lørdag den 19. januar 2019

Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift (1726)

Gulliver's Travels
I must have been only a child when I first encountered the story of Gulliver and his travels. The memory of a movie with a giant on a beach with hundreds of tiny people tying him up is very vivid. This is a story many, if not most, people are very familiar with, but the part we recall is usually only the visit to Lilliput. The story is much longer than that. After Lilliput Gulliver went to the giants in Brobdingnag, the to a series of lands inhabited by crazy scientist types and necromancers and finally to the Houyhnhnms and Yahoos in Houyhnhnm-land.

The narrator, one Lemuel Gulliver is a surgeon (a bone-mender) who takes jobs on ships that keep shipwrecking him alone in the most bizarre lands. First stop is Lilliput, where he is a giant among tiny people. There people are also of small minds and outsize ambitions and although he repeatedly helps them out and befriends them, he eventually has to escape as they, in all friendliness, seek to main and kill him.

Next, he ends up with the giants in Brobdingnag. Tables turned, Gulliver is now the tiny person among monstrously large people with large minds. These have no plans to hurt Gulliver, but the sheer size of everything makes even a bee a deadly foe. When he leaves this country, it is merely by accident, being picked up by an oversize bird.

In the third book the marooned Gulliver is picked up onto a flying island. This is a country ruled by scientists with their concerns on math and the heavens rather than common sense. There is definitely a sense that Swift did not care for the academics of his age and these people are laughable in the extreme. Down on the ground he visits a university where “projectors” are wasting time and money on useless projects. This trip also takes him to a place where people get very old and stupid and another, ruled by necromancers, where he has long discussions with long dead people.

Finally, in the last chapter Gulliver visits that land of the talking horses where humans are reduced brutes called Yahoos.

Jonathan Swift, the famed Irish writer, clergyman and many other things, was a satirist and Gulliver’s Travels was intended as a satire on the British government in particular and British/European mores in general. As such the book describes a trend from mild and entertaining, even bawdy, to increasingly mean and bitter satire. In the last chapter Swift is foaming with anger and bitterness and while the idea of clever and civilized horses is amusing there is not much to laugh at in that chapter.

Fortunately, we get that in the first chapters. There are plenty of amusing scenes, from Gulliver quenching a fire in the royal palace by pissing on it to the scientists working on abolishing spoken language since all words can be replaced by things. If you just carry enough things with you, you can make a full conversation without uttering a word. An idea shot down by women who insist on the right to chatter… It is this levity and the bizarre scenery Swift paints that makes for an amusing read even today, where the satire itself has mostly lost its relevance.

I understand why later versions, especially on the screen, has focused on the first chapter in Lilliput. It may be the section with most relevance today. However, there are lots to get from the other chapters as well and I would particularly like to see a movie rendition of the visit to the flying island.

Of course, I will recommend this book, but I knew that even before reading it. It is a classic after all.

2 kommentarer:

  1. It's been years since I read this. Your description of the Houyhnhnm-land brought to mind Planet of the Apes. Never made that connection before!

  2. Neither did I , but that is an obvious connection when you think about it. Good call.