The Influence of Lucian's True Story on Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels

The Influence of Lucian's True Story on Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels

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The Influence of Lucian's True Story on Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels

Lucian's fictional and satiric travel dialogue, True Story, is a form that has been often copied over the centuries.  Elements of his story, such as travel to the moon, inspired later science fiction.  His presence in another world allowed Lucian and his imitators to poke fun at or question the things of this world, whether it be national heroes and philosophers, misplaced patriotism or the more subtle lies of contemporary writers.  Beyond symbolism, social commentary and parody , however, Lucian's True Story allows the reader a humorous but interesting flight of fancy to undiscovered worlds.

         Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels is one of the best known stories of European literature.  Although the book is most often read as a children's fairy tale, the story is intended as satire.  In fact, Swift wrote to his friend, Alexander Pope, that the book was intended to "vex the world, not to divert it."  Swift comments on the wars of religion, and a myriad of problems with England, its leadership and its people.  Many allusions can be caught by the careful reader, but many more through the passage of time and Swift's fabulous and incredible descriptions are lost to all but the most perceptive.  However, Lucian's influence on Gulliver's Travels can't be missed.  The authors attack many of the same institutions and use similar devices to satirize their world.
         Lucian's diatribe against irresponsible and dishonest writers, is mirrored in Gulliver's Travels.  Lucian describes how "lots of other writers have shown a preference for the same technique: under the guise of reporting their travels abroad they spin yarns of huge monsters, savage tribes, and strange ways of life."  Gulliver excuses himself from writing down his adventures amidst the giants of Brobdingnag, by saying:

  "   ...That nothing could now pass which was not extraordinary; wherein I doubted, some Authors less consulted Truth than their own Vanity or Interest, or the Diversion of ignorant Readers.  That my own Story could contain little besides common Events, without those ornamental Descriptions of strange Plants, Trees, Birds, and other Animals; or the barbarous Customs and Idolatry of savage People, with which most Writers abound."

         Swift also borrows Lucian's emphasis on human anatomy and sex.  Lucian describes sex with trees, men being hung by their penises, and other men using their member as a post on which to fix a sail.

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"The Influence of Lucian's True Story on Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels." 15 Jan 2019

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  In the same vein, Swift seems to tell his reader each time Gulliver goes to the bathroom.  One of the most memorable scenes in Gulliver's stay in Lilliput is his "making water" on the Queen's palace to put out a fire.  In his subsequent journey to Brobdingnag, Gulliver describes the tendency of the giant women of the court to place him on their breasts.  "The handsomest among these Maids of Honour, a pleasant frolicksome Girl of sixteen, would sometimes set me astride upon one of her Nipples; with many other Tricks, wherein the Reader will excuse me for not being over particular."  Clearly, Swift followed Lucian's example of not tiptoeing around the delicate subjects when writing satire.

         Like Lucian's journeys to the moon and Lampville, Gulliver also travels to islands in the sky (Laputa).  Both authors take their satire to the ridiculous, Lucian often to mock other travel stories, Swift to cunningly cast aspersions on the things of England.  The moon holds one-toed frog eaters for Lucian while Laputa has the Flappers to remind the people to occasionally speak and listen amidst their intense intellectual thoughts.

        On the Isle of the Blest, Lucian encounters the important past figures of his day.  Gulliver has a similar opportunity to question the dead, and then subsequently mock or revere them as Lucian does.  Just as Lucian attempted to solve scholarly debates of his day by questioning Homer, Gulliver interviews Alexander the Great to find that he perished from excessive drinking rather than poison.  Gulliver praises Brutus, who Caesar himself admits did a grand thing by killing him.  Gulliver also speaks to Aristotle and Homer before moving on to criticize more contemporary leaders.

        The closer one studies both True Story and Gulliver's Travels, the more apparent the numerous similarities between the tales become.  Swift's intentions in writing his book were somewhat different than Lucian's, but Swift's style, ideas, and exaggerations owe much to Lucian of Samosata and his humorous journey.

Sources Cited

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"Lucian of Samosata. " The New Encyclopaedia Britannica: Micropaedia.  15th ed.  1998.  vol. 7
Marsh, David.  Lucian and the Latins: Humor and Humanism in the Early Renaissance.  Ann Arbor:   
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