AC Grayling surveys the essential literature from Homer to Thubronby AC Grayling / August 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Travel writing is one of the largest literary genres; it pre-dates every other save poetry and religious writing. The Exodus of Moses and Homer’s Odyssey might count as the earliest specimens, but if the former is excluded on grounds of having too tenuous a link with fact, and the latter for having none, then with them would alas go-for the same respective reasons-the anonymous 14th century Voyage of Sir John Mandeville and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). This would make Description of Greece (2nd century AD) by Pausanias the earliest extant genuine travel book: it includes topographical descriptions, city guides and accounts of customs and beliefs.
Mandeville might have been mythical, but Ibn Batuta was a real 14th century traveller who left his footprints all over the middle and far east, India and Russia. By royal command he left a detailed and perceptive account of the world of his time.
Travellers have written for many reasons. Most did so to inform and entertain. Richard Hakluyt’s travel records, the Principal Navigations … of the English Nation (1600) did both; in it merchants learned of harbours and markets, while browsers enjoyed eye-widening accounts of distant marvels. More recently, travel has become as much an opportunity for psychological as for geographical voyaging, and the meditative travelogue is well established. It has its precedents in Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey (1768) and the travelling sections of John Evelyn’s Diary (1818). One of its contemporary exponents is Colin Thubron, whose perceptions of the people and places he visits come filtered through mental lenses of a particular prescription; as witness his account of China in Behind the Wall (1987).
China has always been well served in travel writing because its civilisation seemed so Other when travel first became global. In the world’s largest archive of travel documents, the letters and reports of Jesuit missionaries, there is a rich Chinese section, of which a fine example is the reminiscences of Matteo Ricci in his Historia. Marco Polo claimed in the Travels to have visited China, but he offers nothing like the astuteness of observation, nor the charm and oddity, of that dauntless pair Huc and Gabet, who recorded their 19th century explorations in Travels in Tartary, Tibet and China 1844-46.
And China was not without travellers of its own. The most celebrated is the 7th century monk Xuan Zang, whose long and mighty trek across the barren roof…