There is a door made of paper in the Pacific Ocean that once you step through you might never be the same.
On one side is the world as you have known it and on the other, something entirely different. I was in the seventh grade when I came across this door in the form of an adventure book. It was a 1856 edition which, even sixty years ago, seemed like the ancient world. It was first published in MDCCXXVI (1726) and at the time it was a sensation. It has been wowing readers ever since.
New Holland and New Zealand were discovered by the Dutchman, Able Tasman, in the 1640s (though the Dutch never settled there). The sea between these places bears his name and in that sea lie the miniature islands of Blefuscu and Lilliput.
Though tiny and remote these island had societies as advanced as that of 18th century England and it was on the shore of Lilliput that the unconscious Lemuel Gulliver washed up after his ship was wrecked. When he awoke he tried to rise but found himself woven to the beach with countless threads staked into the sand. He was surrounded by an army of hundreds and a scaffold had been erected near his head; and it was from this vantage that the emperor of Lilliput addressed him in perfect English.
The Lilliputians were a tiny people, not six inches high in their boots and they were terrified that this giant might rip loose from his bindings and ravage their land. But after agreeing to not injure the Lilliputians he was set free. And they agreed to feed him if they would help them with one small matter to be discussed when he had regained his health. He was exhausted, famished and thirsty. He ate several of their tiny cattle, whole, and drank barrel after barrel of ale.
Soon he was back to normal and the king laid out his plan to conquer the neighboring island of Blefuscu. It seems that the two islands had it in for one another because the Lilliputians opened their chicken eggs from the wide end and their enemies opened the egg from the other. Gulliver was in their service so he walked across the shallow strait and grabbed up the anchor chains of the entire Blefuscu naval fleet and towed the captured ships back to Lilliput where he got a hero’s welcome.
In a few days the King of Lilliput was being petitioned by the farmers because Gulliver was exceedingly hard to feed due to his prodigious size. But before the king could decide on a plan a fire broke out in the palace. It was in the empress’s chambers. A quick thinking Gulliver stood at her window, unbuttoned and, “voided such a Quantity and applied it [urine] so well to the proper Places, that in three Minutes the Fire was wholly extinguished.” Peeing in the royal chambers was treasonous so he was condemned to be blinded and cast into the sea. Gulliver fled, found an old lifeboat from his shipwreck and set to sea where he was rescued and returned to England.
Many of you know this story more or less but his adventures were just beginning. They all took place in fictional places in the Pacific. Setting sail once more Gulliver is set ashore to look for water but is separated from his shipmates and discovered by a race of giants where he is just 6 inches tall. This was Brobdingnag, a vast continent near Alaska.
He is given to the queen the Queen and she builds him a small house with a handle and he is carried about as a pet. On a trip to the beach an eagle snatches his house and he is carried to sea where he is dropped, rescued again and returned to England.
At sea once more: this time pirates seize his ship and he is taken up by the king of the flying island of Laputa who rules over many lands below. Gulliver is put off by their preposterous schemes such as extracting sunbeams from cucumbers, softening marble for use in pillows, learning how to mix paint by smell, and uncovering political conspiracies by examining the excrement of suspicious persons.
Fed up with their nonsense he asks to be dropped off in Japan and, while waiting for passage, Gulliver takes a short side-trip to the island of Glubbdubdrip where he visits a magician’s dwelling and discusses history with the ghosts of historical figures including Julius Caesar, Aristotle, Homer and Descartes.
He also stops at the island of Luggnagg where he encounters the Struldbrug people who are immortal. They do not have the gift of eternal youth, but suffer the infirmities of old age and are considered legally dead at the age of eighty.
On reaching Japan Gulliver asks the emperor to “excuse my performing the ceremony imposed upon my countrymen of ‘trampling on the crucifix.’” The Japanese were extremely anti Christian in the 1700s and the few Europeans they let into the country were made to stomp on panels with the crucifix or Virgin Mary carved on them (this is historical fact). Disgusted, Gulliver returns home, determined to stay there for the rest of his days.
But he’s bored in England (this makes sense considering where he’s been) and sets off again only to be set ashore in a mutiny on an island inhabited by naked humans with vile habits of the lowest caste—filthy and wretched. It turns out they are ruled over by talking horses called Houyhnhnms (win-nims) who are educated, regal, erudite, kind and generous.
The vile humans are called Yahoos and this is where Yahoo took its name. Not kidding. Gulliver returns to his home in England, but is disgusted to be living among the ‘Yahoos’ and becomes a recluse, avoiding his family, and spending the rest of his days speaking with the horses in his stables.
The book was meant to skewer the British Crown, the Royal Society of Science and about ten other groups. The author, Johnathan Swift was a harsh critic of his government and society in general and was an early satirist. Steven Colbert owes this guy a lot.
This book is still a good read and, hey, he pees into the queen’s room so it’s packed with scandal. If you read this, I won’t make you read Moby-Dick…just kidding. I am going to make you read Moby Dick.