the first Modern Library edition of Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver’s Travels

  • Full Title:  Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts
  • Author:  Jonathan Swift  (1667  –  1747)
  • Rank:  #69
  • Published:  1726, rev. 1735
  • Publisher:  Benjamin Motte
  • Pages:  277
  • First Line:  “My father had a small estate in Notthinghamshire; I was the third of five sons.”
  • Last Line:  “I dwell the longer upon this subject from the desire I have to make the society of an English Yahoo by any means not insupportable; and therefore I here entreat those who have any tincture of this absurd vice, that they will not presume to appear in my sight.”
  • ML Edition:  #100  (four dust jackets – 1933, 1942, 1957, 1958);  P10
  • Film:  14 film versions and 7 television adaptations
  • Read:  Fall, 1990

The Novel: If there is any book that Norton should do next in their large hardcover Annotated Editions, it is Gulliver’s Travels.  First of all, it continues to sell in all sorts of editions, so it would be a welcome addition.  Second, it lends itself to all sorts of illustrations (and there have been all sorts over the years) and they can easily fill up the book (thus justifying the larger size as opposed to the more traditional trade size that Norton has published in the past).  Third, if any book needs a good annotated edition for sale, it is a political satire that is almost 300 years old.

I first read my parents copy of Gulliver’s Travels in the fall semester of my junior year in high school.  It was a British literature class and we were all told to read an 18th Century novel.  Well, no one was going to read Tom Jones, so the class was pretty much divided between those of us who tackled Gulliver and those who went with Robinson Crusoe.  Having later read Crusoe, I am firmly of the opinion that I made the right choice.  What stunned me at the time was how absolutely readable it was.  Even if you couldn’t understand all the satire and what it was aimed at, you could understand and enjoy the story.  That, more than anything, is what has made it such an enduring classic.  Many satires (and allegories) lose power over time because the stories don’t stand up enough on their own.  Gulliver stands up so well that it has never been out of print in the 384 years since it was first published.

The novel is told in four parts, though many people only think of the first two.  In the first, Gulliver travels to Lilliput, a land where everyone is 1/12 the size of normal humans.  In the second, he travels to Brobdingnag where Gulliver himself is 1/12 the size of the natives.  In the third, he visits many lands, the most notable being Laputa, the flying island and the strange part of the voyage which takes him to Japan, the only real destination in the book.  In the final voyage, Gulliver visits the land of the Houyhnhnms, a kind of horse that has achieved civilization.

It is difficult to overstate the kind of influence that Swift has had in the centuries since.  By the time he wrote Gulliver, Swift was already well-known for A Tale of the Tub and The Battle of the Books (A Modest Proposal, his wickedly satirical and unbelievably funny pamphlet in which he suggest that the Irish eat their children to ease the starvation and overcrowding problems was still in the future) and Gulliver immediately made him the best known author in the English language.  Can we imagine Alice in Wonderland her shrinking and growing without Gulliver?  In the early editions of The Hobbit, hobbits are compared in size with Lilliputians.  The future societies of The Time Machine and The Planet of the Apes owe their initial inspirations to the fourth part.  The whole concept of aerial bombardment seems to owe its idea to Laputa (which also inspired Hayao Miyazaki).

Then there is the satire.  Look at the Lilliputians and the war they have commenced over what end of an egg you break open (representing the ongoing feuds between Catholics and Protestants).  Look at how Gulliver relieves his bladder to put out the fire in the Empress’ apartments (possibly referencing Queen Anne’s refusal to grant him a bishopric after his publication of A Tale of the Tub or a comment on the Treaty of Utrecht which ended the War of Spanish Succession).  They are wonderfully funny, even before you understand the deeper meanings behind them.  Perhaps that’s why this remains one of the most, if not the most, popular book to come out of the 18th Century.  Because it deserves to be.

The Films: (Le Voyage de Gulliver a Lilliput et chez les geants –  1902 – dir. Georges Melies  –  ***.5)

This is the shortest film version, yet, oddly, in a lot of ways, it is the most satisfying.  It’s a little over four minutes long and it gives an idea of the travels in both Lilliput and Brobdingnag.  In a sense, much like Melies’ earlier film version of Jules Verne’s A Trip to the Moon, this was an excuse for him to show what could be done in the medium.  He does an excellent job of presenting the different sizes and his visual effects look better than a lot of later films.  The early hand tinting also works nicely.  You might as well take the time and watch it and add another film to your list.  For some reason this never gets talked about, getting overlooked in favor of Moon, but it is very nice.

(Gulliver’s Travels –  1939 – animated, dir. Dave Fleischer  –  **.5)

I finally tracked this down a couple of years ago in my continuing effort to see every Academy Award nominated film.  There seems to be a contingent of people on the IMDb who believe it is a very good film (and the entry for it on Wikipedia refers to it as being “considered one of the best of the Golden Age of Hollywood animation”).  I’m not one of those people.  I thought it was relentlessly mediocre.  First of all, it is rotoscoped, which means that Dave Fleischer came up with a horrible idea decades before Ralph Bakshi used it to make some of the worst animated films ever made.  Second, it is just badly made.  Rotoscoping usually leads to crappy animation and this is no exception.  As the second feature length animated film in the U.S. it was going to be hard-going because it was following Snow White, but it pretty much tanked.  But it’s also badly voiced and terribly adapted.  At least when you have something like the Melies, you expect it not to adhere too much to the book, but this really isn’t the book.  It’s up to you.  This is also widely available because it has passed out of copyright protection and can be found all over the web, so you can make up your own mind.

(The Three Worlds of Gulliver –  1960  –  dir. Jack Sher  –  **.5)

This film is simply a shame because it’s got the magical talents of Ray Harryhausen, one of the great visual effects artists of all-time.  This came from that period when films would be made using any source that might provide an excuse for the stop-motion claymation that Harryhausen was known for, but it is sadly wasted here.  Not that the scene it’s used in isn’t good.  It’s perfectly enjoyable.  It’s just that.  It’s one scene.  Granted, all of the effects in this film are pretty well done.  Even for today this film doesn’t actually look that bad.  The problem is that they just used the novel as an excuse to throw in their effects.  They have a whole sub-plot about Gulliver’s fiance who wants him to stay home in England and who follows him to sea and ends up stranded with him on Brobdingnag (most film versions only use the first two parts of the book for a variety of reasons – including the fact that they can show off special effects, but don’t have to come up with talking horses and because they think that’s what people think of when they think of the book – Gulliver big, then small).  There are sub-plots on both islands where Gulliver gets stranded that are really pretty pointless and then the great amusing scene of Gulliver urinating on the palace is changed (due to censor issues) to him spitting wine on it.  It’s not a bad film overall, but it’s not a good adaptation of the novel and there are much better uses of Harryhausen’s talents (like Jason and the Argonauts).