the North of England and the North of India, writes about children's books and postcolonialism, and can be found at http://www.practicallymarzipan.com/blog.