Posted on Dec 25, 2006

Gulliver’s Travels

I just finished reading Gulliver’s Travels.

Recently, I have been attracted to fantasy as a genre, driven by the popularity of ‘Lord of The Rings’ and ‘Harry Potter’, and by the complete diassociation it provides from the tyranny of logical reasoning imposed by a hectic work-life. I was planning to buy my first Harry Potter when I noticed the ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ idling on my bookshelf. In my mind, this was the quintessential adventure story that fuelled some of my memorable childhood fantasies, an impression created by my first reading of the abridged reader when I was in primary school. I thought I will read it first before moving on to others in my reading list.

And it has been quite a revelation to me, on many counts.

1. It is more a satire on human nature, the accounts of Gulliver’s travels providing descriptions of lifestyles of imaginary places which are then used to compare, contrast and criticize human lifestyle. Fantasy is successfully employed as a lens to provide a unique view of reality, which struck me as an interesting literary technique.

2. Gulliver’s Travels was published in 1726. It is amazing to see how much our polity and society still resembles the state of affairs that Jonathan Swift criticizes. Such resemblence and magnification of the human degeneracy makes this work a classic – the relevance of the text transcends the close-to-three-centuries that have passed by, very similar to the way Shakespeare’s works have stood out.

Here is a sample, on political corruption:

“There are three methods, by which a man may rise to be chief minister. The first is, by knowing how, with prudence, to dispose of a wife, a daughter, or a sister; the second, by betraying or undermining his predecessor; and the third is, by a furious zeal, in public assemblies, against the corruption’s of the court. But a wise prince would rather choose to employ those who practise the last of these methods; because such zealots prove always the most obsequious and subservient to the will and passions of their master. That these ministers, having all employments at their disposal, preserve themselves in power, by bribing the majority of a senate or great council; and at last, by an expedient, called an act of indemnity” (whereof I described the nature to him), “they secure themselves from after-reckonings, and retire from the public laden with the spoils of the nation.”

3. The book gives a glimpse into the life and customs during the times. Some of the observations, like the opinion about women in general, appear to be in bad taste, but this probably has more to do with the views prevalant in those times.

4. Hailing from an ex-British colony, one passage on colonization towards the end of the book caught my attention:

“But, I had another reason which made me less forward to enlarge his Majesty’s dominions by my discoveries; To say the truth, I had conceived a few scruples with relation to the distributive justice of Princes upon these occasions. For instance, a crew of pirates are driven by a storm they know not whither; at length, a boy discovers land from the Top-mast; they go on shore to rob and plunder; they see an harmless people, are entertained with kindness, they give the country a new name, they take formal possession of it for the 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 these execrable crew of butchers employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern Colony sent to convert an idolatrous and barbarous people.”

5. The terms Yahoo, Big-endian/Little-endian were introduced in this book (I already knew about the former, but not the latter). The passage on endian-ness ridicules our petty disputes with unconcealed hilarity.

“Which two mighty powers have, as I was going to tell you, been engaged in a most obstinate war for six-and-thirty moons past. It began upon the following occasion. 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, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments. During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefusca did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran). This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text; for the words are these: ‘that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.’ And which is the convenient end, seems, in my humble opinion to be left to every man’s conscience, or at least in the power of the chief magistrate to determine.”

Thanks for such a pleasurable and thought-provoking voyage, Captain Swift!