There are many words in the English language which people use without a full realization of their meaning. One of these words that is particularly important to me is the word adventure. I use its often enough, but have never taken the time to flesh out its significance. Here is an attempt to remedy that deficiency. The best way to understand the word adventure is through a brief Latin lesson. In Latin the preposition ad meaning “to” is joined with the verb venīre meaning “to come.” Together they form the verb advenīre meaning “to come to” or “to arrive.” This is where the term Advent comes from (adventus means arrival). Advent is the season in which we look back at Christ’s arrival as a baby in Bethlehem and look forward to the time when he will come to Earth again.
Advenīre forms the future participle adventūra, meaning that which will come, arrive, or happen. Early forms of French dropped the ‘d’ and formed the word aventure. English absorbed the word when French culture and language flooded Britain after the 1066 A.D. Battle of Hastings. Later writers returned the ‘d’ in imitation of the Latin spelling.
Aventures, pronounced in Middle English as ah-ven-toors, avɛntʊərs, came to be an important part of French and English medieval romances. Typically a young knight, sometimes accompanied by a maiden, would set out into the wild world seeking aventures by which he might prove his worth. Because his steps were directed by the hands of a skillful author, he usually encountered many of these aventures. An aventure might take the form of a knight forbidding him to cross a river ford (as satirized by Monty Python) or a tearful maiden whose lover had been taken captive by an evil man. Bound up with the word aventure is the idea of chance. A knight never knew what kind of aventures he would find. He merely sought whatever would come to him.
In popular culture, its is common to find the words adventure and quest used interchangeably. However, the two words have separate and distinct meanings. The Latin root of quest means to seek or look for. A quest has a specific goal or end in sight. In a quest someone is looking for something. An adventure is something which comes to a person more or less unexpectedly. The two can actually occur in the same story. For example, a hobbit might be sent on a quest to steal gold from a dragon. On his journey from his home to the dragon’s lair he will likely experience many adventures. A quest is a journey to get from point A to point B. What we see and encounter along the way are the adventures. In the end we might look back and call the the whole experience an adventure. The journey may prove just as important as the destination and the destination to be full of more than we were looking for.
Adventures are much more difficult to have today. One cannot go walking into the woods and find unruly knights or damsels in distress. Trust me, I have checked. Furthermore, we modern people like to plan things out. We don’t like surprises in our life’s itinerary. For this reason we work to remove all chance of the unexpected, to forecast the future. Our phones and the Internet are just a few of the tools we use to tell us what to expect.
Sometimes when I am driving, say home from work, I take an alternate route. The sights I see, the restaurants, stores, and parks I never knew existed and may now visit, constitute a mini-adventure. All it takes is a little extra time and gas.
The poet and singer-songwriter Malcolm Guite writes in his blog about a walking journey he took around Ireland. Following a Zen practice he didn’t take a map. He ensured he was going in the right direction merely by keeping the sea on one side. I also assume that he didn’t plan out his nightly stops, simply looking for a place to stay whenever it began to grow dark. In the blog he tells the story of a meeting that took place near the end of his journey which proved to be a decisive point in his life. It was an adventure, something that came to him unexpectedly. Yet it was too full of coincidence to be simple chance. It bore the marks of a skillful Author. Would he have had the same experience had he slavishly planned his journey? Its hard to say.
That’s the nature of adventure. We must allow space for things to come to us unexpectedly, to surprise us or to confound us. We must learn to make our selves receptive. By chance, Bilbo found a ring in the depths of the Misty Mountains which made its wearer invisible. That ring goes on to play an important role in the rest of Bilbo’s story and beyond. Tolkien, clever as an elf, will imply that there was a Will at work behind Bilbo’s finding of the ring, one beyond even the desires of Sauron and the ring that it should be found. All our adventures may someday add up to something very meaningful.