Charles Darwin—traveler, naturalist, and father of evolution—would have celebrated his 205th birthday on this day, and in honor of this most momentous occasion, let’s look at the explorers who, in their respective works of literature, braved the perils and uncertainties of new worlds, either in the pursuit of knowledge, or the avoidance of the mundane.
Lemuel Gulliver, Gulliver’s Travels: Doctor Lemuel Gulliver is well traveled and speaks many languages, but nothing prepares him for a series of fantastical voyages that will leave him forever changed. Jonathan Swift’s work of satire follows Gulliver as he visits the lands of the miniscule Lilliputians and giants of Brobdingnag, and lampoons bureaucracy, etiquette, and human cruelty in equal measure.
Though Gulliver’s travels were maybe ill advised, anyone who ends up a recluse unable to deal with human interaction due to his extensive voyages definitely has enough miles on him to be on this list.
Odysseus, The Odyssey: Sure, his exploring wasn’t exactly intentional, but Odysseus still managed to cover a fair bit of ground, going head to head with everything from Cyclopses (cyclopsi?) [Ed. Cyclopes!] to whirlpool-monsters to witches.
Even with the help of grey-eyed Athena—who shamelessly plays favorites, much to the chagrin of Poseidon (way to go making such a great enemy during your sea voyage, Odysseus)—it still takes the hero over a decade to disentangle himself from Calypso long enough to return home to Ithaca and his ever-faithful wife, Penelope.
Jane Porter, Tarzan of the Apes: Though Edgar Rice Burrough’s novel presents Jane Porter as your run-of-the-mill damsel in distress, you can tell that, under the surface, she is so much more. She’s constantly getting saved from the dangers of the jungle, yes, but what kind of turn of the century well-born American woman would even travel to equatorial Africa?
A headstrong, curious, and brave one, of course. Later versions of the story have given Jane a bit more agency (and personality), but even in the original—despite its unsettling colonialist themes—the potential is there, if you only take the time to look for it.
Captain Nemo, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island: Though our days of land exploration are behind us, the deep sea remains virtually untouched, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the pages of Jules Verne’s epic underwater adventures.
Scientific genius, mysterious son of an Indian Raja, and antihero, Captain Nemo captures imaginations and hearts while battling giant squids, exploring ice shelves and coral reefs, and expressing a strong dislike of British imperialism and other oppressive forces. In addition, his DIY submarine features an extensive library, and art-laden Grand Salon, and an organ. I’m swooning.
The Little Prince, The Little Prince: What’s a young prince to do when his beloved rose does not return his affections, and his house-sized asteroid suddenly feels too small? Go exploring, naturally. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry tells the heart-breaking tale of the prince’s travels, throughout which he meets a variety of narrow-minded adults.
Whether it’s the vain man who professes to be the best on his uninhabited planet, or the businessman who won’t rest until he owns all the stars, the prince is disappointed by all of them until he meets the narrator, a pilot stranded in the Sahara, to whom he tells his tale.
Alice, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass: Boredom is as good a reason as any for exploring, and when Alice gives her sister the slip, following the White Rabbit into Wonderland, she’s swept up in an adventure full of mice, mock turtles, and mad hatters, not to mention chess matches and Cheshire cats.
Though Alice’s travels may not be the most geographically far-flung on this list, the sheer number of new, exciting, and sometimes dangerous situations she finds herself in solidifies her rank as a fearless explorer.