The Archetype of The Eternal Wanderer

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to attend the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto. The World Fantasy Convention is a gathering of publishing professionals and fans who generally celebrate fantasy fiction. This year I participated in a panel on the idea of the Eternal Wanderer. Also appearing on the panel were authors Patrick Rothfuss, Robert V. S. Redick, David Levine, and Stefon Mears.

I’m not going to chronicle the exact discussion we had, but it did bring up some interesting examinations of characters in fantasy and science fiction, and started to delve into why this kind of character, the Wanderer, has remained popular through the years.

But what exactly is the Eternal Wanderer? Care should be taken to separate the Wanderer from the Traveler. Panelist Patrick Rothfuss was quick to bring up Gandalf, who is a Traveler. And while Gandalf is somewhat unique and may not have an actual physical home (though Rothfuss mentioned he had some inkling that there was a  Gandalf-cave), he does seem at home with the various peoples of the world. He is at home in Rivendell, Lothlorien, and of course the Shire. A Wanderer, on the other hand, tends to not have a home. For the Wanderer, rest can often be elusive.

...whether directly inspired by, or drawing from that same archetype, fantasy authors have taken the concept of the Eternal Wanderer and run with it, putting their own stamp on the concept.

Biblical Wanderers

The earliest Eternal Wanderers tend to be Biblical. The first, Cain, was cursed by God for killing Abel and lying about it. He was forced to wander the Earth, marked so that no one would kill him. Eventually Cain does find rest, founding the city of Enoch and marrying, but his legend marks him as an Eternal Wanderer.

Later, arising out of the New Testament, came the legend of the Wandering Jew. The accounts vary, but the Wandering Jew was cursed for denying Christ. In one version, for example, Jesus stopped to rest while carrying the cross and a cobbler struck him and urged him on, resulting in the curse--to remain alive until the Second Coming.

Both of these stories punish men for committing crimes, yes, but the true crime is in not recognizing the authority of God, it seems. And at least for me, the punishment of the Wandering Jew seems extreme. Especially for the kindler, gentler New Testament god.

However, there’s no doubt that it was a punishment. In cultures where home and family were two important forces, being denied both was seen as a torment. They would forever be strangers, forever viewed with suspicion, unable to find rest or perhaps even meaning to their lives.

The theme finds a different expression in the legend of the Flying Dutchman, the cursed ghost ship, fated to forever be at sea, never to make land. Once again the idea of never finding rest, never finding home, seems an integral part of the legend. And in a similarly nautical vein, in Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the titular mariner is forced to wander the earth, telling his story, to pay for his crimes.

In these older versions, the punishment is clear. No home. No family. All travel, no rest. And in most of these cases, the Wanderer suffers because they acted against God. Or Nature. In these tales, the Wanderer wanders because he failed.

The New Wave

As is often the case, legend and folklore come to influence fantasy fiction. All of the above legends have been retold in fiction, versions and aspect of the stories coming to inform other tales. And whether directly inspired by, or drawing from that same archetype, fantasy authors have taken the concept of the Eternal Wanderer and run with it, putting their own stamp on the concept.

Michael Moorcock’s Elric may just be the poster child for the modern reinterpretation of the Eternal Wanderer archetype. Moorcock is famous for creating the Eternal Champion, a series of incarnations stretched across the Multiverse, most of them wanderers of a sort. Elric is perhaps the most popular of these. He begins his tale as a prince, heir to the throne of his home of Melnibone, but is soon usurped, and in taking back his kingdom, ends up destroying it. He spends his time after wandering the land, trying to find his place in the universe. It doesn’t help that he doesn’t fit in with his own people, and everyone else hates him because of his nationality. And the soul-drinking sword. People around him tend to end up hurt or dead.

Where Moorcock’s creation diverges from the classic Eternal Wanderers that precede Elric is in the causality. The legends portray punishments for crimes against God. In Elric, and other works, Elric is seen as the victim of an unjust system. He is manipulated by the Lords of Chaos and Order. It’s the system that’s unjust and Elric suffers because of it.

This signaled a change in the concept of the Eternal Wanderer and though the figure has always been a tragic one, was a big step in shifting the reader’s sympathy to the Wanderer figure himself. Whereas the earlier tales were warnings of a type, Elric and his ilk serve as sympathetic figures. We recognize the unjust circumstances. We recognize the tragedy.

The tragic elements seem more obvious with immortal figures. Immortality is something of a wish fulfillment, but the Eternal Wanderers lose the benefits one might associate with that. They must live forever, only without homes, without families, without a place to fit in. Ultimately, without acceptance.

And even if these characters do go on to have homes and families, time will always make them Wanderers because their homes will always end up lost to them. A character raised in the Roman Empire, who survived its fall, can never really return to the place she felt most comfortable once it’s gone. Likewise whole cultures and civilizations are lost to those who might live forever. And that doesn’t even touch on what happens when their loved ones become old and die. Such characters must choose between these recurring outcomes, or remain solitary. Many of them choose the latter.

Often the circumstances of Eternal Wanderers dictate how they deal with their immortality. In the Highlander series of movies and television, immortals are driven to fight each other, the winner taking his opponents power along with their life (but only by beheading). Because of this, as well as their immortality, many Immortals choose to wander, and many limit their relationships with mortals.

