The White Mountains
by John Christopher.
The Tripods trilogy I.
Collier Books / Macmillan Publishing 1988 (1967)
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
There’s nothing like a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel to take your mind off current ills, providing that what’s described doesn’t approach too closely to reality. That’s the case with the first of Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, which seems to describe a time which may be in the 2060s, roughly a century after when the novel was first published. There are echoes of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) along with aspects of medievalism which are reminiscent of Keith Roberts’ alternative history novel Pavane (published a year after The White Mountains) and Peter Dickinson’s dystopia in The Weathermonger (also 1968), but Christopher’s novel has a quality all of its own.
Will is thirteen years old, living in the village of Wherton somewhere in Hampshire, not far from Winchester. He has not yet been Capped by the Tripods but his friend Jack is about to be, in what is evidently a coming of age ritual. He has anxieties about how this will change him, a state that is compounded by conversations with a mad-seeming Vagrant, who spouts bits of Shakespeare and Shelley — he calls himself Ozymandias and sings fragments of songs like Tom O’ Bedlam — but informs Will of resistance to the Tripods in what is known as the White Mountains.
Will determines to escape the conformity that has been imposed on those Capped by the Tripods, but is encumbered by Henry, his bullying cousin, who discovers his plan and insists on accompanying him. And so begins a journey to the White Mountains that involves a sea journey, a traverse of an abandoned French capital, a horse-drawn journey by chemin de fer and a spell in a French château. All the while there is the menace of the Tripods and the fear that the cousins and their new companion Beanpole are being tracked.
The author has created a suspenseful narrative, effective because it’s rarely predictable. While giving us plentiful details (all from Will’s perspective) he constantly perplexes the reader with the uncertainties arising from a largely depopulated countryside, strangers who may be friends or foes, the necessity to steal or forage for food to avoid starvation, and the awful vision of the flexible metal tentacles that draw humans from the ground towards the mysterious maws of the giant tripods.
There are disconcerting things, such as ignorance of where the Tripods come from, why they have arrived on Earth, what beings control the perambulating machines, why and how they keep humans under control. More than that, Capped adults seem strangely uninterested in questioning this state of affairs, have no sense of history, indeed are unable to innovate in terms of technology or to comprehend scientific principles except in very primitive ways.
Indeed, the finicky reader may wonder at what process led to humankind’s reversion to a way of life straight from the Middle Ages, with small pre-industrial agrarian communities owing fealty to local nobility resident in castles. This sense of cultures in reverse or at least moribund was evidently a common theme with British writers of the time, with Christopher, Roberts and Dickinson all publishing novels with this theme in 1967 and 1968. The same pernickety reader may also wonder at the physics and the mechanics that allow machines on three articulated legs — vehicles moreover that tower over church spires — to move efficiently and at speed across undulating or rough terrain. But perhaps these are a rabbit holes that it would be best to avoid falling into!
What I think we are meant to understand is that some youngsters, like Will, Henry and Beanpole on the cusp of puberty, may have an inquisitiveness and a suspicion of authority that no assurances those in control are benevolent will ever win over. The White Mountains is one of those novels where not explaining every detail is deliberate, where readers have (like Will and his companions) to work out for themselves what’s happening from the limited cues on offer.
Thus it becomes a delight when the light dawns on how a certain kind of propulsion works, what the vast city with its underground tunnels is, what the curious metal ‘eggs’ with pins attached are, and what we actually call the White Mountains of the title. It’s always good to come across a story in which we also vicariously participate in the quest undertaken by the protagonists. And hope that Shelley’s words regarding a “colossal wreck” will come true for the Tripods.
‘… Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies …’