Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
The phrase “Kids these days” gets thrown around a lot. Kids these days are selfish little scumbags; kids these days are dumb. I have even heard myself participating in the generational discrimination when I see a ten-year-old girl with a nicer phone than I currently possess.
But I’m starting to notice several things: 1. Kids these days are, really, no different from kids growing up in, say, the 1950s, save for maybe the toys with which they play. 2. Kids are, in reality, getting sharper. For instance, my cousin dressed up as Santa Claus for Christmas in July at his daughter’s day camp. She will be two this fall, and she recognized her father, try as he might to stay in character. He “ho-ho-ho”-ed and she just kept pointing and saying, “Daddy-Santa.”
I may have been borderline-special growing up (and still am…), but I’m pretty sure most people wouldn’t have recognized their dads, because, at that age, Santa = Santa and Dad = Dad. So, long story short: kids are, scarily enough, getting smarter. But let’s just say, for argument’s sake, kids really are getting dumber. If that’s the case, it’s not their fault. It is because of the pop culture crap that they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Things like Hannah Montana, iCarly, and Good Luck Charlie dominate the airwaves: stories with, really, no purpose, other than to sell shit to kids. But it hasn’t always been like that. Children used to read books that we now assign in AP English classes and college courses. Books that, as I can tell you from the amount of unabashed, furious Googling I witnessed in college, third-year English majors still have to sparknote. Books like Gulliver’s Travels.
Gulliver’s Travels is, for those who have been living off-the-grid up until now, a travel narrative parody and a political satire. It is chock-full of meta-political statements that are just as relevant today as they were in the 1700s. It makes bold declarations about the less-than-desirable nature of man that everyone from the poo-flinging toddler you babysit to the holier-than-thou know-it-all in your English class could understand. (And, really, aren’t they one in the same? The shit that know-it-all flings being metaphorical, of course.)
Even if you’ve never read it, you at least know what a Yahoo is, or recognize the image of a full-grown man waking up to discover he has been tied down by hundreds of six-inch-tall men. But, like everything worth its salt in this world, it has been rendered down to the stupidest interpretation possible. I mean, Jack fucking Black recently starred in yet another remake where he makes his eyebrow-raising “Ohhhh” face and yells for no reason more times than I care to count.
But I have come to save the day from Jack Black. GT is, indeed, geared towards children, but don’t let that discourage you. It’s for kids much in the way that Rocko’s Modern Life is for kids. Little ones will delight at the scene wherein Yahoos literally throw their shit on Gulliver, but it’ll be the adults who understand what Swift is saying about humans beings being shit-flinging savages. Young readers may not understand everything Swift says the first time they read it, but reading GT rather than watching the movie will be much more impactful.
Why? Because this book is the perfect mix of high-brow and low-brow. Swift can simultaneously comment on his personal discomfort with the human body and the savage nature of humanity, all the while delighting in the bloody execution of a giant. Though the kids are just looking to delight in what’s on the surface—the only thing the movies answer to—they will absorb some of what Swift argues without even realizing it.
Yeah, they might not realize that Munodi is meant to represent courtiers who live within the system while rebelling against it. But the fact that they’ll read Munodi’s explanation of why he goes against court expectations will be much more meaningful than just seeing, oh, his farm is different from the others in Lagado.
I feel as if the constant desire to revisit this travel narrative parody should speak for itself: Gulliver’s Travels really is that good. But with every new interpretation, GT loses a little more of its magic. There have been musicals, cartoons, and TV mini-series. Hell, one of my favorite movies as a kid, The Pagemaster, introduced me to the famous beach scene in Lilliput before I had ever even heard the name Jonathan Swift. But with the good interpretations came the bad, and even with The Pagemaster, Gulliver was simply rendered down to the images for which it is world-famous, leaving behind the beautifully-crafted satire.
But maybe that is the problem. Swift is such a baller that he successfully created two wholly separate books within one. You can read Gulliver’s Travels just for the pure delight of these rich worlds. You simply can laugh at the cross-eyed, borderline-autistic mathematicians of Laputa because it’s a funny image—or you can laugh at them and understand that Swift is arguing that progress for progress’s sake is taking us backwards. (Get out your iPhones and Google it, kids. Then go to your local university and laugh at the researchers who are wasting their time trying to find a cure for MS instead of coming out with the iPhone 5 already.)
Gulliver himself is, as his name suggests, gullible. In fact, I would even go so far as to call him contemptible at times. He defends the violent, wasteful, malicious nature of man and government time and again. Yet even Gulliver himself becomes disillusioned with humanity by the end. That is because, as Swift points out, no matter how deep you want to bury your head in the sand, there is no getting around the evils of government and man.
Hell, this book is eerily poignant in today’s political arena. In the days when corporations have been granted personhood, it strikes a chord when Swift asks, “[w]hether a stranger with a strong purse might not influence the vulgar voters to choose him before their own landlords, or the most considerable gentleman in the neighbourhood.” Does that give you chills? No? Then you have no soul. Get out.
Without having to come out and say it, Swift shows his audience the corrupt nature of man when confronted with power. In one fell swoop, he talks about the fair and balanced nature of the Lilliputians—then shows us the tradition of the rope-dancers, wherein the man who jumps the highest without falling to his death and thusly entertains the king wins a seat in the government.
Yet there is an inherent understanding of the love Swift has for mankind in his unapologetic skewering of human nature. He does it because he cares. Much like when your parents ground you for your own good—and then go and smoke your stash behind the garage. He’s saying: we can do better, guys.
This book is for everyone: for those who are just discovering their Fuck-the-Man phase and want to hate on authority; for feminists who love taking offense at traditional gender roles; for kids who want to read about a giant man pissing on a castle in order to put out a fire. And, come on, who doesn’t want to read about that?