In an ever continuing quest to let our Geek Flags Fly, apparently we’ve come upon another day to celebrate – Towel Day, in honor of Douglas Adams and his incomparable, oft-imitated but never surpassed Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.
I may have been aware of it last year. It caught me off-guard today. May 25, 2001, was actually the first towel day, with the only significance of the date being that it was two weeks after Adams hitched a ride to the next realm. The fact that it continues to be honored, despite having no links to Adams or anything contained in the Hitchhiker saga, would probably please Adams: it is certainly arbitrary, and only slightly less certainly absurd, as the only reason we “celebrate” Towel Day on May 25 is that we’ve always celebrated Towel Day on May 25.
Since I expressed my opinion that “May the Fourth” feels more like a bad pun from a second grader than a name befitting what was once the greatest science fiction saga ever, I also have to admit on reflection that I prefer Towel Day.
Why “Towel Day”?
I assume that most people who would stumble across this blog are already familiar with the Hitchhiker’s Guide – and if they’re not, they’re at least well-versed enough in their sci-fi to fake familiarity rather than admit ignorance. If you fall into this latter category, I’ll help you out – or, rather, I’ll let Adams help you out:
“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you — daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.
More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost.” What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
Hence a phrase that has passed into hitchhiking slang, as in “Hey, you sass that hoopy Ford Prefect? There’s a frood who really knows where his towel is.” (Sass: know, be aware of, meet, have sex with; hoopy: really together guy; frood: really amazingly together guy.)”
- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
And you thought a towel was only good for drying off after a shower or a dip in the pool.
That should be enough to get you through today, but it won’t be repeated next Towel Day. I expect that you will have at least read the first book by this time next year.
I will admit to knowing very little about Douglas Adams’ personal life, but I will also profess that his writing would be on any short list of my personal influences. Most science fiction and fantasy writers would have to acknowledge the significance of Tolkein or Frank Herbert, authors who created whole worlds and cultures and languages and mythos, and the works of both will likely be considered among the great literature of the 20th century.
Tolkein and Herbert and H.G. Wells and C.S. Lewis are the monoliths of our genre. Adams is more the loudmouth at the end of the bar, who’s maybe had one-too-many Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (if one isn’t already too many) – but the more you listen to his nonsense, the more sense he makes. Tolkein and Lewis tackle the BIG topic of good vs. evil, that eternal struggle which pulls in the common and the extraordinary; Herbert’s galaxy swirls around the intrigues of the Great Houses; Wells will use the masters of science to deal with the crises of present, past and future.
Douglas Adams gives us Arthur Dent and Tricia McMillan as the sole survivors of planet Earth – not heroes, but a guy trying to prevent the destruction of his house, and a girl he met at a party six months earlier. Ford Prefect, that hoopy frood who is Arthur’s best friend, is a field researcher for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Our intrepid heroes do pal around with the President of the Galaxy, but lest the reader get the illusion that this is a big deal, we are regularly reminded, “Vell, Zaphod is just zis guy, you know?” – Zaphod is NOT an Aslan, or a Gandalf, and his position as President of the Galaxy is primarily a manipulation of his celebrity to distract attention from the true centers of power.
I can get lost in the world of the Bagginses and the Atreides, but I can’t relate to them. Therein lies the charm of Douglas Adams: his heroes aren’t Aragorn, slumming it until he decides to take his rightful place as King of Gondor, marrying the elven princess who gives up her immortality for his love; his hero really is “just zis guy” who thought his day was bad enough when his house was going to be demolished, who finds his planet demolished, and still has to struggle to get the girl even though he is literally the last (Earth) man alive.
If I was somehow spared in the destruction of the Earth (and not enslaved by conquering alien overlords), I can imagine I would be pretty close to Arthur Dent – cynical, maybe even pessimistic (though nowhere near the depressed level of a certain paranoid android), but persistently persevering and accepting as normal an absurd situation. If our more canonical writers use common character (like Samwise Gamgee) to show that a noble, heroic spirit can reside in any of us, Adams celebrates the ordinary remaining ordinary in even the most extraordinary circumstances.
A few years ago, as the “Keep Calm . . . “ craze swept the internet, I used an app to make the only meme I’ve created to date, in honor of the most practical advice I’ve ever received from literature:
Journey in peace, wherever your hitchhiking has taken you, Douglas Adams.
And for my fellow earthbound travelers, Happy Towel Day.