The other day, whilst walking along Galle Road in Colombo, I noticed this inventive display in the street-front window of an IT business.
It’s a representation of Lemuel Gulliver near the beginning of Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satirical classic Gulliver’s Travels, bound down against the sand by the tiny inhabitants of Lilliput – onto whose shore he’s just been washed following a shipwreck. But if you look closely at the display, you realise it isn’t those pesky little Lilliputians who’ve tied down this Lemuel Gulliver. Rather, it’s some futuristic little men dressed in silvery spacesuits who’ve arrived on the scene in miniature 4x4s, on miniature quad-bikes and with miniature JCB diggers.
By coincidence, I’d read Gulliver’s Travels a few weeks earlier. That was the second time I’d read it, or at least read part of it, because I’d first tackled the book when I was 10 years old. Back then, my interest in it had been kindled by seeing on TV The Three Worlds of Gulliver, the 1960 movie adaptation starring Kerwin Matthews as Gulliver and with special effects by Ray Harryhausen.
The Three Worlds of Gulliver was aimed at children and played up the adventure and spectacle at the expense of the satire. Indeed, keen to exploit two common childhood fantasies – the fantasy of being a giant in a world where everything else is miniature and the fantasy of being a miniature in a world where everything else is giant – the movie took place only in Lilliput and in the giants’ kingdom of Brobdingnag. It ignored the locales that Gulliver visited later in the book.
© Columbia Pictures
As my ten-year-old self discovered, there was some adventure and spectacle in the original literary version of Gulliver’s Travels. But I wasn’t ready for the calm matter-of-fact tone of Swift’s prose, or for Gulliver’s penchant for meticulous observation and detailing of the lands he explored (which suggested he was more a man of learning than a man of action) or for the social commentary that permeated everything. It seemed sober and serious rather than exciting; and I ended up reading the stuff about Lilliput and Brobdingnag only. I didn’t attempt the book’s third and fourth parts, which I’d heard were about flying islands and talking horses.
Now that I’ve read the book in its entirety, I thought I’d say something about Gulliver’s later travels – the episodes after Lilliput and Brobdingnag that I didn’t read when I was a kid.
Gulliver was shipwrecked before arriving in Lilliput and abandoned by his next set of shipmates on the shore of Brobdingnag. (They fled in a longboat when a giant appeared, leaving him behind.) His luck doesn’t improve during his third voyage, which sees him captured by pirates and set adrift in a canoe. He’s rescued by the inhabitants of the flying island of Laputa, which floats like a giant sentient Frisbee above the larger and conventionally-earthbound land of Balnibarbi. Laputa’s king also rules Balnibarbi, quelling any dissent or rebellions below by manoeuvring the island over the trouble-spots and preventing them getting sunlight and rainfall, or dropping rocks on them, or – the most extreme sanction – lowering the island on top of them and squashing them.
This third section of Gulliver’s Travels is regarded as the weakest but there’s still plenty to enjoy. Swift uses it to state his position in the empiricism-versus-rationalism debate of his era. He’s a staunch empiricist; and Gulliver’s accounts of his time in Laputa and Balnibarbi are his way of giving the proponents of theoretical and speculative science a good kicking.
The Laputians are ridiculous figures who’re so immersed in thought and unaware of their surroundings that their servants need to shake bladders filled with pebbles or dried peas in their faces to remind them when it’s their turn to speak in a conversation. Disconcertingly, they have “one of their eyes turned inward, and the other directly up to the zenith” – which was supposedly Swift’s dig at the compound microscope and the handheld telescope, both invented in the early 1600s. Just as parents used to warn their kids that watching too much TV would give them square eyes, so Swift warns that too much microscope and telescope usage will give people an alarming form of strabismus.
The Laputians are next to no one in their mastery of mathematics and astronomy – Gulliver notes that they’ve discovered “two lesser stars, or satellites, which revolve around Mars”, an uncannily accurate prediction by Swift since the two Martian moons of Phobos and Deimos weren’t discovered until 1877. Unfortunately, they insist on applying their abstract knowledge to more practical areas.
