Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift

I first read this at about the age of eight or nine; I’m pretty sure it was the Cassell edition with illustrations by Thomas Morten, because a) the scatological bits have been bowdlerised out and b) I remember my grandfather, in what may well have been the last conversation I ever had with him, teasing me for not knowing Gulliver’s first name; it does not appear in the Cassell edition, which omits the two introductory letters where he is introduced as Lemuel Gulliver.

In case you don’t know, the story is of a normal English naval surgeon who finds himself on four adventures: first, he goes to a country where everyone is very small; then he goes to a country where everyone is very big; then he goes to a country where everyone is a mad scientist (or at least pursuing peculiar paths of knowledge); and finally he goes to a country where horses are intelligent and humans are primitive brutes. They deserve separate treatment, though they are coherent parts of a whole. The illustrations below are Morten’s from the Cassell edition; the text is from the Penguin edition with footnotes by Robert DeMaria.

Part I: A Voyage to Lilliput

Second paragraph of third chapter:

This Diversion [rope-dancing] is only practised by those Persons who are Candidates for great Employments, and high Favour, at Court. They are trained in this Art from their Youth, and are not always of noble Birth, or liberal Education. When a great Office is vacant either by Death or Disgrace (which often happens) five or six of those Candidates petition the Emperor to entertain his Majesty and the Court with a Dance on the Rope, and whoever jumps the highest without falling, succeeds in the Office. Very often the Chief Ministers themselves are commanded to show their Skill, and to convince the Emperor that they have not lost their Faculty. Flimnap, the Treasurer,38 is allowed to cut a Caper on the strait Rope, at least an Inch higher than any other Lord in the whole Empire. I have seen him do the Summerset39 several times together upon a Trencher40 fixed on the Rope, which is no thicker than a common Packthread in England. My Friend Reldresal,41 Principal Secretary for private Affairs, is, in my opinion, if I am not partial, the second after the Treasurer; the rest of the great Officers are much upon a Par.
38 Flimnap: Thought to represent Robert Walpole, the powerful Whig minister.
39 Summerset: Somersault.
40 Trencher: ‘A piece of wood upon which meat is cut at table’ (Johnson).
41 Reldresal: Perhaps Lord Carteret, a friend of Swift’s, who, as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, offered a reward for the identification of the author of Swift’s anti-government pamphlets called The Drapier’s Letters.

Lilliput is the best known of the four books – perhaps it is the easiest to grasp and to film. In 1981 Barry Letts did an adaptation which centred much more around Lady Flimnap than Gulliver; the lead was played by Elisabeth Sladen, formerly (and future) Sarah Jane Smith.

This is the most directly satirical of the four parts, the story of Lilliput and its eternal rival Blefuscu, clearly modelled on England and France, divided also by the debate over which end of the egg to break first, and in the case of Lilliput riven by internal court intrigue into which Gulliver becomes a deeply disturbing factor. Turning the telescope around is an old satirist’s trick, and reducing the squabbles of European politicians and churchmen to a twelfth of their usual size is a good way of putting things in perspective.

This is the only one of the four books where Gulliver is forced to leave by the inhabitants (or rather to avoid their intention to kill or maim him). The precipitating moment is when he puts out a fire in the Queen’s apartments by urinating on it. (This is one of the bits that was left out of the Cassell edition.)

Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The Queen observed my coldness, and when the Farmer was gone out of the Apartment, asked me the reason. I made bold to tell her Majesty that I owed no other Obligation to my late Master, than his not dashing out the Brains of a poor harmless Creature found by chance in his Field; which Obligation was amply recompensed by the gain he had made in showing me through half the Kingdom, and the price he had now sold me for. That the Life I had since led, was laborious enough to kill an Animal of ten times my Strength. That my Health was much impaired by the continual drudgery of entertaining the Rabble every hour of the Day, and that if my Master had not thought my Life in danger, her Majesty perhaps would not have got so cheap a bargain. But as I was out of all fear of being ill treated under the protection of so great and good an Empress, the Ornament of Nature, the Darling of the World, the Delight of her Subjects, the Phoenix of the Creation; so, I hoped my late Master’s apprehensions would appear to be groundless, for I already found my Spirits to revive by the Influence of her most August Presence.

