I’ve written at length in this recent series of blogs about the gap between the perception of novels in popular culture, and the books themselves. ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ has probably suffered the most in this regard, or had the longest journey, in that the corruscating satire has been recast over the years as a children’s book. It is utterly futile to think of this transformation as being either a good or bad thing – it is just what has happened, and there is clearly a children’s book within the pages of this novel. But if it is seen as simply that, then what a shame.

‘Gulliver’s Travels’ should be a set text for every GCSE student. It should be read by politics, history and literature undergraduates as well. It is a breathtakingly brave polemic. I last read the novel a few years ago, but rereading in recent days I was struck by the vigour of the satire, the ferocity of Swift’s anger. He tears his targets apart in a way that even today is rarely seen, when we think of ourselves as being much more open and challenging, but still pull our punches and avoid saying the unsayable, steering away from taboo subjects in a way Swift fearlessly refuses to do.

No-one escapes his attention and criticism. The king of Brobdignag, the land of the giants, having heard Gulliver’s naively damning description of his home,says

“I cannot but conclude that the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.” 

I don’t think anyone has ever captured the futility of political discourse more effectively than the paragraph describing the disputes between the Big- and Little-Endians.

“It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden”

That’s pretty much it, one short paragraph on the topic, but in these lines how much of human folly is portrayed. Political and religious disputes are exposed as the nonsense they are. Gulliver’s Travels is sometimes described as a narrow political satire in which direct parallels between contemporary events and characters and those in the novel are found. This I think places unnecessary constraints on the text – there is a universality to this portrayal of human folly.

If the satire in Lilliput and Brodbignag is relatively benign, the ferocity steps up a notch when Gulliver returns to sea once more (these are a series of separate voyages, between each of which Gulliver returns to England and visits his family, and is then tempted back to sea) and he meets the peoples of Laputa. I have used the phrase “fizzing with ideas” in previous blog entries about some other writers, but never has it been more appropriate – the ideas fly past with extraordinary speed, breathlessly, with little time to consider the wonderful invention and humour before the next is upon us. It’s not all relentless mocking of the absurdities of modern life – the chapters on the immortal men and women are quite haunting, and to this day have given me a different way of thinking about death. Yes, it’s that profound. In a ‘children’s book’.

It is really not until the extraordinary final chapters describing Gulliver’s time in the land of the Houyhnhnms where the  intensity of the satire reaches its full pitch. Ruled by a race of intelligent horses which possess all the virtues man lacks, these chapters principally consist of Gulliver describing England (and Europe) to his master. Simply through this description, and the horse’s occasional observation, the whole of society is damned. Take this description of the law for example:

“Judges… are picked out from the most dextrous lawyers, who are grown old or lazy, and having been biased all their lives against truth or equity, are under such a fatal necessity of favoring fraud, perjury and oppression, that I have known several of them to refuse a large bribe from the side where justice lay, rather than injure the faculty by doing any thing unbecoming their nature in office.”

Or international relations:

is a very kingly, honourable, and frequent practice, when one prince desires the assistance of another, to secure him against an invasion, that the assistant, when he has driven out the invader, should seize on the dominions himself, and kill, imprison, or banish, the prince he came to relieve.

Or finally, and possibly most damningly of all, for a country still priding itself on the expansion of its empire, we have this description of colonialism:

a crew of pirates are driven by a storm they know not whither; at length a boy discovers land from the topmast; they go on shore to rob and plunder, they see a harmless people, are entertained with kindness; they give the country a new name; they take formal possession of it for their king; they set up a rotten plank, or a stone, for a memorial; they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more, by force, for a sample; return home, and get their pardon. Here commences a new dominion acquired with a title by divine right. Ships are sent with the first opportunity; the natives driven out or destroyed; their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free license given to all acts of inhumanity and lust, the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers, employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony, sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people!”

Again this is just one paragraph, but is there anywhere a better indictment of imperalism?

It’s hardly surprising that this novel was published anonymously at first. If a modern version was published today the author would be villified and almost certainly prosecuted. But the concept of a modern version of the text is probably nonsense – the universality of Swift’s themes means that this novel is quite timeless.

Just by way of a postscript, we think of 17th and 18th century novels as quite prudish, but that is completely wrong. ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is surprisingly scatalogical. Gulliver is one of the few figures in fiction who needs to go to the toilet – in almost all books (and films) this simple universal need is politely ignored. This isn’t just for comic effect, as when he puts out the fire in Lilliput, funny though that is, but also as a part of making Gulliver a believable human character.

Finally, I bring you another delight from Amazon’s one star review selection, commenting on how easily Gulliver seems to recover from the various shipwrecks he endures: “It all seems too good to be true”.