No lords, fiddlers, judges, or dancing-masters

I had no occasion of bribing, flattering, or pimping, to procure the favour of any great man, or of his minion. I wanted no fence against fraud or oppression; here was neither physician to destroy my body, nor lawyer to ruin my fortune; no informer to watch my words and actions, or forge accusations against me for hire; here were no gibers, censurers, backbiters, pickpockets, highwaymen, housebreakers, attorneys, bawds, buffoons, gamesters, politicians, wits, splenetics, tedious talkers, controvertists, ravishers, murderers, robbers, virtuosos; no leaders, or followers, of party and faction; no encouragers to vice, by seducement or examples; no dungeon, axes, gibbets, whipping-posts, or pillories; no cheating shopkeepers or mechanics; no pride, vanity, or affectation; no fops, bullies, drunkards, strolling whores, or poxes; no ranting, lewd, expensive wives; no stupid, proud pedants; no importunate, overbearing, quarrelsome, noisy, roaring, empty, conceited, swearing companions; no scoundrels raised from the dust for the sake of their vices, or nobility thrown into it on account of their virtues; no lords, fiddlers, judges, or dancing-masters

I recently finished Gullivers Travels which I must say I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m amazed it took me quite so many years to get round to reading it – especially as it’s such a well known classic. Sometimes it’s just too easy to think that ‘old’ works (this was written almost 300 years ago) are too studious, academic, fusty or dry to read when there is such an abundance of contemporary writing. But reading Gullivers Travels reminded me that the best writing endures for centuries and beyond. Swift’s writing style is masterful and the story explores so many themes. Nominally it is a travelogue of sorts, but it it has strong elements of sci-fi (!), fantasy, dystopian and utopian concepts – all explored in one book. Added to which it’s genuinely very funny in places. Ultimately – I regarded it as a study of man and of humanity in general, which it does very well.

The quote pictured is extremely long, but the rest of the book is not made up of such large blocks of text and is in fact quite easy to digest. But this final polemic – written by the author as he extols the virtues of the utopian state he is currently in (inhabited and governed by horses), a place in which he wants to stay, not wanting to return to England – I found quite stirring.

Highly recommended in the unlikely (?) event you haven’t read it.

8 thoughts on “No lords, fiddlers, judges, or dancing-masters

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  1. i read it years ago as part of my Eng Lit course and many of its themes – as you point out – are still very relevant today. Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. I still haven’t read it myself, though I’ve read parts of it. I really enjoyed the version they did in the 90s with Ted Danson, and that prompted me to pick up a copy of the book and of course in the book he comes back between each voyage unlike the TV version where he didn’t make it home at all until after he visited the Houyhnhnms.

    I find this kind of travelogue very fascinating in general as a genre, and yes you are quite right that it presages a lot of what we would call science fiction but it far from the earliest to do so.

    The Odyssey and Aeneid of course contain elements of this sort of travelogue — visiting “wonders” like the Cyclops and the Island of the Lotus-Eaters and so forth. And in those stories there was definite social commentary of a kind, too. The Cyclops was a monster not just because he was a giant and had only one eye, but because he and his people had no laws and had no sense of morality. Odysseus tried to appeal to the universal code that required hospitality to guests (violation of which was considered impious in pretty much all ancient cultures — which is the lesson of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah: that story has nothing to do with homosexuality).

    But I am pretty sure that the first true example of the genre in the fullest sense — the travelogue / tall tale / early sci-fi genre — is Lucian of Samosata’s “True History” (Vera Historia), a tongue-in-cheek title for a tongue-in-cheek series of tall tales including what I believe to have been the first trip to the moon, complete with alien moon men (who had to reproduce via homosexuality since there were no moon women — oops! — so very Greek). Lucian (who is my favourite Greek writer after Homer, Herodotus and Sappho, and my second-favourite Greek prose author: he wrote very clear and easy-to-understand Greek) is really the one who I think inaugurated this genre in the full sense. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Voltaire’s Princesse de Babylone, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, and even the Orlando Furioso, all I suspect owe a lot to Lucian (not just to his True History but to his satirical Dialogues as well). Munchausen in particular, both with the whale scenes and the moon trips.

  3. Daphne – yeh, a great read!

    Justin – I don’t think I’ve read any Greek classics. I do own Herodotus: The Histories which I bought a few years ago (inspired by The English Patient, one of my favourite films). Guess I ought to read it! And you should read Gulliver’s Travels in its entirety, was great!

