Wednesday, September 06, 2006


There are some works in English literature that suffer from their own fame, inasmuch as their title is on everyone’s lips but not many have actually read the book.

In the early eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift wrote “Gulliver’s Travels,” a book which must be known by its title to a broad swathe of the public. Now I know that you, gentle reader, are fully aware of the details of this work which you have undoubtedly read, being clearly of an erudite turn of mind – after all, you’re reading this! But I suspect for many of the great unwashed out there, “Gulliver’s Travels” is a book for kids, all about those little people from Lilliput and usually presented in a pop-up cardboard cut-out book as cartoon characters.

There was even an animated movie made by the Fleischer Brothers that managed to ignore practically everything that Swift had put into the book and reduced it to the level of a Donald Duck show.

Swift would have been mortified. He wrote the book as a biting satire on mankind, and having it dumbed down to kindergarten level would hurt almost as much as the fact the he only got £200 for it. Even this was above par for the course, since he accepted money for none of his other voluminous writings, being a genuine literary philanthropist.

The worst part is that none of the “popular” versions go beyond Gulliver’s voyage to Lilliput, and it is in some of the subsequent adventures that much of the value of the work lies. Brobdingnag, Laputa, Balnibari, Luggnagg, Glubbdubrib and, rather oddly, Japan are all visited in turn and their morals and mores are looked at with a critical eye. Admittedly, some of the scenes depicted are not for the eyes of the kiddiwinkies, which is perhaps why the Bowdlerised versions stop short at Lilliput. In Brobdingnag, for instance, the land of the giants, Glumdalclitch takes a few immodest liberties with Gulliver, who describes her personal appearance in detail. As she is some forty feet tall, it’s not a pretty sight, apparently.

Lemuel Gulliver, who seems to have some rough luck with the weather on each of his voyages as he gets shipwrecked every time, finally visits the Country of the Houyhnhnms, where the rulers are horses. Apart from an understandably slight difficulty with the language and pronunciation here, Lemuel gets on pretty well with the highly intelligent gee gees but has little time for their servants, the Yahoos, who were in the shape of humans and were men and women of a particularly unattractive appearance.

“Upon the whole,” he writes, “I never beheld in all my travels so disagreeable an animal, or one against which I naturally conceived so strong an antipathy.”

The word Yahoo has entered the English language, and the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as being a rude, coarse or brutish person which makes one wonder why the designers of an Internet search engine picked it for a name.

But perhaps they haven’t read Swift’s book and were using the word in the other sense listed in the dictionary – expressing great joy or excitement, the mating cry of the American male.

Now I prefer to believe that they used the former definition as a cynical commentary on a society that believes everything can be learned from a computer screen and that books are redundant, turning us all into Yahoos eventually. And I think Swift would be pleased with that idea.


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