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Entry updated 26 September 2022. Tagged: Film, Theme, TV.


Lemuel Gulliver is the narrator of Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships (1726; rev 1735) by Jonathan Swift, better known as Gulliver's Travels, the short-form title by which it immediately became known by its commentators and critics. It is one of the most widely recognized literary texts of the eighteenth century and has been a considerable influence upon fiction as a whole and in the development and treatment of certain aspects of science fiction. The very use of the name Gulliver will instantly suggest a particular form of satirical fiction involving a Fantastic Voyage and a grotesque society, frequently an extension or distorted reflection of our own. This entry deals not only with the original Gulliver's Travels but many of its sequels, imitations and other forms of Gulliveriana.

The extent to which Gulliver's Travels is itself science fiction has been the subject of much debate. In Billion Year Spree (1973), Brian W Aldiss excluded it on the grounds that it was "satirical and/or moral in intention rather than speculative" whilst Brian M Stableford in his essay in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003) viewed it more as a form of "anti-science fiction". Adam Roberts, however, in his The History of Science Fiction (2005), was keen to see it not only as part of the evolution of science fiction but an essential element of seeking to rationalize science, exploration and progress and its relationship to the human condition, which is fundamental to most works in the genre. Even the name Gulliver has come to signify a transportation to other worlds, whether mimicking the original work or taking us to new, unrelated worlds, as in Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905; vt Gulliver of Mars 1964) by Edwin Lester Arnold or the character of Gully (short for Gulliver) Foyle in Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! (1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996).

Gulliver's Travels works at many levels. Swift was parodying the Fantastic Voyage which itself had been lampooned as far back as Lucian's True History (second century CE), both authors recognizing its scope for social, political and religious Satire. In this guise the book became a significant inspiration to subsequent writers, many of whom wrote continuations of Gulliver's Travels or developed themes and ideas within the book, most notably H G Wells in The Island of Dr Moreau (1896). More specifically the book, which is better regarded as four related episodes than as a continuous novel, explores ideas which are key to science fiction. Gulliver is faced with surviving in four different Alien environments where his own perception and understanding of humanity, and what it means to be human, are challenged to the extent that in the ultimate Gulliver finds human beings and human society seriously wanting. This also raises questions of the place of humans within the animal kingdom, a concept which would have been seen as blasphemous throughout most of Europe only a century or so earlier, and within this may be seen the seeds of thinking on Anthropology, ethnology and Evolution. In its more overt passages and chapters relating to scientific research, Swift reveals his general antipathy towards progress for its own sake, for though Swift was not specifically against science, he had little faith in humankind to take the best advantage of its discoveries. The four books thus explore both Utopian and Dystopian themes. Finally Gulliver, though he came from relatively humble stock, nevertheless had an education at Cambridge (albeit incomplete), and trained as a ship's surgeon. He was thus to some degree a man of learning and though not always competent at his work used his abilities to travel widely, becoming a ship's captain and mastering many languages. His outlook on the alien Islands which he encounters is one of a rational, not a superstitious individual, and though interpreted as naïve by some, he proves an adaptable and capable observer, able to intercede and resolve a variety of conflicts in an effort to achieve harmony. It is that harmony between Religion, science, Politics and humanity that shows Gulliver as a true product of the Enlightenment, but one guaranteed to be perpetually disappointed because of the failings of humankind.

The four books are so well known as to need little elaboration here, though there are several key points to highlight which can easily be overlooked. Before the main text is a note from the publisher to the reader signed by Richard Sympson purportedly a distant cousin of Gulliver with whom Gulliver's manuscript had been left and which Sympson had edited prior to securing a publisher. This is not only a technique used frequently since by writers to give an impression of veracity to the story, but also reminds us of Swift's delicate personal position. Swift had adopted the persona of Sympson to write a letter to the first publisher, Benjamin Motte, via John Gay, thus distancing himself by several degrees from the book's authorship. Swift had long been renowned for his satirical pamphlets and his views on England's treatment of the Irish, and the English government would readily arrest Swift on grounds of sedition, despite his standing as Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. Although Swift continued to visit England from Ireland, he tended to operate primarily through friends and colleagues, notably Charles Ford (1682-1741), John Gay (1685-1732) and Alexander Pope (1688-1744). There were several passages deleted from the first printing, most notably the section dealing with Lindalino's rebellion against Laputa in Part 3, and which was readily transparent as relating to Ireland's resistance to England's imposition of a new currency in Ireland. This passage would have been treated as seditious and remained excluded from the text until a new edition in 1899 [see bibliography under Swift]. Thus Swift's distancing of himself from the text is a crucial reminder that Sympson's introduction is not a simple literary conceit, but of much significance in seeking to ensure the publication of what would otherwise have been seen as a dangerous text. It helps us understand why Gulliver's Travels has proved so popular in translation in many repressed countries and why authors in such countries, including Bulgaria, Hungary and Ukraine, have written their own continuations.

The Travels records four of Gulliver's voyages between the years 1699 and 1721. The first ends in a shipwreck and casts Gulliver alone on the shores of Lilliput, whose inhabitants, flora and fauna are one-twelfth the size of the human world. Swift uses this to emphasize the pettiness of humans, too wrapped up in their own ends – such as the argument with the neighbouring island of Blefuscu over whether eggs should be cracked at the big end or the little end – to be able to see the big picture. As one of the best known episodes, frequently adapted for children, the word Lilliputian has passed into the English Language, but used primarily to mean small rather than Swift's intention as small-minded. Despite this Swift develops some radical ideas in Lilliput's society. Those who abide by the laws are rewarded but if anyone accuses another falsely of treason, the accuser is executed. Ingratitude is treated as a crime punishable by death. Children are educated in public schools to the level of education as befits their parents who have to pay for the schooling.

Swift was able to contrast Lilliput with the land of Brobdingnag (or Brobdingrag as Gulliver claimed was its true name in his comments in the revised second printing in 1727) which is inhabited by giants, twelve times the size of humans (see Great and Small). Unlike the Lilliputians, the Brobdingnagians (a word that never caught on to the same extent) are aloof, credulous and uninspired, their size giving them a feeling of invulnerability with no need to extend themselves further. Their apparent caring attitude masks a sense of superiority over lesser beings which are treated as pets or beasts of burden. The King of Brobdingnag finds it impossible to believe how someone so little could achieve anything (an attitude Gulliver did not display to the Lilliputians) and when Gulliver tells the King of the countries of Europe it serves only to emphasize the King's feelings that humans are pernicious and small minded (an attitude Gulliver did display to the Lilliputians).

The third voyage is to Balnibarbi, off the coast of Japan, which Gulliver soon discovers is subjugated by the flying island of Laputa. Laputa, which can be seen as a representation of England at a time of an emerging empire, dominates its associated islands, threatening to squash (literally) any insurrection, in the same way that England dominated Ireland. This book is often regarded as the most science-fictional of the voyages, because Swift lampoons the absurd scientific research (see Mad Scientists) conducted by the University of Lagado, a satire of the Royal Society. Surprisingly some of the experiments, which have long seemed ridiculous, now feel close to reality, such as the Invention that would allow even the most ignorant of people to write a book on any subject, something which the World Wide Web facilitates with ease (see Wordmills). The male Laputans are constantly lost in their own thoughts, looking above and below but never ahead. Throughout this section Swift is satirizing the ability of humans to believe they are making progress without seeing the consequence of their actions. The thread is emphasized when Gulliver visits the mysterious island of Glubbdubdrib, inhabited by sorcerers who are able to converse with the dead. Gulliver takes the opportunity to talk to the shades of the great poets and heroes of the ancient world and comes to understand that humanity has been in decline ever since, but historians reshape historical characters, creating a pseudo-history which reconfigures our understanding of the past (see History in SF). The final decline of humanity is graphically emphasized in Gulliver's visit to Luggnagg, a generally pleasant island but one which homes the immortal but decrepit Struldbruggs. Gulliver believes that immortality would be wonderful but discovers that without retaining good health and vigour the Struldbruggs live in perpetual misery, a perfect analogy in Swift's eyes of human society.

Gulliver's fourth and final recorded voyage is to the land of the noble equine Houyhnhnms and the revolting humanoid Yahoos, whom the Houyhnhnms treat as livestock. This is Swift's most damning attack on humankind, building on the cumulative effect of the first three books, where he shows humanity as a noisy, filthy rabble compared to the refined enlightenment of the Houyhnhnms.