    1. It’s in storage so I don’t know off-hand. Think I got it from Amazon but I don’t recall the edition. Looks like a bit of a tome.

    2. The translations are all remarkably different. There are several places in the text where scholars disagree on the interpretation. Herodotus was not only the father of History but he was the father of Prose, at least in Greek. He was making it up as he went along, and he wrote in a dialect that is more or less unique to that one work (the dialect was of course spoken widely but it was not written down). Greek is an exceptionally complicated and difficult language and vastly more slippery and nuanced than Latin: it is easy for there to be multiple interpretations to a sentence and sometimes the author probably did that deliberately: t he Greeks had a love of language and a kind of slippery and almost mischievous approach to circumlocution and extra complexity (though Herodotus’ prose is extremely simple by comparison to Plato or Demosthenes or most later prose authors).

      I have multiple translations: I usually prefer to buy multiple translations of anything I’m going to read in Greek so I can compare and triangulate my attempts at translating to theirs.

      Rawlinson is the “classical” translation: Victorian and heavy. It’s a very good translation but unfortunately it is almost never printed anymore with Rawlinson’s notes, which were extremely copious and in my opinion worth at least as much as the text itself.

      de Selincourt is probably the next most popular and is also very good.

      I highly recommend The Landmark Herodotus — it’s got great notes and maps and stuff. The Landmark Thucydides and Xenophon are great, too.

      There is at least one other translation — by Grene, and I may have yet one more.

      Herodotus was from Halicarnassus on the southwest coast of what is now Turkey. His native dialect was Doric — the family of dialects that included Sparta and Corinth and most of the Peloponnese. But he wrote in Ionic, which was the dialect spoken in the west central coast of what is now Turkey (and adjacent islands). Attic, the language of Athens, is considered a sub-dialect of the Ionic dialects: traditionally, the Ionic islands and cities were believed to have been colonized in the distant (and pre-historic) past by Athens, so Athens considered itself the “mother” city to the Ionians. The similarity of dialect is consistent with what may have been a partial truth.

      Homer was composed in a combination of Ionic and Aeolic — Aeolic being spoken in the northwest coast of what is now Turkey and especially on the island of Lesbos. The Homeric dialect was artificial and had never been spoken by anybody.

      It is unclear why Herodotus wrote in Ionic considering that it was neither his native dialect, nor was it the language of Athens, and the Histories were originally almost certainly delivered as a series of oral lectures in Athens, and not written down until later (during Herodotus’ lifetime, but the point is that they were probably not originally composed to be read: silent reading was unknown in the ancient world anyway — which is unsurprising since the ancients neither used punctuation nor spaces between words nor separations for paragraphs or even for new lines in poetry: they simply crammed every inch of the papyrus with unbroken text — all in upper case, since lower-case letters weren’t invented until the middle ages — so it would have been very hard to read, and it was normally recited, not silently read).

      The word “Historia” in Greek means “inquiry” or “investigation” and took on the modern meaning only because of Herodotus. His work is ostensibly the story of the Greek-Persian wars and how they came to happen but it’s really a series of digressions into all the various parts of the Persian empire and adjacent countries — Book 2 is more or less entirely devoted to Egypt.

      Herodotus was later accused (by Plutarch) of being unpatriotic — anti-Greek and pro-“Barbarian” (the word “Barbarian” simply meant “people who didn’t speak Greek” — it is an onomatopeia: “bar-bar” was their representation of what they considered to be the gibberish noise that a non-Greek speaker made when they spoke their native language). Plutarch’s essay “The Malice of Herodotus” is a set-piece of conservative intellectual dishonesty — it’s amazing how that mindset hasn’t changed in over 2,000 years and its sentiments are easily recognizable in the output of Fox News and conservative Republicans today. What Plutarch took to be unpatriotic attitudes was simply Herodotus’ interest in other cultures.

      The histories are a joy to read not just because of what you do learn about the history of that time but because of the vivid and fanciful vignettes Herodotus paints — sometimes he is credulous to a fault, but in fact a great deal of what he wrote was more accurate and more insightful than he is often given credit for. He was not a historian in the modern sense but he was the first person to start moving in that direction and his work is different from the legends and myths that came before.

    3. You may find this link interesting:

      Also, the story of the 300 — made famous in the movie of the same name, though I am not a fan of that movie — is from Herodotus. It’s a true story. The story of the Persian failure to conquer Greece, despite being an empire vastly larger and better organized, is one of the most fascinating stories of all history. It was a pivotal moment that could have affected the outcome of European history drastically.

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