Like myself, I’d imagine most people will be aware of Gulliver’s Travels as the book where the little people tie down the hero. What I didn’t realise before reading it was that Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput are just one of four parts, as the hero visits a series of different lands.
Swift’s writing is very dry prose that demands the reader’s full attention. I was reading partially during my lunch break, and often not quite taking in what I was reading, having to go back and read it again.
According to the introduction, traveller’s diaries were a popular genre at the time, full of fantastical stories that modern readers would recognise as fantasy.
John Mandeville, an ‘explorer’ a few centuries before Gulliver, told a series of ludicrous lies which were apparently one of the motivating reasons for Columbus’ most famous voyage.
Gulliver, the narrator of his adventures, states near the beginning that he’s travelled to the places in other books, only to find they were much more mundane than the tales, and left him disillusioned, pretty much pointing out up front that the book is a deliberate exaggeration of this genre.
It’s probably not the most obvious description to apply to the book, but Gulliver’s Travels is fun and inventive, in a dry, understated, deadpan way. As a taste of the kind of thing I mean, in A Modest Proposal Swift put forward an argument for solving Ireland’s twin problems of overpopulation and lack of food…by eating their own babies. But by the tone of writing, many people at the time thought that Swift, an influential political figure in his day job, was putting this forward as a serious suggestion.
There’s nothing quite as radical in Gulliver’s Travels, but that kind of mad invention and deadpan tone are on display throughout Gulliver’s Travels.
Part I covers Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput. These aren’t laugh out loud hilarious, but pretty funny in an understated deadpan way. They’re written in a way you could believe that the extreme events really happened.
In Part II Gulliver visits Brobdingnag, a land of giants just north of California, and offers a semi-plausible reason why they had remained out of touch with the wider world, before, amongst other things, fencing with a giant fly.
It’s a bit hard to get into the mentality of a 17th century reader and understand their understanding of the world, at a time when many corners of the world weren’t fully mapped out. But the tone really sells these crazy stories.
Although I don’t imagine much of this has survived into modern TV and movie adaptations, there’s a fair bit of pretty silly contemporary satire. There is a major religious divide in Lilliput is over which end of the egg is the moral end to crack, and the people of Lilliput are buried vertically, and upside down, in the belief that Judgement Day will begin on the far side of the world.
Personally, my favourite parts of the book were the less famous Parts III & IV.
In Part III Gulliver travels to Laputa, which, thanks to a mineral naturally occurring in its soil, floats in the sky. Laputa is a nation of incredibly talented mathematicians, who have very little understanding of any other subjects, but feel their mathematical genius qualifies them to be experts on everything. Interestingly, according to the notes (I read the 2001 Penguin edition) the people of this nation were based on Swift’s political opponent, Sir Isaac Newton. Yes, the same one.
Gulliver then visits the projectors of Lagado, a nearby nation. Influenced by Laputa, they had embarked on a series of grand plans to utterly reinvent their society, very few of which work.
In Part IV Gulliver travels to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of hyper-evolved horses so noble and idealistic that they have no understanding of the concept of lying. The Houyhnhnms are noble and logical, but contemptuous of the barbaric humans (the Yahoos) who live amongst them. The Houyhnhnms and the increasingly impressionable Gulliver put together a strong case against the barbarism of the wider world, while allowing their own love of reason to lead them down a quite horrific path. While I thought Part III was the cleverest of the stories, Part IV was the section that grabbed me most on an emotional, instinctive level.
I’ve no supportive evidence for this, but reading Part IV it struck me as a possible inspiration for Planet of the Apes, so deep are the similarities.
However, in spite of all that, Gulliver’s Travels is, to a large extent, defined by the time that produced it. Though the notes explained what a reader of the time would have been reminded of, the explanations understandably interrupted the flow, and I’m sure many things would have struck a 17th century reader that didn’t occur to me.
Verdict: A drily written adventure, with a mixture of satire and silliness, that’s most entertaining and imaginative in the lesser known sections.