“A Voyage to Lilliput”, from “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift

6 Nov

This is Part One of “Gulliver’s Travels” and it works as a stand-alone novella/short story without the rest of the book. From what I can remember, I think the children’s book version of “Gulliver’s Travels” covered only this part, which is about the kingdom inhabited by people about one twelfth the size of normal, i.e. around 6 inches tall rather than 6 feet.

As I mention, there’s a children’s version of this story, but the original is very far from a childish story: it’s a satire of the government, royal family and political events of 18th Century Britain. This means some readers – like me – may need a version of the book with detailed notes at the back, to explain the historical events that are the target of Swift’s humour. Unless you’re an expert on 18th Century British history.

As one example, Swift satirises the religious discrimination of that period against Catholics (in favour of Anglicans) by likening it to a dispute over how to eat a boiled egg, thus demonstrating the pettiness of minor doctrinal differences.  This particular piece of satire also includes the War of Spanish Succession (which I therefore assume was at least partly a Protestant-Catholic war).

There are various other targets for Swift’s satire too but I won’t list them all here.

I wonder also if the story’s setting in a land of tiny people was intended to belittle even further the people who are satirised in this story.

There may have been another reason for the setting in a land of tiny people: could it have been intended to highlight how good organisation can enable people to overpower someone physically far bigger and stronger? Brute strength is no match for clever organisation – was it Swift’s intention to show this? Although Gulliver is outnumbered by the Lilliputians, it is still hard to imagine that a full-sized, able-bodied human would be unable to escape easily from large numbers of rats, for example (although he’d probably receive several bites, but like the Lilliputians’ arrows, they’d probably not be fatal). Therefore, Gulliver’s need to use elaborate means to escape – rather than simply walking away – could have been intended to show how the cerebral power of the Lilliputians is more than a match for his physical power.

Finally, another thing that really strikes me about this is the risk that Jonathan Swift took in writing such a subversive story.  He wrote it around 10 years after the events it satirises, so presumably many of the targets of his lampooning would have still been alive.  I had thought that 18th Century Britain was still the type of controlled society in which insulting the government or royals could lead to execution or at least a lengthy prison stay (in conditions no doubt worse than today’s prisons), but maybe Britain had progressed already…. Answers on a postcard please…..

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One Response to ““A Voyage to Lilliput”, from “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift”

  1. Christine Jenkins November 7, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

    Yes I think you are right … it is very odd that Gulliver doesn’t just walk away and kick their little buildings into eternity, but the point must be that intelligent organisation can overcome physical superiority and large numbers of the unimportant can overcome powerful individuals. I have always enjoyed the Big-endian v Little-endian debate … it describes so much of modern life!

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