Life in Lilliput

So, just for something a bit different, I’ve been reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. More, admittedly, so that I can cross it off my “To Read” list than anything else, it’s really not something that I would have picked up otherwise. Why? Because I know too well that it would show up the gaps in my knowledge of late 17th century English history; given that I have both O and A levels in history, that’s a bit of a big thing to admit. Not only that, because I’m also reading Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle (much more interesting) I’m only reading the Swift a couple of chapters at a time. Fortunately, this means that I can break up the history lessons into more manageable chunks and work out exactly what it is that Swift is pointing satirical fingers at; so I’ve decided to post one entry for each of the four lands he visits, even though chances are he’s going to make the same points in each of them.
Oh well, that’s one of the joys of classical literature. You learn things as you read.
And the first thing I learned with Gulliver’s Travels is that I think I’ve read this before; either that or the story is so well known that I’m channelling a universal memory of certain episodes. The gigantic man being tied down by little bits of thread with little people scampering over him is an extremely well known image and occurs right at the beginning of the book. Don’t be put off from continuing, though – I had forgotten the episode of Gulliver hooking all the Blefescan ships onto ropes and dragging them into the Lilliputian harbour! Then again, the imagery is well known and used in other texts aside from Gulliver – The Borrowers is just one example (although that might be more appropriate to consider when we get to Brobdingnag – next stop!).
What I didn’t remember is just how unlikeable the Lilliputians were. This was Swift’s sideswipe at the “little Englander” mindset, how one may be little but still great. (That in turn reminded me of a line from Shakespeare, but I’m keeping that to myself for now). At the time of writing, England was building its empire, using its naval dominance to explore and colonise vast lands and strange peoples. The serious tone of Swift’s writing is in line with the travelogues which were popular in his day, but he uses the absurd situations he creates to make broader points. The lengthy enmity between Lilliput and Blefescu implies the poor relations between England and France in the late 1600s (and nothing’s changed 300 years later); and if you guessed that the egg-cracking controversy related to the split in the church between Catholic and Protestant, you would have been quite correct. Swift is showing us how daft some of these ideas are when held up for cold, calculating analysis, and he takes great pleasure in popping the arrogant balloons.
Something else I forgot was the process the Lilliputian Court selects its ministers – rope dancing. They literally jump through hoops and limbo dance their way into power. I wonder if a sizeable chunk of the current Cabinet have done similar – they couldn’t be any worse qualified than they are otherwise. On the one hand it’s quite bonkers but on the other hand, quite terrifying to see how calcified things are in today’s society. Things really haven’t changed very much, only the labels have changed. England still holds the Lilliputian mindset of greatness in spite of size, sectarian violence has never really gone away – even if the labels change periodically – and some of our institutions cling to rituals and rules hundreds of years old that nobody even understands anymore. Which only made me think of Gormenghast, and then I panicked because I couldn’t remember which shelf I put my copy on.
So – still an important read. And it’s fun because the kids don’t have to get the political points – you can read it to them and they think it’s a daft story about a giant man in a land of little people. How many books do you know do that?