Hitchhiking the Galaxy with Gulliver

This essay promotes the pedagogical pairing of Gulliver’s Travels with Douglas Adams’s 1970 classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Anyone familiar with both texts will hit her head with the palm of her hand and exclaim, “Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” Those persons need read no further, as what follows will be to them childishly self-evident.  

Both works are entertaining faux travelogues that hum along at the confluence of parody and satire. Both transport the reader to realms unknown to encounter beings unimagined who nonetheless remind us of follies and hypocrisies closer to home. Identifying, discussing, and writing about these parallels can help students to understand both works better, and to better understand the respective places and ages in which they are set.

This comparative approach would be valuable for students from high school through graduate school. The course I taught was “Epic Adventures,” an introduction to literature for first and second year college students. These two novels occupied a month of the syllabus and were the basis for one short paper, in addition to the informal responses described below.

The remainder of this piece will be organized around questions posed for those informal responses. (Hereafter, GT will stand for Gulliver’s Travels. The other work needs two abbreviations, HGG to mean the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Guide to refer to the eponymous reference work within the novel.)

            1. Compare the ways that front matter of the respective books make claims about the works. How do they differ with respect to assertions of accuracy and authority?

Students can find the three-part introduction to GT bewildering. Comparing it to the briefer single one for HGG, students are able to discern that both front matters are making claims of authority while simultaneously undermining those claims. GT features three separate voices, with the ever-irascible Gulliver being at odds, even here, with his publisher. The introduction to HGG introduces the Guide as the “repository of all knowledge and wisdom” despite the fact that it has “many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate…” (3). Students will see that claims of truth are not absolute; they should always be questioned.

            2. How is the satire of both books attuned to scale and perspective?

The first two books of GT are all about scale and perspective. Compared to the people of Lilliput, Gulliver is not only big but also big-hearted. But in the second book, Gulliver shows himself to be a small man literally and figuratively, as he brags about his native England to the king. Apt comparisons abound in HGG. One of my favorites can be found in chapter 31, where an anecdote takes us “to a distant Galaxy where strange and warlike beings,” because of an insult, “wage[d] terrible war for centuries.” Then they determine that the insult had actually come from “our own Galaxy.” Bent on revenge, "mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across—which happened to be earth—where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog" (196).

            3. Can both books be read as a plea for reason, tolerance, and pluralism?

Yes, albeit with cautions. Running through both is the dark theme that reason has only allowed humans to magnify their malevolence. In GT, the Master Houyhnhnm gives his opinion, after hearing Gulliver describe the Yahoos of England, that they were creatures upon whom "some small Pittance of Reason had fallen, whereof we made no other Use than by its assistance to aggravate our natural Corruptions" (238).

Compare this to HGG’s Babel Fish, a creature that crawls inside one’s ear and provides translation among all the languages of the galaxies, with the result that, as the novel dryly notes, "by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation" (60).

Satire notwithstanding, both books conclude with a plea for reason and tolerance. In GT the mood is somber, as we leave Gulliver a hardened misanthrope, living out his years stabled with his beloved Houyhnhnms. And yet, under the guise of defending himself against an anticipated charge that he should have claimed the lands he visited for the Crown, Gulliver (Swift’s mouthpiece) unleashes a scathing indictment of colonialism. With calculated ingenuousness, Gulliver goes on to explain that he never claimed the lands he visited, since they "do not appear to have any Desire of being conquered, and enslaved, murdered or driven out by Colonies, nor abound either in Gold, Silver, Sugar, or Tobacco" (270).

The ending of HGG is more light-hearted, but makes a similar call for pluralism and acceptance. The final page gives readers an entry in the Guide claiming every civilization passes through three stages of development: "...those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases….the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?" (215).

“Sophistication” refers to a higher-level existence predicated upon live-and-let-live carpe diem pluralism.

Douglas Adams is aware of the cruelty and idiocy that characterizes sentient existence, but he does not dwell on it. The HGG character most analogous to Gulliver may be the robot, Marvin. Marvin was built to be so human-like that he is made miserable by the deplorable state of all things. And yet, in an ironic twist, it is Marvin who saves the day, just as the near-madman Gulliver is left as the spokesman for humanistic values.

Gulliver’s Travels, with its eighteenth-century syntax and topical references, presents a challenge to contemporary students, but one that pays them back richly for the effort. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has accessibility and humor that belie the novel’s intellectual complexity. Teaching them together can aid immeasurably in the understanding and appreciation of each.   

 

Jon Volkmer, Ursinus College

 

Works Cited

Adams, Douglas. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. New York: Penguin Classics, 2001.

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