I know, I know two posts in a day. I’m still playing catch-up with my blog posts, but I promise this is the last one until I finish my next book, The Requiem Shark by Nicholas Griffin.
This particular post, as you might have guessed from the title, is on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I only just finished reading this book yesterday, and I can’t say it’s like anything else I’ve ever read. The style is very much journalistic, fantastical, and an extremely biting satire against the humanity of the early 1800s (1726, the year in which Gulliver’s Travels was first published). Swift’s original reason for writing this work is interesting: at the behest of his colleagues in the Scriblerus club (i.e. Alexander Pope, John Gay and others), he compiled a number of stories which would make a satire out of the traditional travel novel. However, Swift decided to take it a step further and included in his satire a scathing review of English and European society, exposing most of humanity’s flaws under a bright, searing spotlight. He uses each of Gulliver’s destinations as foils or sharp contrasts to ordinary society, and in this way points out to the reader the impracticalities and decidedly nonsensical manner in which we conduct our everyday lives.
Gulliver begins his travels on the island of Lilliput, the inhabitants of which are very, very small and somewhat arrogant. The term ‘Lilliputian’ has come directly from this work, and it’s easy to see why. Not only does it refer to something small, but it refers to something small and tenacious and very prideful which is the exact definition of the Lilliputians. The prideful aspect is most obvious when the reader discovers that the Lilliputians are at war with their neighbours, the people of Blefuscu, over the different ways of cracking eggs. This is quite an absurd topic, but the satire of it lies in the fact that they take it absolutely seriously and it reflects on the ways in which Governments and political parties might debate completely pointless topics and have them become the most important things.Gulliver becomes caught between the two warring nations, and eventually decides that he will no longer be used as a pawn in their political game. He seeks departure, which the Blefuscuans grant him, and he returns to England.
Gulliver’s next adventure takes him to Brobdingnag, a land inhabited by giants. After being nearly squashed he is taken up by a farmer and his daughter, Glumdalclitch, who becomes his nursemaid. Once word spread around the town that a small creature had appeared, he was called for at court and thence spent his next few years in the company of the royals of Brobdingnag with Glumdalclitch at his side. Gulliver and the King have a number of lengthy discussions on the state of affairs in Europe, and the King promptly declares the whole lot of what Gulliver has to say as complete nonsense. Gulliver himself is still held as a tiny (literally) curiosity amongst the Brobdingnagians, but he is well treated. Yet he yearns for home, and by chance he is one day scooped up by a large eagle and deposited into the ocean, whence by ship he is delivered back to England. This particular adventure gives readers a clear example that although we might think ourselves big, we really are quite small in comparison to the wider world. It also again parodies our government structures, and as the King of the Brobdingnagians proclaims it all a load of bothersome nonsense we come to realise as Gulliver does that perhaps all is not as it seems back in the homeland.
The third adventure sees Gulliver delivered into the hands of the Laputans, a particular kind of society that focuses on knowledge in art, music and mathematics. Laputa may be familiar to some of you: it has also been mentioned in Dr. Strangelove, as well as the Studio Ghibli movie Laputa: Castle in the Sky, which is really really good and made me cry. I rarely cry at movies. But back to the topic. Laputa itself is a large piece of land that floats above the surface of Balnibarbi, the rest of the country. Inside the structures of Laputa live the rulers of Balnibarbi, which Gulliver has the unfortunate luck to meet. He is treated with disdain, not being particularly well versed in their brand of reasoning (read: ill-reasoning). After attempting to blend in, he finds it too uncomfortable and is granted descent to Balnibarbi, which he finds no more reasonable. Their scientists are all employed in fruitless endeavours, their architecture is absurd, and Gulliver only finds companionship with one man who refused to concede to the ways of the majority and was exiled because his abode and lifestyle were of ‘the old ways’ (read: right angles and productive cropping and farming methods).
After Balnibarbi, Gulliver ventures on a trip to a few nearby islands that come under Laputa’s rule, these being Glubbdubdrib and Luggnagg. Glubbdubdrib was a very interesting place, wholly inhabited by mystics and enchanters who could summon spirits at will. Of course, Gulliver took great advantage of this and summoned up every great leader and historical figure he could think of, hoping to learn of noble causes and restore his view of humanity to what it had once been. However he was greatly disappointed, and only learned that over the course of history not very much had changed. From here he proceeded to Luggnagg, where he was forced to stay for three months before he was able to leave the country. He was well-accepted by the people of Luggnagg, and is treated well by the King despite the strange customs of greeting (see the part where Gulliver has to lick the floor before the king to show obeisance). In Luggnagg Gulliver learns of a race of immportal persons called the struldbrugs, who can never die by natural causes but age continually. This is explained to Gulliver after he expounds upon the good deeds he would do with immortality, upon which he very suddenly realises that perhaps such things as immortality and everlasting riches may not be the best thing to have.
After his departure from Luggnagg he ventures to Japan, and then on towards home.
Gulliver’s fourth and final trip sees his ship captured by pirates and himself set out to sea alone to starve. He does, however, come across another island which is inhabited by a race of intelligent and reasoning horses called Hoyhnhnms, in their language. The island is also inhabited by a large amount of verminous humanoid creatures called Yahoos, which are far smaller than Gulliver is and resemble humans in every way, shape and form besides their lack of intelligence and reason, lack of clothing, and profuse hairiness. Gulliver is found first by a group of these Yahoos, who sensing his presence as an outsider proceed to fire their fecal matter at him in defence. Escaping this turd-storm he comes across the Hoyhnhnms, who are at first quite shocked by his capability to reason and moreover talk intelligibly to them. They take him in and treat him well, and he eventually becomes very close friends with his ‘Master’ (the male Hoyhnhnm who is the figurehead of the family). After learning to speak their language, Gulliver spends many happy weeks and hours learning about the Hoyhnhnm’s culture and slowly begins to find that the similarities between himself and the Yahoos are disturbingly plentiful. He begins to disgust human nature, and shirks it in favour of the Hoyhnhnms’ very innocent and trouble-free lifestyle. He wishes to stay in this Utopia, however he is cast out because he is too much like a Yahoo to be tolerable to his idols. He returns home much dejected, and loathes to look upon or interact with any other human including his family. He eventually buys two horses, and spends his time amongst them.
From his trip to visit the Hoyhnhnms, Gulliver learns much more about the nature of humanity than he is able to stomach. He finds himself repulsive, and also finds the habits of humanity and their whole way of life to be abhorrent, ludicrous and quite illogical. He learns that life need not be led with the laws and way of government that are in place during his time, and that wars need not happen and life need not be as complicated as it is. He discovers that humanity has a much greater capability in life than to confound and destroy itself, and can no longer sit at ease with the prospect upon returning back to England. What this segment shows to the reader is twofold: first of all, that maybe we aren’t so dissimilar from the Yahoos as far as our instincts and understanding of reasoning goes, and perhaps we should be more kind and benevolent, caring and understanding like the Hoyhnhnms are. And second of all, that Utopia is never a reality forever. And if we think it is, we are perhaps kidding ourselves.
So, as a satire Gulliver’s Travels definitely hits the mark. It shows readers everything about humanity in a completely different light, and gives readers a new understanding of the world they live and participate freely in. But moreover, as a work with much aplomb and worldwide acclaim, Gulliver’s Travels is not a book that should be left to sit and get dusty on a shelf. It begs to be read, and we are the better for it at the end.
That’s it from me for now, so stay tuned for my next blog entry where I review The Requiem Shark by Nicholas Griffin. I was in the mood for a pirate novel.
Never stop reading, and as always feel free to comment and let me know your thoughts!