Speaking Volumns: Gulliver's Travels

March 22, 1996

Jim Riordan on Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels .

As an "expert" on Russian affairs, I was once pleased to respond to a request to update Gulliver's Travels. Since the result brought more royalties than my dozen academic books put together, it made me wonder if I had missed my vocation. If I could make Gulliver digestible to today's youngsters, maybe I could do the same with Tolstoy, Lenin and even Yeltsin for my students.

Yet as I set about my task of raising Gulliver to the level of Thomas the Tank Engine, I began to realise how relevant Jonathan Swift's satire is to any age and situation. Don't we all find at times that we live among intellectual pygmies, that we are the "gullible" Gulliver, Pilgrim, Everyman, Pantagruel, Cyrano de Bergerac, tied down by red tape and suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune? Even Swift's state of health, as he started his "merry work" finds ready accord among academic pen-pushers: he had just been turned down for promotion (a bishopric), he hated the government for its cant and hypocrisy, he was suffering agonies from piles and boils, and he had fallen victim to a chronic disease that made him deaf and giddy. Like many of us, he was "of unsound mind and memory", as his doctor attested.

No wonder he produced a book that Thackeray described as "filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging and obscene". With rave notices like that, no wonder it quickly became a bestseller and had the censor lopping chunks off it.

Yet what inspires me most about Gulliver are the comments made by the king of Brobdingnag after listening patiently to Gulliver's description of his country's political system - "the most enlightened in the world".

"You have given an admirable account of your country. And you have clearly proved that ignorance, idleness and vice are the proper qualifications for governing it. Your laws are applied by people who are interested only in breaking and avoiding them. It does not appear that a man has to have any one virtue to obtain high office in England, much less that men become nobles through virtue, or that priests are promoted through learning, soldiers through valour, judges for honesty, Members of Parliament for love of their country."

Being a Dubliner born of English parents and a staunch defender of Ireland, Swift (aka the king) concludes that "Englishmen are the nastiest race of odious little vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth".

To challenge "natural" values and ethics is what many of us try to do with our students; so it is refreshing to find in Lilliput that government ministers are chosen for their balancing skills: the ones that stay longest perched on a tightrope take top posts. Boys and girls are brought up in public nurseries (parents are the last to be trusted with educating their children), with schooling the same for both sexes, so that girls learn wisdom and courage and eschew all personal adornment. What is even more outrageous is that the old and infirm are supported free by public hospitals, and that begging is unknown.

Now there's an influential thought. It helps explain why a "children's book" written nearly 300 years ago still has meaning for many of us today.

Jim Riordan is professor of Russian studies, University of Surrey.

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