Swift’s children: ‘I don’t think there is a kid who isn’t fascinated with giants and little people’
Ahead of this week’s Jonathan Swift Festival, Dave Rudden on passing on Swift’s legacy
Jonathan Swift: appeals to both adults and children
The true test of any literary legacy is introducing the work to kids.
That might seem counter-intuitive – legacies are after all formed of cultural context, of the place a piece of literature has in the wider spectrum of story. As a satirist, Jonathan Swift’s work is inseparable from the culture and society in which he wrote. He championed the rights of poor clergymen while serving as a minister in Kilroot, Co Antrim. He simultaneously disparaged and satirised Christianity, democracy, the rich, the English and the Irish, showed compassion for the poor, wrote beautiful poetry and described his aim in life in a letter to Alexander Pope as “to vex the world rather than divert it”.
A complicated figure, in ways less extreme and more pervasive than a quick reading of A Modest Proposal would have you believe, and with all that in mind, possibly not the man to book for children’s parties. And though Gulliver’s Travels is dense with political allegory; from British political history to colonial policy to “the ambitions of princes” and the “corruption of ministers”, it is precisely this imagery that renders the story evergreen, no matter the age of the audience. Gulliver’s Travels can and does read as fantasy and high adventure in gorgeously distilled children’s retellings like last year’s Gulliver by Mary Webb & Lauren O’Neill, but it’s the relatability of what Lemuel Gulliver encounters that makes these travels so palatable.
Lilliputians dancing on ropes to prove their worthiness for high office, countries going to war over which side of the egg they like to crack – young audiences may not know the exact targets of Swift’s satire, but you don’t need to be familiar with the career of Sir Robert Walpole to understand the metaphors in play.
“Children definitely get how stupid adults can behave,” says Jerry Fish, who is taking to the stage as Lemuel Gulliver in St Patrick’s Cathedral as part of the Jonathan Swift Festival. The founder of an eclectic collective of musicians and performers, Fish has made a name inhabiting larger-than-life characters. His live gigs are choreographed bedlam – a mixture of circus and concert, with Jerry in the centre, attired as a Tortugan ringmaster, extolling crowds to hug and dance with strangers. It’s an energy that lends itself perfectly to performing for children, and Lemuel Gulliver – Adventurer Extraordinaire capitalises on that as much as possible.
The show mixes Jerry’s music with the story of Gulliver’s first journey, as the titular titan tries to navigate a civilisation much smaller and stranger than his own. The process of writing was one of distillation – sorting through the chaos of Gulliver’s displacement to create a through-line for both Jerry’s compositions and the audience to follow. This might sound like simplification, but there’s something pure in finding a commonality, in stripping away the history and the weight of such a revered piece of work and asking why, today, should a child care?
It’s precisely that lack of reverence that makes children a difficult and rewarding audience. “Children are great teachers,” Jerry, a father of four, adds. “They live in the present far more than adults. Often when performing for adults I have to work hard to bring them into the present, whereas children are already there.”
I’ve performed in more than 450 schools since the publication of my first novel in 2016, and I can only agree. Kids don’t wait patiently for author events to become interesting or fun – they don’t fall into lockstep because they’ve been told a book is important. A classic is not just a classic because others view it as such – they have to see the worthiness for themselves.
Fish’s own respect for Swift began in his childhood. Growing up as an Irish immigrant in south London, Fish spent his childhood summers in Ringsend “by the shelly banks” his mother was homesick for. A fascination grew with this author who spoke so eloquently (if not always positively) about Dublin. He remembers watching the surreal 1939 Max Fleischer film and the 1977 film adaptation starring Richard Harris. “I don’t think there is a kid who isn’t fascinated with giants and little people.”
That might also explain some of the enduring appeal of Gulliver’s Travels to children. The novel itself wasn’t intended to be a novel for young people at all, though author and fellow member of the Scriblerus Club John Gay did write in a letter to Swift in 1726 that “from the highest to the lowest it is universally read, from the cabinet council to the nursery”. The first juvenile edition of Gulliver’s Travels appears to be an abridged edition for children by Francis Newberry, published 50 years after the original. This work, titled The Adventures of Captain Gulliver in a Voyage to the Islands of Lilliput and Brobdingnag – Abridged from the Works of The Celebrated Dean Swift – includes only the first two of Gulliver’s voyages, Lilliput and Brobdingnag, and it’s the notion of size that particularly features in our play.
In a lot of ways, to be an outsider is to be a child – stumbling through conversations and cultures, finding everything new again. This experience is heightened when people can literally talk over you, or when your clumsiness is a hindrance to being understood, when social interactions feel like things you can break or tread underfoot. There’s something about Gulliver’s first two experiences that speak to childhood and adolescence – being too small and then too awkwardly big, whisked from experience to experience before we can catch our breath. This is aided by the permanence of Swift’s vision. Too many fantasy worlds feel like backdrops for the heroes’ growth, coming on like sensor lights when they hear the characters approach. Swift’s landscapes, by comparison, feel like actual places that have existed long before we arrived and will continue to exist long after we depart. They change us a lot more than we change them.
(As an aside, it’s interesting considering Swift’s somewhat dim view of astronomy and “impractical” science in the book, that he suggests that Mars has two moons, long before Phobos and Deimos were discovered. This would earn him a crater on Deimos named after him.)
Literary legacies, like childhood, are a funnel. A journey. We start in the narrows, and the more we learn the wider our understanding becomes, each piece of context building on the last, an ever-expanding map. Gulliver’s Travels is not a conventional coming-of-age tale – he does set off on his first voyage in his forties as a father of two – but he had to start somewhere. In the same way, this novel is a perfect introduction for children to the ideas of allegory, of political writing and satire, because it is rooted in befuddlement, in incomprehensible adults doing incomprehensible things, and beneath it all, an underlying thread of going forward, of trying, and of knowing there are bigger and stranger things ahead.
Lemuel Gulliver Adventurer Extraordinaire with Jerry Fish and Dave Rudden will take place in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday, December 1st. The event is free for children to attend and is part of the Jonathan Swift Festival. For more information visit www.jonathanswiftfestival.ie
As part of the Jonathan Swift Festival, Martyn Turner will be having a retrospective of his work at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum from November 29th to December 7th