Gulliver’s Travels Wasn’t Meant to Be a Children’s Book And More Things You Didn’t Know About the Literary Classic
Even now, 350 years after his birth, the great Irish satirist Jonathan Swift remains as sharp and relevant as ever
Happy 350th birthday, Jonathan Swift. Widely recognised as the leading satirist in the history of the English language, Swift found his way into the world 350 years ago on November 30, 1667. Celebrations of his life and legacy have been underway across the globe – not only in his home city of Dublin but also Philadelphia, Münster, Yokosuka City, Dundee and beyond.
Gulliver’s Travels is Swift’s most famous work. Since it first appeared in 1726, it has captivated readers, authors and artists alike. But many people’s engagement with this astonishing book tends to get lost in fantastical images of scampish little people and baffled giants. So here is your cut-out-and-keep guide to all things Gulliver.
1. Not really a children’s book
Most readers will fondly remember Gulliver as a children’s book, but the unexpurgated version is full of brutality. The ruthlessly logical Houyhnhnms – highly intelligent horse-like creatures – plan to wipe out the bestial humanoid Yahoos by castrating them all. This plan is inadvertently inspired by Gulliver’s description of how horses are treated in England.
There is a particularly unsavoury scene in the Lilliput voyage where Gulliver urinates on the queen’s home to quench a devastating fire. This is routinely included in the children’s edition, albeit in sanitized form. And then there’s the scene in one of Gulliver’s final adventures where our hero has to fend off a highly libidinous female Yahoo who appears intent on raping him.
2. Coining new words
Gulliver’s Travels has given the English language a number of notable words, not least Houyhnhnm (move your lips like a horse when saying it). There’s also Yahoo, an uneducated ruffian; brobdingnagian, meaning huge, after the giants in the second voyage; and lilliputian, meaning small, after the miniature humans of the first voyage.
Swift also loved puns. Lindalino, a most unusual place, is another name for Dublin (double “lin”). The flying city of Laputa is a harsh allegory of England and its colonial dominion over Ireland – the name means “the whore” in Spanish (la puta). As for the kingdom of Tribnia, it is an anagram of Britain. Its residents call it Langden, an anagram of England.
3. Roman à clef
Like any successful satirist, Swift had many enemies. Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole, is recreated as Flimnap, who as the pompous Lord High Treasurer of Lilliput has an equivalent role in their society. Either the Duke of Marlborough or Earl of Nottingham is the inspiration for his war-hungry governmental counterpart Skyresh Bolgolam, the Lord High Admiral of Lilliput.
Other authority figures are roundly mocked throughout the book. The pettiness of politicians – Whigs and Tories alike – is compellingly conveyed by rendering them small. That moment where Gulliver urinates on the palace is sometimes interpreted as a reference to the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, which ceded Gibraltar to the UK – and by which the Tories put out the fire of the War of Spanish Succession with some very ungentlemanly conduct.
4. Big in Japan
Konnonzaki in Japan, just south of Tokyo, is a tourist delight. In addition to stunning mountains and beautiful beaches, it is thought to be where Gulliver first set foot in Japan – represented as the port of Xamoschi.
Local tourist associations in neighbouring Yokosuka City hold a Gulliver-Kannonzaki Festival every November. American sailors from the Yokosuka Naval Base dress up as Gulliver and parade around the district. In the first Godzilla movie, the monster also lands at Kannonzaki, then heads toward Tokyo – just like Gulliver.
5. Gulliver goes Martian
The book jokingly mentions the presence of moons around Mars. After Phobos and Deimos were discovered by astronomers in 1872, Swift crater on Deimos was named in the Irishman’s honor.
6. Swifter things
Before the advent of film, Gulliver appeared in stage adaptations, musical rearrangements, visual caricatures – and on fans, pots and various other knick-knacks. Pioneering French illusionist Georges Méliès directed and starred in the first cinematic adaptation in 1902, the spectacular Le Voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et Chez les Géants.
Yet it’s the live-action version from 1977 with its Disneyfied Lilliputians that tends to stick in our minds. That film features an ebullient Richard Harris as Gulliver, but many other actors have portrayed him – including Jack Black, Ted Danson and Vladimir Konstantinov. Gulliver even appeared in a 1968 Doctor Who serial (The Mind Robber) and in the first volume of Alan Moore’s comic The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999-2000).
7. Inspiring other writers
Writers expressly influenced by Gulliver’s Travels include HG Wells (most obviously in The Island of Dr Moreau and The First Men in the Moon) and George Orwell (Animal Farm). Margaret Atwood’s adventure romance Oryx and Crake takes a quotation from Swift for an epigraph. Atwood has also written an important essay on the mad scientists depicted in Gulliver’s third voyage.
In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the main character, Guy Montag, alludes to the Big Endian-Little Endian controversy about the proper way to break a boiled egg (“It is computed that 11,000 persons have at several times suffered death rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end”).
8. Gulliver’s encores
Our national hero’s life ends unhappily – by his own account – when he returns home to a wife and children he has come to loathe. Nevertheless, scores of secondary authors keep taking Gulliver on yet more journeys, typically beyond the world Swift created for him, but sometimes back to where it all began.
The earliest of these was the anonymously authored Memoirs of the Court of Lilliput, published less than a year after Gulliver took his first bow. More recently, a 1965 Japanese animated film took an elderly Gulliver to the moon – along with a new crew comprising a boy, a crow, a dog and a talking toy soldier. New countries, new planets, new companions, new adventures: Gulliver has had a busy afterlife.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Daniel Cook, Senior Lecturer in English, University of Dundee