Vampires

Spinning out of this comes the modern version of the vampire (pre-Twilight). The tragic, brooding, lonely figure has been popularized in everything from Anne Rice novels to roleplaying games to Joss Whedon’s Angel. Vampires live forever, but their very nature dictates they must live apart from normal humans, whether it’s sunlight that limits them, or the fear of other humans, or the threat of their own kind.

The roleplaying game, Vampire: The Masquerade even directly connected vampires to the earlier versions of the Eternal Wanderer, positing that Caine (spelled here with the extra “e”) was really the first vampire, his curse from God turning him into a bloodsucking beast.

Vampires live in near-immortality, and must often eschew the connections that others might make. But they can also have the afflictions of other Eternal Wanderers. Angel, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and later his own series) is not only a vampire, but is cursed with a soul AS WELL AS having a personal mission, a quest for redemption. 

Other Examples

Which brings us to a new topic. So far we’ve seen only Wanderers who have been the victims of a curse or some adverse circumstance. But what about Wanderers who choose their circumstances? Who wander out of some obsession or some goal? Corwin of Roger Zelazny’s Amber series spends some time in this mode. At first his amnesia makes him a true Wanderer, unable to find his way home. Later, when he remembers Amber it’s all he wants, and yet he must travel and wander to find the tools he needs to claim it. But he never really achieves his goal.

Some Wanderers are searching for something, whether it be a mythical land, or the last remnants of their people, or the tools with which to accomplish their ultimate aim. Some are driven by the acquisition of knowledge, others by the acquisition of strength. Some, like Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, only want to find some meaning in their immortal lives.

Which brings me to the final example of the Eternal Wanderer. As someone in the audience at the panel pointed out, Doctor Who is an interesting evolution of the Eternal Wanderer character. In the early series, The Doctor was more of a traveler. He stole the TARDIS primarily so he could travel through time and space and have adventures. He had a home planet and there were other Time Lords, even if the Doctor didn’t get along with them. The recent modern incarnation, however, changes that. It takes The Doctor into a more traditional Eternal Wanderer direction. Now The Doctor is the last of his race. There is no Gallifrey to go home to, no other Time Lords. He is truly alone except for his relationships with his human companions which are, like other examples previously mentioned, limited in some degree. Now The Doctor really is that kind of tragic Wanderer figure, forever moving because there’s no place to go back to. At least he has the TARDIS.

I’d love to hear if you have any thoughts about the Eternal Wanderer. Do you like the archetype? Dislike it? What are your favorite examples? Please let me know in the comments. For now, I will walk away to the sounds of the theme song from the Incredible Hulk television show (The Lonely Man). To wander where I will.

Image of Elric: The Stealer of Souls (Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melniboné, Vol. 1)
Author: Michael Moorcock
Price: $10.44
Publisher: Del Rey (2008)
Binding: Paperback, 498 pages
Image of The Midnight Sun: The Complete Stories of Kane
Author: Karl Edward Wagner
Price:
Publisher: Night Shade Books (2003)
Binding: Hardcover, 450 pages
Image of The Great Book of Amber: The Complete Amber Chronicles, 1-10 (Chronicles of Amber)
Author: Roger Zelazny
Price: $18.79
Publisher: Harper Voyager (2010)
Binding: Paperback, 1264 pages
Rajan Khanna

Column by Rajan Khanna

Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer, blogger, reviewer and narrator. His first novel, Falling Sky, a post-apocalyptic adventure with airships, is due to be released in October 2014. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and several anthologies. His articles and reviews have appeared at Tor.com and LitReactor.com and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Lightspeed Magazine. Rajan lives in New York where he's a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. His personal website is www.rajankhanna.com and he tweets, @rajanyk.

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Comments

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life November 27, 2012 - 12:47pm

Kane is so badass! One of the more formative characters from my youth. I credit Wagner for inspiring all of my blood-splattered, wench-conquering adventures. Or is that wench-splattered?

Elric (all of moorcock's stuff, natch) is foundational material for any fantasy fan. I feel sorry for these young'uns with nothing but Wheel of Time to cut their teeth on.

What about Roland from the Dark Tower series? A shining example of this type of story/character.

bmartin2009's picture
bmartin2009 from St. Paul, Minnesota is reading Dune November 29, 2012 - 10:01am

Excellent read, thank you!

This made me think of another type of wanderer character, one who has a home/family, isn't being punished, and doesn't really want to wander, but is forced into it for other reasons (generally, to protect said home/family).  Morgon from Patricial McKillip's Riddle Master trilogy fits right into that category.  That's the only example that immediately springs to mind, though, so it may be a less common take on the archetype.  Which is a shame, too, since I think it makes for a fabulous story.

rajanyk's picture
rajanyk December 6, 2012 - 1:00pm

@bmartin2009 - that's a great example. I did actually bring that kind up during the panel, but didn't put it in the column. And I have to read the Riddle Master trilogy. It's been on my list for years and I'm ashamed to say I have never gotten around to it. I will move it to the top of my list.