Gulliver’s Travels and the Witches

“He has gone where fierce indignation can lacerate his heart no more” – these are the epitaphic words of Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels. They are indicative of a career spent contemplating the weaknesses and sins of mankind, of a man described alternately as a moralist and a misanthropist, as well as a skilled satirist. Although pessimism is a label often applied to Swift, he was not, man to cogitate the “bad practice of too many among my brethren” in mournful silence – he was, rather, a person of action, who devoted much of his life to public services and reforms both as a political journalist and an industrious churchman. Gulliver’s Travels was first published in 1726 and was written, according to the author, “To vex the world rather than to divert it.” Ironically and to Swift’s eternal frustration, his satire was instead perceived by his contemporaries to be a “merry work”, which has since garnered much popularity among young readers. This is a far cry from his didactic aims and to this extent, Gulliver’s Travels can be viewed as symbolic of its author’s “lacerated heart.” Roald Dahl’s work also has its roots in didacticism, although his work is more cynical than satirical, demonstrating an acute distrust of social institutions and authoritarianism. This is an unsurprising reaction to schooling underscored by the threat of corporal punishment wielded by a sadistic headmaster. In response, Dahl has created a world in which good is engaged in a bitter battle evil but will eventually conquer all. His unequivocal views give his work a candid and instantaneous appeal to young and adult readers alike (although the latter may recoil, rather than revel, in Dahl’s crude sense of humour). The Witches is one of his most popular works and was published in 1983, one year after the appearance of the BFG. Along with Matilda (1988), these form a triad of books for young adolescents through which Dahl “makes (his) point by exaggerating wildly. That’s the best way to get through to children.”

Despite a gap of over 250 years, the initial pages of both Gulliver’s Travels and The Witches are to a certain degree linguistically comparable. Both beginnings have similar functions acting as opening gambits to introduce some of the main themes that the ensuing pages will descry. Dahl tells us almost immediately that, “this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES.” It takes longer for Swift to get to the crux of his matter, but just as we are lulled into the false sense that this will be an ordinary tale about an ordinary man, he throws us an unexpected ball in the shape of “a human creature not six inches high.” The introductions also provide us with a rationale for the story. Why, for example, should a man named Gulliver have decided to travel? Swift lends authenticity to his protagonist by informing us that he was incited to travel following a series of business failures that “would not turn to account” and a 3-year period of disappointment, all of which drove him to accept “an advantageous offer” to set sail to the South Sea. We now know that this will be an exciting adventure tale. As for Dahl, his introduction lacks, as yet, a central character, but his rationale is no less potent – in this case, it is the reader who is in potential danger, “The most important thing you should know about REAL WITCHES is this. REAL WITCHES dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women.” Thus, in both cases, we are aware, either immediately (Dahl) or within a few pages (Swift), that these are fantastical worlds, ones occupied by both murderous witches and six-inch men, respectively. This is make-believe designed to capture a childlike imagination. Stylistically, both Dahl and Swift are relaying important information to the reader by listing the factual details. Gulliver’s potted history is presented through a series of facts, figures and dates that follow a strict and linear chronology, “He sent me to Emanuel College in Cambridge, at fourteen years old, where I resided three years. I was bound apprentice to Mr James Bates with whom I continued four years.” Dahl is unconcerned with temporality; however, like Swift, he also stacks facts one on top of the other, “A REAL WITCH hates children. A REAL WITCH spends all her time plotting. A REAL WITCH gets the same pleasure from squelching.” Each new point is presented in a fresh sentence and paragraph, like a bulleted list of essential information.

Rather than being factually dull, Dahl has a natural stylistic ability that maintains a high level of tension throughout the narrative by contrasting relatively banal facts with sudden and shocking interjections intended to excite and frighten: “In fairy-tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black coats, and they ride on broomsticks.

But this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES.” Likewise, Swift, from a seemingly innocent and innocuous introduction, unexpectedly makes his reader sit up and listen by leaping out from the everyday world of factual chronology and into a narrow escape from a shipwreck followed by the appearance of a bizarre and miniature people all within three pages of each other.

The fantastical notions of both books are on one level written for a youthful audience and, as such, they are comparable linguistically. Both authors use relatively noncomplex language containing simple adjectives, such as Swift’s description of the storm that shipwrecks Gulliver, “we were driven by a violent storm. the wind was so strong” including common collocations (“a violent storm” “a strong wind”) – the imagery is easy to depict providing a brief and immediate sketch of the events that took place. Similarly, Dahl also makes use of childlike descriptions, stereotypical representations and collocation, e.g. “bright eyes,” “dazzling smile”, “red-hot sizzling hatred,” to conjure up instantaneous and highly descriptive images. The consequences of these simple linguistic styles are also similar: Gulliver, through a naïve monologue, presents himself as an almost disinterested and, therefore, reliable narrator and in doing so gains the implicit trust of his audience: “It would not be proper, for some reasons, to trouble the reader with the particulars of our adventures in those seas: let it suffice to inform him.”; Dahl’s direct and honest presentation of the facts about witches similarly forces the reader to trust him unequivocally making us believe that this threat, although fantastical, could be real: “The most important thing you should know about REAL WITCHES is this. Listen very carefully. Never forget what is coming next.” Through these introductions, the authors are, therefore, pulling us into their narrative and creating a special bond bound through trust.