If Lilliput is the most satirical of the four parts of the story, Brobdingnag is the most philosophical. (Also, ironically, the shortest.) The two particularly memorable aspects of the story are, first, the body horror of everything being twelve times its normal size, including lice, flies, rats, monkeys and indeed dwarves; and second, a long conversation about political theory between Gulliver and the King of Brobdingnag, in which Gulliver leads off with a naïvely idealistic description of the British constitution, and the King gently destroys every single point in a series of hypothetical questions. It is the closest we get to sæva Indignatio (though there are several other near encounters).

Incidentally, I surely can’t be alone in detecting an echo of “dashing out the Brains of a poor harmless Creature found by chance in his Field“ in “To a Mouse”.

Part III: A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggnagg, Glubbdubdrib and Japan

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The Flying or Floating Island is exactly circular, its Diameter 7837 Yards, or about four Miles and an Half, and consequently contains ten Thousand Acres. It is three Hundred Yards thick. The bottom or under Surface, which appears to those who view it from below, is one even regular Plate of Adamant, shooting up to the Height of about two Hundred Yards. Above it lie the several Minerals in their usual order, and over all is a Coat of rich Mould ten or twelve Foot deep. The Declivity of the upper Surface, from the Circumference to the Centre, is the natural Cause why all the Dews and Rains which fall upon the Island, are conveyed in small Rivulets towards the middle, where they are emptied into four large Basins, each of about half a Mile in Circuit, and two Hundred Yards distant from the Centre. From these Basins the Water is continually exhaled by the Sun in the Daytime, which effectually prevents their overflowing. Besides, as it is in the Power of the Monarch to raise the Island above the Region of Clouds and Vapours, he can prevent the falling of Dews and Rains whenever he pleases. For the highest Clouds cannot rise above two Miles, as Naturalists agree, at least they were never known to do in that Country.

The third section has perhaps weathered the test of time least well of the four – though ironically it is the most sfnal, in that the first half is very much about the application of science and the second half then takes us into accessing the past (by summoning ghosts, and talking to immortals). Swift’s rejection of scientific research as a worthwhile activity, and of science as a useful tool for statecraft, is pretty startling for the modern reader. We make a mistake if we read the floating island of Laputa as a scientific endeavour; it’s essentially a magical mechanism enabling the plot to happen, and the scientists above and below are deranged idealists. Of the three books, this is the one where Gulliver travels the most, and the result is a somewhat disjointed narrative.

Part IV: A Voyage to the Land of the Houyhnhnms

Second paragraph of third chapter:

In speaking, they pronounce through the Nose and Throat, and their Language approaches nearest to the High Dutch or German, of any I know in Europe; but is much more graceful and significant.19 The Emperor Charles V made almost the same Observation, when he said, That if he were to speak to his Horse, it should be in High Dutch.20
19 significant: ‘Expressive or representative in an eminent degree; forcible to impress the meaning’ (Johnson, sense 3).
20 Emperor Charles V … High-Dutch: Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain, Charles (1500–1558) is credited with saying he would address his God in Spanish, his mistress in Italian, and his horse in German.

The fourth and final part is by far the most misanthropic story of the book. The Houyhnhnms are intelligent horses, philosopher kings who do not seem to know crime or even sin. The Yahoos (who they exploit) are degenerate humans with disgusting personal hygiene and morals. Again Gulliver attempts to explain his own society to his hosts, but now he emphasises the negatives rather than the positives. He is appalled to find himself closer physically to the Yahoos, and aspires to be one of the Houyhnhnms. (This of course makes him unbearable to his family, and vice versa, when he eventually does get home.) Again, the reversal of roles is an old satirist’s trick; it’s maybe a little less successful here because we modern readers can’t help but notice the Houyhnhnms’ exploitation of the Yahoos, and also wonder exactly how horses can develop even a modest level of technology without opposable digits. But that’s not the point; to invoke Burns again, the point is “To see oursels as ithers see us”, and the disgusting behaviour of the Yahoos should be read as disturbingly close to our own societies.

Alas, there is precisely no evidence that Swift was inspired to write about Gulliver’s capture in Lilliput by the anthropomorphic profile of Cave Hill as it overlooks Belfast. Shame; it would have been nice if it were true.

This was the top book on the shelves that I had read but not reviewed online. Next up is the Aeneid, by Virgil.