Their cuisine suggests something you’d get nowadays in an achingly pretentious and eye-wateringly expensive restaurant: “a shoulder of mutton, cut into an equilateral triangle, a piece of beef into a rhomboid, and a pudding into a cycloid…” and bread cut into “cones, cylinders, parallelograms, and several other mathematical figures.” Their tailoring is lamentable – Gulliver gets measured for a new set of clothes with a quadrant, ‘a rule and compasses’ and some mathematical calculations that go wrong, and the resulting outfit is “very ill made, and quite out of shape.” As for architecture, “(t)heir houses are very ill built, the walls bevil, without one right angle in any apartment, and this defect ariseth from the contempt they bear to practical geometry…”
When Gulliver departs from Laputa and descends to Balnibarbi, he finds it in a state of poverty and disrepair. Rule by the Laputians, whose heads are literally in the clouds, has done it no favours. While there, he visits the country’s Grand Academy, which has in each of its 500 rooms a ‘projector’ – a professor – busy with some sort of research. The impractical spirit of Laputa reigns supreme in the academy and Swift lays into it with as much malevolent enthusiasm as a modern Daily Mail journalist writing a mocking exposé about overpaid, lefty, ivory-tower academics wasting our taxpayers’ money and teaching airy-fairy nonsense to our youngsters.
Gulliver finds, for example, one old coot engaged in an eight-year project “for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers”; a construction expert working on “a new method for building houses, by beginning at the roof, and working downwards to the foundation”; and an entomologist trying to train spiders to spin coloured silk. Worst of all is a man in an evil-smelling room striving “to reduce human excrement to its original food… He had a weekly allowance from the society, of a vessel filled with human ordure, about the bigness of a Bristol barrel.” It’s likely that Swift had London’s Royal Society, founded in 1660 “for improving natural knowledge”, in his sights when he wrote this.
© Penguin Books
I hadn’t known that in the third section Gulliver visits other places too – which weakens its effectiveness because the result is random and scattershot. After Balnibarbi, he travels to the island of Glubbdubdrib, populated by ‘magicians and sorcerers’, whose governor lives in a house run by ghostly servants that materialise and dematerialise at the lifting of their master’s finger. Gulliver persuades his hosts to conjure up the ghosts of the greatest figures in history for him to interview: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Aristotle and so on. Predictably, he discovers that the reality of human history is different from how it’s been recorded. “…I found how the world has been misled by prostitute writers, to ascribe the greatest exploits in war to cowards, the wisest counsel to fools, sincerity to flatterers…” Not only does the satire feel strained here but I don’t like the sudden intrusion of the supernatural. It jars with the tone of the rest of the book – which, for all its unlikeliness, could be treated as a very early work of science fiction.
More effective is Gulliver’s next port of call, the island of Luggnagg. He’s excited to find out that Luggnagg’s inhabitants include a group of immortal beings called the struldbrugs. However, that excitement changes to disgust when he realises the true cost of immortality. The struldbrugs don’t die but they keep on ageing – ending up as wizened homunculi, hopelessly crippled by infirmity and senility. “They were the most mortifying sight I ever beheld, and the women more horrifying than the men.”
Then there’s the marvellous and melancholic fourth section. It begins with Gulliver taking to the sea again, despite his luck so far being worse than Job’s. And – surprise! – things go wrong again. He falls foul of a mutiny and is put ashore on an unnamed land that, it transpires, is inhabited by the Houyhnhnms and the Yahoos. The former are an intelligent, noble and gentle race of horses and the latter are degenerate human beings who’re anything but intelligent, noble or gentle. During Gulliver’s first encounter with the Yahoos, several of them defecate on him from the branches of a tree, which hardly endears them to him. These adventures with civilised animals and bestial humans were surely an inspiration for Pierre Boulle’s novel Monkey Planet (1963), which itself became the basis for the Planet of the Apes movies.
Gulliver takes greatly to the Houyhnhnms’ culture, although as many commentators (including George Orwell) have pointed out, they inhabit a dull sort of utopia. They’re governed by cold logic and their lives seem devoid of feeling, fun or kinship. You get the impression that Gulliver is so fatigued by everything else he’s been through that he’s happy to spend the remainder of his life as an ascetic. Among talking horses.
But fate intervenes yet again and Gulliver is forced to take his leave of his beloved Houyhnhnms. He arrives back in the human world, to which he has extreme difficulty readjusting. People, even the members of his family, remind him too much of those revolting Yahoos. We last see him shunning their company in favour of that of two horses whom he keeps in his stable. “My horses understand me tolerably well; I converse with them at least four hours every day. They are strangers to bridle or saddle; they live in great amity with me, and friendship to each other.”
Poor Gulliver has become unstable. But at least he feels stable when he’s in a stable.