The imaginative context of both these fictions has also provided their authors with the opportunity to use nonsensical language to enhance the fantastical framework and give it its own particular context. Having frightened away the six-inch men by roaring in fright, Gulliver tells us that “they soon returned, and one of them, who ventured so far as to get a full sight of my face. cried out in a shrill, but distinct voice, Hekinah degul.” The narrator allows us to glimpse into the future as he continues, “the others repeated the same words several times, but I then knew not what they meant.” Dahl also uses his own invented language to enhance the context, in some cases providing new onomatopoeic words to translate the sound that would be made under such conditions, “Then at last, when everything is ready. phwisst!… and she swoops!”

Although it can be demonstrated that Dahl and Swift’s introductions are comparable on some level, dissimilarities also exist between their linguistic frameworks. Swift makes his reader wait patiently for anything of particular note to happen, dragging his reader through a rather dull potted history of his protagonist. Written in the 18th century, perhaps this is reflective of more patient and traditional age. Conversely, Roald Dahl doesn’t give his reader a chance to nestle into the story, perhaps reflecting modern society’s desire for immediate gratification, its impatience and unwillingness to wait before becoming disinterested and its high demands for instant entertainment.

From this historical differentiation, many contrasting linguistic issues arise. Syntactically, Swift and Dahl are in direct opposition. The second sentence in Swift’s opening paragraph contains no less than fourteen separate clauses before concluding. Although the clauses are correctly punctuated, Swift’s convoluted style requires a high degree of concentration and reading ability to fully understand the image being created. Dahl, in contrast, utilises a far more simplistic syntax, sometimes confining himself to the most basic of constructs (subject, verb, adverb), “She treads softly. She moves quietly,” and regularly breaking clauses into separate sentences, “It is most unlikely. But – and here comes the big “but” – it is not impossible.” Dahl, here, is far more modern in his approach to reading and education, comprehending that the children have short attention spans and prefer small digestible chunks of information rather than Swift’s lengthy sentences. When Dahl does use longer sentences, it is usually for dramatic purposes, “The witch stalks the wretched child like a hunter stalking a little bird in the forest. She treads softly. She moves quietly. She gets closer and closer. Then at last, when everything is ready. phwisst!. and she swoops! Sparks fly. Flames leap. Oil boils. Rats howl. Skin shrivels. And the child disappears.” We follow every footstep of the predator advancing upon her prey and after a dramatic pause, Dahl produces a nonsensical onomatopoeic-type word that encapsulates the whole thoughtless confusion and horror of the moment, followed by clipped phrases that bounce like fireworks from the page, utilising alliteration, assonance and a monstrous dislocation of images (“Rats howl”).

This divergence in syntactical structures results in two entirely different authorial styles. Swift’s long sentences give his introduction a rather laborious tone as the reader sifts through much factual information spanning a wide period of time all the way from the narrator’s youth to the story’s real beginning. The narrative flows swiftly from Gulliver’s birth as the “third of five sons” through his education, career, marriage, business failings, voyages, shipwreck and, finally, arrival in a strange land. Conversely, Dahl’s clipped syntax allows him instead to concentrate on one theme (witches) and lends his work a sensationalist and highly animated style that does not allow the reader to settle into a flowing rhythm of any kind. This erratic narrative alternating between quiet and loud statements creates an intense and exciting passage that immediately holds its reader captive. Dahl practically screeches his point in a deliberately witch-like cacophony of noise, which is followed by euphonic throw-away statement, “They live in ordinary houses and work in ORDINARY JOBS” “That is why they are so hard to catch.”

Swift’s introduction, by contrast, serves its purpose by setting the context and lulling the reader into a false sense of security out of which the fantastical and satirical elements appear all the more poignant. Dahl’s staccato narrative is peppered with colourful linguistic devices. He regularly uses consonance/assonance and repetition to create a clear depiction in the reader’s mind, “A REAL WITCH hates children with a red-hot sizzling hatred that is more sizzling and red-hot than any hatred you could possibly imagine” – here the emphasis falls on the ‘h’ and ‘s’ sounds and is highlighted again through the inverted overstatement of the words “sizzling” and “red-hot”, resulting in an automatic association with hellish images.


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