Oh there’s sober men in plenty
And drunkards barely twenty
There are men of over ninety
That have never yet kissed a girl.
But give me a wandering rover
From Orkney down to Dover
We will roam the country over
And together we’ll face the world.
When a character decides to walk the Earth, they leave behind friends, family, and earthly possessions to wander from town to town in search of adventure. In real life, we think of these people as bums, but in fiction these characters are often the protagonists–or if not, then some sort of wise figure or noble adversary.
There are two character archetypes that tend to fill this trope: the drifter (or “the stranger” as Joseph Campbell called him) and the knight errant. For the knight errant, walking the Earth is simply part of the job description: always in search of evil to slay and damsels to rescue, he cannot stay in one place for long. It’s the same with the drifter, though he might not have the same skill set or code of honor.
As you can imagine, this trope tends to be most prevalent in Westerns, with the knight errant transformed into a gunslinger and the drifter wandering the wide frontier. American culture has definitely embraced this trope; what else did you expect from the nation that invented cars, highways, and the road trip? However, it’s also quite prevalent in East Asia as well, with the ronin and other wuxia archetypes.
Of course, this trope is only possible in a society that has a long tradition of sacred hospitality; otherwise, the wandering hero will almost certainly starve. That’s one way to spot stories where this trope is done poorly: if the wanderer has no visible means of support, yet appears clean and well-fed, the author hasn’t connected the dots. Also, characters who walk the earth are almost always male, since women who travel alone are more likely to get raped or assaulted.
One of my favorite examples of this is Van Hoenheim from Full Metal Alchemist. <SPOILER: highlight to read>After he unwittingly helps the first humunculous to sacrifice the population of Xerxes to make two giant philosopher’s stones, Hoenheim sets off to wallk the Earth as an immortal being, his sorrow too great to allow him to settle down. However, while the humunculous uses his stone to acquire even greater power, Hoenheim becomes familiar with every damned soul trapped in his and enlists their help. In the final battle, we learn that Hoenheim has used his centuries of walking the Earth to bury the damned souls in such a way to counter the humunculous’s transmutation circle, thus saving the people of Amnestria.</SPOILER>
There’s a dark side to this trope, however: the flying dutchman, cursed to wander the earth forever. By definition, every adventure must come to an end; when it doesn’t, it becomes instead a sentence of exile. Perhaps this is why characters who walk the Earth in a post-apocalyptic setting (like the wandering Jew in A Canticle for Leibowitz) tend to lean more towards this: after the world ends, there is no going home.
Which makes me wonder: in order for this trope to be positive, is it necessary for the main character to have the option of settling down whenever he wants to? Certainly there are those who choose a life of eternal adventure, but that implies that they have a choice. Even if they would have chosen not to settle, when that option is taken from them does that always make the story darker and less hopeful?
Either way, this trope intrigues me. Expect to see it in my own work soon.
Lyrics from “The Ramblin Rover“ by Silly Wizard.