I’ve been meaning for ages to visit capital cities in Scandinavia and the Baltic States, and with Brexit looming I decided this summer was the perfect time to turn talk into action. So in June hubby and I set off on our own little travel adventure, taking in Copenhagen, Oslo, Bergen, Helsinki, Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius. Naturally I wanted some travel-themed reading to complement our trip and Gulliver’s Travels seemed to fit the bill. I found a Kindle edition featuring illustrations by Arthur Rackham, which made it an even more the perfect choice.
I’d skim-read Gulliver’s Travels as part of my undergraduate degree some 30 (ouch!) years ago. The book is in four parts, each covering a separate voyage. Most of us know the story about Gulliver being shipwrecked on an island where the people are a minuscule 6 inches (15 centimetres) tall, which is in Part One A Voyage to Lilliput. Part Two A Voyage to Brobdingnag is Lilliput in reverse, where the people are ‘spire-steeple’ tall. Parts Three and Four are less well-known but conceptually feel very familiar: Part Three A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg and Japan has an ‘island in the air’ that could easily be the antecedent of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld; and could Philip Pullman’s strange land populated by the Mulefa in The Amber Spyglass have been inspired by Part Four A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms where horses are the rational ‘presiding creature’ and humans are ‘the brute’?
So considering it was written in 1726 Gulliver’s Travels is in many ways a very modern book not least because Swift, as a pacifist and anti-imperialist, never passes up a chance to have a dig at the established order of things, whether secular or religious. Actually, that’s kind of the point of the whole shebang.
And Swift’s not above a bit of visual humour – Gulliver pissing on the Lilliputian Emperor’s palace to put out a fire is a fine example; the nobility of Laputa employing ‘flappers’ to hit them so they remember what they are about is another. The clowning works on two levels: as well as being funny in itself it also serves as a visual embodiment of Swift’s anti-establishment stance.
Still, there are only so many times Gulliver can explain our system of governance to a total outsider before you find yourself thinking ok, I get it, it makes no sense, now is there another palace you could piss on? It’s a bit like hearing how badly Brexit is going every time you turn on the news: I know it’s a mess but I’ve heard it so often I’d sooner switch off and watch a cat fall over on YouTube.
Also I couldn’t help getting distracted by Gulliver’s wife, Mary. Gulliver marries Mary two years before his first trip (to the East and West Indies), which lasts six years. He’s home three years then sets out on the voyage that takes him to Lilliput, returning only for a few months between each subsequent voyage. When he returns from the Houynhnhnms I reckon they’ve been married for about 27 and a half years, of which Captain G. been away just shy of 22 years. What has Mrs G been up to all that time?
Somewhere there’s a story crying out to be written…
Rating: ** Worth reading