Travel literature: what it is, how it arose, its characteristics and most important works


What is travel literature?

Travel books or travel literature comprises a type of texts that bring together aspects such as experiences, feelings, voices, scenarios, reflections, etc., about a journey that is made by the narrator. This type of literature can include works about conquests, explorations, adventures and other journeys that are part of this same category, and that can be real or fictitious facts that make allusions to known geographical spaces, for example.

What is travel literature

In this sense, they are texts that originally respond to the need to give an account of unknown regions, explorations, etc., which is why those who initiated their development, according to the tracing of these texts, were often explorers and travelers who, with the passage of time, will shape one of the most important types of literature in this artistic field.

How does travel literature arise?

As for the birth of this literature, it is believed that the writing of these books is located in the fourteenth century with the emergence of the work Embassy of Tamorlán, which expresses the chronicle of a journey undertaken by envoys directly from King Henry III to meet Tamorlán, emperor of Asian origin, and ends around the fifteenth century.

In its beginnings, travel literature or travel books were used to communicate and express the discoveries, advances and descriptions of people who undertook journeys to unknown areas and detailed, under this type of text, what they found along the way. Thus, in principle, those who start with this category will be travelers and explorers, especially. The reasons that propitiated these journeys could easily vary, among them were the exploration of new lands, espionage work, etc.

It is considered that the first manifestations of this type of literature were in the hands of authors such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Far Bartolomé de las Casas, authors who wrote detailed texts under the format of the chronicle and who have special importance in terms of the content related to the conquest and arrival to the American continent.

However, the notion of travel literature will change significantly towards the 20th century. At this time this type of literature changes its tone, since most of its authors, writers and travelers, will travel not by order of superiors, but simply for the taste and particular interest of doing so. Thus, the horizons for this category are broadened, including the adventures of those who set out on new roads and describe everything they have seen in the texts.

Development of travel literature

The texts of this type of literature are mainly housed under the narrative format, often in the novel. This is because their content can be better structured in this type of structures, as it must follow aspects such as coherence in the story. One of the main characteristics of travel literature in terms of the development and creation of the works has to do with the fact that they may or may not be based on real events. Thus, the author may resort to fictitious or even speculative facts.

Unlike a detailed description of aspects and data about a trip, travel literature includes texts that are not a collection of events, but can be constituted as exploration logs and even a travel diary, which is why we will find experiences of the narrator, explorations, adventures that may or may not be starred by the narrator.

The dimensions that this type of texts have reached are especially due to the different contributions made by authors who have been interested in this type of texts, leaving in their wake tools that have been fundamental for creative continuity. This, even when conditions have undergone important transformations, since events such as technological advances, the invention of means of transportation and cultures have changed the form and given variety to styles. Despite this, they have remained under the magnifying glass of the author of travel literature.

Travel literature will take its final form, as we know it, after the Romanticism, when important changes are generated in relation to the objective of the tours and travels of the authors. At this moment, it is no longer only a process that throws in its writing detailed information from an investigation or with a commercial purpose, but it becomes an inspiring journey in which it begins to take other aspects and resources of literature to constitute, finally, travel literature in the notion of the present time.

Characteristics of travel literature

Characteristics of travel literature

Now, in order to understand in depth what this type of literature consists of and under what ideas it lays its foundations of creation, it is necessary to review the most important distinguishing features in its development process. Among them, we find the following:

Writing motive

As we have seen, the central motive of this type of literature is the journey itself. When we speak of travel literature, we are talking about texts that make extensive journeys through the experiences of the narrator. In this sense, the journey constitutes the central axis of the plot.

Travel literature in novels

The main format chosen by this type of texts, in its most recent moments, is the novel. The structure of this narrative genre facilitates for the reader the incorporation not only of the central argument, as we saw in the previous point, but also the sum of descriptions that make the construction of images for the reader. These include aspects of his journey, such as the cultures he encounters, the societies, the people, the landscapes, etc.

Functions of travel literature

Another aspect that we should highlight about this category or literary modality is that it has the capacity to fulfill several functions, among them two mainly. On the one hand, we find that a travel book has a documentary function in terms of the undertaking of the journey and its portrayal in the work, and a literary function with the consolidation of a work itself.

Portrait of societies

As a way of obtaining information, following the documentary function, these books are excellent tools. This is due to the fact that in their descriptions, travel literature provides key data about the areas visited or traveled to, providing information such as location, landscapes, food, aspects of nature, religious beliefs, traditions and customs, among others.

Chronological narrative

Many of the texts in travel literature follow a chronological narrative, so that the story progresses and develops according to a specific time that is linear and thus makes it easier for the reader to follow the same journey. In this sense, the situations faced by the traveler or explorer must be narrated obeying the course of events.

About the protagonist

It is important to bear in mind that in this type of texts, generally the central role, the protagonist, is built under the figure of a hero who, in his journeys, faces different dangers and challenges that are put in his way, besides constituting the most important actions of the story.

Development scenarios

Being a type of literature that involves a physical displacement in its story, travel literature includes scenarios different from those that are part of the daily life not only of the character, in many cases, but also of the reader. Hence, it increases the level of expectation before the unknown, presenting the public with different scenarios and environments such as enchanted islands, deep forests, impenetrable jungles, among others.

Variety of formats

The travel story, as it is also known, has the ability to be constructed under different formats, despite the fact that its most recurrent genre has been the narrative and with it, the novel. That is why, especially in its initial stage and some authors later on, travel literature will be seen in formats such as letters and chronicles. The latter format represented his first mode of writing, where any trait of fantasy or fiction was absent.

Most important works and authors

Among the main works of this type of literature, we find titles such as: Embassy of Tamorlán, Book of Marco Polo, Por carreteras secundarias, Paraísos Oceánicos, by Aurora Bertrana, Viaje a la Alcarria, by Camilo José Cela, Lugares que no quiero compartir con nadie, by Elvira Lindo, Heridas del viento, by Virginia Mendoza, El camino más corto, by Manuel Leguineche, Vagabundo en África, by Javier Reverte, Donde la Vieja Castilla se acaba: Soria, by Avelino Hernández, Naufragios, by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Los senderos del mar, by María Belmonte, Venecia, by Jan Morris, El pez escorpión by Nicolás Bouvier, Viajes con Charley by John Steinbeck, Viaje al Japón by Rudyard Kipling, Letters from Istanbul by Mary Wortley Montagu, among others.

And among the main authors who gave way to this type of text are figures such as: Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Rebecca West, Ryszard Kapuściński, Alexandra David-Néel, Peter Matthiessen, Alí Bey, Adolfo Rivadeneyra, Ana Briongos, Jordi Esteva, Juan Goytisolo, Paco Nadal, Javier Reverte, Gabi Martínez, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Jan Morris, Javier Reverte, Manu Leguineche, Robert Byron, Colin Thubron, Norman Lewis, Mark Twain, among others.

To learn more about other types of texts, authors, literary movements and more, don’t forget that you can find this and more information in our Literature section.