Influences and Continuations

Gulliver's Travels was published in October 1726. The first impression sold out within one week and two more printings sold out within the year, each of these with some textual restoration (see Swift for full bibliography). There was an immediate popular and critical reaction, many enjoying the book simply as another Fantastic Voyage but others seeing the hidden depths within the different levels of interpretation. Others were less supportive, notably Swift's nemesis Edmund Curll (circa 1683-1747) who sought to expose Swift's authorship in A Key, being observations and explanatory notes, upon the travels of Lemuel Gulliver. By Signor Corolini, a noble Venetian now residing in London (1726).

The popularity of the book led to inevitable sequels and continuations (see Sequels by Other Hands). Swift had himself been inspired by earlier volumes. There is inevitably a part of Lucian's True History in the manner in which the book is presented as the truth and yet so flagrantly fiction, and there may be some of the Fourth Book of Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais, which had been translated as Pantagruel's Voyage to the Oracle of the Bottle only as recently as 1694, in his creation of Laputa. It is not known if he had also read The History of Sévarambes (1675) by Denis Vairasse (circa 1630-circa 1696) or La Terre Australe Connue (1676) by Gabriel de Foigny, most recently available in translation in 1693, though similarities may be found, but the text which is most acknowledged as an influential source is Mundus alter et idem ["A World Different yet the Same"] (1605; translated by John Healey as The Discovery of a New World or a Description of the South Indies, 1609) credited to Mercurio Britannicus but long recognized to be by Bishop Joseph Hall (1574-1656). Hall utilized the reprobate inhabitants of the hitherto undiscovered lands of Crapulia, Viraginia, Moronia and Lavernia to satirize religious and political traditions and beliefs.

Early thoughts on Gulliver's voyages had arisen in discussion at the Scriblerus Club, founded in London in 1712 by Swift and his fellow literary restorers Alexander Pope, John Gay, Robert Harley and in particular John Arbuthnot (1667-1735). Formerly physician to Queen Anne and a noted satirist in his own right, Arbuthnot became the primary contributor to what was intended as a collaborative compendium about the absurd activities of the bogus pedant Martinus Scriblerus (see Club Story). The project was never fully completed and The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus (1741), misattributed principally to Alexander Pope, was not published until long after Arbuthnot's death, but it includes Scriblerus setting off on his own travels, to explore the lands discovered by Gulliver. Some of this had, it is believed, been written during the actual composition of Gulliver's Travels. Arbuthnot also composed An Account of the State of Learning in the Empire of Lilliput (1728), which provided an additional chapter to the First Book where Gulliver discusses the contents of the Library of Lilliput with the Chief Librarian, allowing Arbuthnot to voice his views on the debate about classicism versus modernism, as Swift had in The Battle of the Books (1704).

The speed with which further Gulliveriana and other imitations appeared within months of the first edition is evidence of the book's impact. There were those who used it as a vehicle for further attacks on government as in Memoirs of the Court of Lilliput (1727) as by Captain Gulliver and the anonymous A Cursory View of the History of Lilliput (1727 chap). Both books have been attributed to Eliza Haywood, though neither attribution is sound. The first contains a preface by Lucas Bennet who claims to have been a schoolfriend of Gulliver and whom he met again after his travels, thereby adding another level of deception in the reality of Gulliver. A further anonymous volume, Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World by Capt. Lemuel Gulliver Volume 3 (1727) shows Gulliver seeking to return to the land of the Houyhnhnms but instead being shipwrecked back in Brobdingnag from which he soon escapes and finds himself in Denis Vairasse's Sevarambia.

More significant were the new works of fiction the book inspired or encouraged. Murtagh McDermot dedicated his A Trip to the Moon (1727) to Gulliver, whilst the pseudonymous Captain Samuel Brunt imitated Gulliver in his A Voyage to Cacklogallinia; with a Description of the Religion, Policy, Customs and Manners of that Country (1727). Pierre Desfontaines translated Gulliver's Travels into French in 1727 and then added Le Nouveau Gulliver, ou voyage de Jean Gulliver, fils du Capitaine Gulliver (1730; trans J Lockman as The Travels of Mr John Gulliver, Son to Capt Lemuel Gulliver 1731 2vols), the first genuine continuation of the corpus relating the adventures of Gulliver's son.

