Certain books have an influence on society and culture that extends far beyond the lifespan of their creators, and if you’ve ever fantasised about waking up in a land of tiny people, or running for your life through rows of corn from giants with scythes, you’ve almost certainly (especially if you’ve grown up in an English-speaking culture) been influenced by a novel that first appeared nearly three hundred years ago. I’ll be taking another look today at this classic of English literature, one that’s taken on a life of its own, to run with the horses and fly in the clouds, but there’s a reason for my decision to revisit this particular book – and it’ll be revealed at the end of the post 😉
Gulliver’s Travels is a collection of satirical travel tales by Irish writer Jonathan Swift, and ever since its release in 1726, it’s been a favourite of readers wishing to escape the tedium of everyday life. The novel takes the form of several accounts of visits to unknown lands, undertaken by ship’s surgeon Lemuel Gulliver at the start of the eighteenth century, and while in some ways the hapless traveller is to be pitied for his bad luck in being repeatedly shipwrecked, abandoned and cast adrift, the adventures that result from his misfortune are among some of the most famous stories in the English language.
You see, when we say ‘unknown lands’, we’re not talking about Australia here, but incredible realms where life is rather different to that which we’re accustomed to. On his very first voyage, Gulliver lands in trouble, waking from a long sleep to find himself in a tricky situation:
I attempted to rise, but was not able to stir: For as I happened to lie on my Back, I found my Arms and Legs were strongly fastened on each side to the Ground; and my Hair, which was long and thick, tied down in the same manner. I likewise felt several slender Ligatures across my body, from my Armpits to my Thighs.
p.15 (Penguin, 2012)
This is nothing compared to the shock he experiences when he finds out who has bound him to the ground – a crowd of tiny humans no more than six inches tall…
As is the case with many true classics, Gulliver’s Travels is one of those books where it’s hard to tell whether I’ve actually read it or just lived it (I suspect that most of my memories of the stories come from their inclusion in the excellent Encyclopedia of Things That Never Were, a book I repeatedly consulted as a child). The reader follows the adaptable (and unfortunate) sailor on his travels, sharing his experiences over the four lengthy voyages. Alas, each time he gets home, Gulliver finds himself unable to resist the urge to head off again, soon leaving his kids and long-suffering wife behind.
But where exactly does he go? The precise locations of the places he visits are sketchy (owing to storms taking him off course and mutineers setting him adrift), but they are most certainly terra incognita. On the island of Lilliput, Gulliver finds himself towering above the tiny inhabitants while in the land of Brobdingnag the tables are turned, and the hapless traveller finds himself stranded in a realm of giants. The third journey sees him visiting the flying kingdom of Laputa, and the smaller islands it floats (and reigns) over, before the closing section takes us to the land of the Houyhnhnms, where humans are savage and horses rule.
Of course, as fun as it is to learn about these new lands, Gulliver’s Travels is primarily a satire in which Swift uses his creations to poke fun at contemporary society. One of the objects of his scorn is science (something the writer didn’t think much of), and on the visit to Laputa he skewers the obsession some have with finding new ways do things. Whether you agree with Gulliver or not, there’s no doubt that some of the crazy ideas he’s told, such as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers or building houses from the roof down, really should have stayed on the drawing board.
However, the main focus of the writer’s critical eye is politics, which offended many contemporary critics. The rulers Gulliver meets over the course of his travels are just as fascinated by his world as he is with theirs, but after providing lengthy explanations of European affairs, courts, governments and conflicts, he’s humbled by how unimpressed his hosts are with the society he hails from:
As for yourself (continued the King) who have spent the greatest part of your Life in travelling, I am well disposed to hope you may hitherto have escaped many Vices of your Country. But by what I have gathered from your own Relation, and the Answers I have with much Pains wringed and extorted from you, I cannot but conclude the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth. (p.136)
Initially, Gulliver is offended by the criticism, but in the later journeys he ends up agreeing. By the time he visits the land of the Houyhnhnms and comes face to face with the Yahoos, the savage excrement-flinging humans, he’s ready to wish he was a horse instead.
Quite apart from the satire, another interesting feature of Gulliver’s Travels is the language used, as you may have noticed from the quotations above. In addition to the capitalisation of nouns and italicising proper names, there’s some rather unusual comma use and a number of archaic verb forms (‘durst’, ‘hath’). While it’s a little distracting at first, you soon get used to it, and the language is actually surprisingly similar to modern English. At several points I suspected that my version had been sanitised for modern consumption, but I haven’t been able to find a different version anywhere online (if anyone knows better, please speak up!).
Our hero’s adventures may seem slightly silly and fantastic now, but it’s important to remember that three centuries ago the world was still full of wonders. For example, Japan was a mysterious nation closed off to the rest of the world, and the great southern continent of Australia was still considered a myth by many. If we focus on the scientific aspect of the novel, it’s notable that the great Isaac Newton died around this time. Yes, he may have pondered gravity while nursing an apple-bruised head, but he was also an alchemist who spent half his life searching for the philosopher’s stone, so there was plenty of scope for the average reader to have doubts about the limits of the known world!
It won’t be for everyone, but Gulliver’s Travels is generally great fun, even if Swift goes over the top with the satire at times. However, you’re probably still wondering why I decided to reread it now. Well, writers often find it amusing to imagine continuations of other authors’ work (I’ve been guilty of that myself), and I’m evidently not the only one who wondered whether Gulliver might have followed up his four epic journeys with an even more spectacular fifth voyage…
…and on that note, I’ll leave you. Come back next time to see where we’re heading next 😉