Pamphlets and commentary aside, there was a pause in any significant new Gulliveriana for over a century apart from a brief resurgence during the repressive government of William Pitt (1759-1806) when the radical publisher Thomas Chapman issued the first volume in a planned series Modern Gulliver's Travels, Lilliput: being a New Journey to that Celebrated Island (1796). The unidentified author hid behind the alias Lemuel Gulliver, Jun., as the novel told the adventures of Gulliver's son who had been born on Blefuscu and grew up during a major revolution between Blefuscu and Lilliput. Appearing at the time of the French Revolution the work was doubtless seen as provocative and the second volume, Blefuscu, was not released. Authorship has been attributed to the W Whitmore who signed the copy of the book in the Huntingdon Library. The continuing fashionability of the character of Gulliver, though, was evident with the popularity of the exaggerated adventures of Baron Munchausen by Rudolf Erich Raspe, the second volume of which was entitled Gulliver Revived (1786) even though Gulliver does not appear in it at all.

Two mid-Victorian texts heralded a shift in the treatment of the Gulliver story in UK/US fiction from satire to adventure, albeit, in the case of these two, relatively light-hearted. Gulliver Joi (1851) by Elbert Perce contains three adventures told by a descendant of Gulliver, two of which involve adventures on the planet Kailoo whilst the third, "Voyage to Ejario" depicts a gynocracy. Mortimer Collins's Squire Silchester's Whim (1873) includes a chapter "Fifth Voyage of Captain Lemuel Gulliver" which purports to be a lost chapter from the original Travels and takes Gulliver to Amazonia, another matriarchy.

The main thrust of new fiction since the 1890s has either depicted a return to Gulliver's existing islands or explorations of new, both providing opportunities for either a simple adventure or sharp observation of trends. In The New Gulliver (1898) by Wendell Phillips Garrison a young American is shipwrecked amongst the Houyhnhnms allowing for a comparative study of Evolution and Religion. In The Revolt of the Horses (1898), published at the same time as H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (1898), Walter Copland Perry has the Houyhnhnms come to England determined to annihilate the Yahoos. Laputa Revisited by Gulliver Redivivus in 1905 (1905) by Theo B Hyslop, an early specialist in mental disorders, has Gulliver sleep through the centuries and awaken in 1905 to discover the Laputans have severely degenerated. Maurice Ascher's Gulliver's Neue Reise ["Gulliver's New Journey"] (1915) takes Gulliver to the new lands of Risolia and Pleuresia, while in W Hodgson Burnet's Gullible's Travels in Little-Brit (1920) the Gulliver character visits London. Lilliput is rediscovered in both Modern Lilliput (1924) by D A Wilson (1864-1933), in which its history is brought up to date, and Telegramm aus Liliput (1958; trans Kyrill Schabert as Castaways in Lilliput, 1960) by Henry Winterfeld in which three children find themselves washed ashore in present-day Lilliput. Descendants of the Lilliputians are central to Mistress Masham's Repose (1946) by T H White. Writing as Adam Bradford, M.D., Dr Joseph Wassersug (1912-2011) took a modern day explorer back to each of Gulliver's islands in four stories that remain uncollected: "Lilliput Revisited" (December 1963 Fantastic), "Return to Brobdingnag" (February 1964 Fantastic), "Gulliver's Magic Islands" (May 1964 Fantastic) and "Land of the Yahoos" (August 1964 Fantastic) but the series added little new except in the final story where the roles had reversed and the Yahoos were now dominant. Matthew Hodgart, a university professor, took Gulliver back to the Houyhnhnms in A New Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms (1969 chap) to highlight changes in the British education system. In Swiftly (2009), Adam Roberts combines Steampunk imagery with Satire in portraying what would have happened, in 1848, had Britain conquered Gulliver's lands and incorporated them into the Empire. Using his skills as a satirist and an artist, Martin Rowson has updated the original in Gulliver's Travels: Adapted and Updated (graph 2012), a graphic novel which takes present-day Dr Lionel Gulliver on a tour of Gulliver's original islands now mercilessly transformed into Parodies of modern Britain and Europe.

The voyages to new lands tended to provide greater opportunity for political satire, the best known being Utázas Faremidóba (1916) and Capillária (1921), translated as Voyage to Faremido/Capillaria (omni trans Paul Tabori 1965 Hungary), by Frigyes Karinthy. The voyage to Capillária introduces a further matriarchy, a society also explored in The New Gulliver, or The Adventures of Lemuel Gulliver, Jr. in Capovolta (1979) by Esmé Dodderidge, perhaps the most powerful of the Feminist Gulliveriana. Karinthy's fellow countryman Sándor Szathmári produced a particularly potent contrast of utopian values versus dystopian reality in Gulliver utazása Kazohiniában ["Gulliver's Travels in Kazohinia"] (1941; final rev as Kazohinia 1957; trans Inez Kemenes as Kazohinia 1975; trans rev vt as Voyage to Kazohinia 2012). Similar non-UK/US Gulliveriana include Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle ["Gulliver's Travel to the Continent of Fantomimia"] (1944) by Volter Kilpi (see Finland); «Gullivers Reise in Hitlers Drittes Reich» ["Gulliver's Travels in Hitler's Third Reich"] (trans into Swedish 1948; trans into English as A Voyage to Springistan by Lemuel Gulliver 1972) by Kurt Friedlaender initially writing as Conrad Peregrinus; Patuvane do Uibrobia ["Journey to Wibrobia"] (1976) by Emil Manov (see Bulgaria); Gulliver's Fifth Travel – The Travel of Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships to the Land of Tikitaks (1988) by Vladimir Savchenko; and El ultimo viaje del capitan Lemuel Gulliver ("Gulliver's Last Voyage" 1998) by Edgar Brau (see Argentina).

Other original and variant treatments include "The New Gulliver" (in The New Gulliver and Other Stories, coll 1913) by Barry Pain which, despite its "only a dream" denouement, is highly inventive with a certain Lemuel Gulliver, jun. finding himself in the land of Ultima Thule where longevity has been achieved based on adapting to the environment; In the Sealed Cave (1935) by Louis Herrman, where Gulliver discovers a Lost Race of Neanderthals; A Voyage to Inishneefa: The first-hand account of the fifth voyage of Lemuel Gulliver (1987) by American behaviour-therapist John Paul Brady, who takes Gulliver back to Ireland to reflect on its troubled history; while The Land of Unreason (1905) by the pseudonymous Dean Gulliver and The Further Surprising Adventures of Lemuel Gulliver (First a Surgeon and Then Captain of Several Ships) in Topsy-Turvy Isle (1906 chap) by Elliott E Mills writing as Vivian Grey each describe a crazy Island which turns out to be Britain; in the latter, the Gulliver character visits London.

Gulliver's Travels has been filmed many times, starting with Le voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants (1902) by the French maestro Georges Méliès. As with that film, most adaptations concentrate on the first two voyages: examples are the animated Gulliver's Travels (1939) by Max Fleischer and The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960) directed by Jack Sher with special effects by Ray Harryhausen. The banned Czech film Prípad pro zacínajícího kata (1960) directed by Pavel Juráček, released elsewhere as Case for the Rookie Hangman (1970) focuses on Gulliver's voyage to Laputa and Balnibarbi, to savagely portray the then current Czech regime. Gulliver's Travels (1977), directed by Peter R Hunt – an early combination of live-action Gulliver (Richard Harris) with animated Lilliputians – is based almost wholly on the Lilliput chapters, featuring only a single brief encounter with a Brobdingnagian. The television mini-series Gulliver's Travels (two parts, 1996), directed by Charles Sturridge, is rare in covering all four voyages. The Spanish film Gulliver (1979) again centres on Lilliput, but unlike the live-action Gulliver's Travels (2010) directed by Rob Letterman – which freely adapts the Lilliput sequence (only) as a vehicle for humour – the Spanish film, directed by Alfonso Ungria, reverses roles to explore how the world seems to the Lilliputians and how small people are marginalized in society. More distantly from Swift's original, Tenkū no shiro Laputa (1986; vt Laputa: Castle in the Sky; Castle in the Sky; Laputa: The Flying Island), directed by Hayao Miyazaki, takes its inspiration from the Laputa segment of the Travels.

The simple format of Gulliver's Travels works every bit as brilliantly today as it did in 1726, allowing readers not only to encounter bizarre new worlds or transformed old ones but to experience them through the eyes of an everyday individual struggling to understand the absurdities, machinations and incongruities of humanity. [MA]

see also: Harold Begbie; Frank Challice Constable; Chas T Druery; Willy Johns; Barrington Nevitt; Series.

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