Three legs bad

An Alpine acalanche

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 …’

22 thoughts on “Three legs bad

    1. I’ve not seen the TV series, either then or now on YouTube (though I watched the trailer). Personally I prefer as a rule of thumb to read the books because there are details in them which even good adaptations miss or are unable to portray. Also, having grown up in the 60s, I can picture incidentals (such as aspects of Paris, which I actually visited in 1967) perhaps better than a younger generation might.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That last is a very good point, and one that I’m writing around at the moment.

        I only watched the TV adapt’n because it was my first contact; the books I had not come across at all.

        Our school were readying for my year to go to France, then the pound was devalued, and it was all abandoned.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Interesting about your trip affected by devaluation — I went with student friends in my first year at uni, it would’ve been Easter, so several months before the pound was devalued, so our money eked us out for a hostel stay after our initial overly romantic plan to sleep under the bridges of Paris dissipated once we noted how cold and damp it would be! Paris in the spring of 1967, a whole year before the student protests there, has lodged in my memory as grey and rather more dismal than I’d expected. 😁

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Ugh, I don’t find that dystopian novels take my mind off of current ills. “Capped adults seem strangely uninterested in questioning this state of affairs, have no sense of history, indeed are unable to innovate … or to comprehend scientific principles except in very primitive ways.” Sounds like the American electorate to me.

    This one was all the rage when I was a kid but I couldn’t stand it, it gave me nightmares. I wonder if I’d be able to stomach it now. Would it help me to understand or to cope with the challenges of today?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that some dystopian novels are just too close to the knuckle, Lory — I couldn’t get very far into Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here for that very reason when I began it in late 2016. And it was bad enough reading Nineteen Eighty-Four back in the 60s when the Cold War was really frigid and Kennedy hadn’t long been assassinated. But this first Tripods novel, with its external alien threat, wasn’t realistic I thought; even with the polarised American electorate there’s an evens chance of someone not being brainwashed into believing barefaced lies and contradictions. And even the Tripods as a possible symbol for governmental control or a hostile state misinformation campaign I find unbelievable.

      Oddly, the Alps (where you are now) as a base for uncoerced independent minds rebelling against collective insanity is the only parallel that appeals so far! The Tripods not being able to cope with a cold, more rarified atmosphere might indicate that the Swiss cantons could represent more rational and logical thought processes — but I can’t tell if this notion has legs unless I read the rest of the trilogy. Still, the alien machines do have a nightmarish quality about them which I might have found unbearable as a youngster — who wouldn’t?


        1. Well, the large lake Will sees after his journey SE from Paris can only be Lac Leman (unless it’s Lake Bourget, which somehow I doubt) with the white mountains nearby. I will read the others — eventually! — but not just now, too much else to progress through in my TBR pile.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Having just re-read the books, I remember that the mountain they live on is the Jungfrau — they see a couple of ancient signs and use the railway structures. (This meant nothing to me last time I read them, very long ago; I actually had a vague idea that the White Mountains were the ones in the Eastern US. I was also too young to recognize the description of Paris.)

            Liked by 1 person

            1. It’s interesting that the descriptions of scenery and details are vague enough for the innocent reader to assimilate the landscapes to those they’re familiar with, Jean; perhaps that’s why they can often appeal across cultures.

              When the BBC adapted Z for Zachariah they set it not in the US Midwest (possibly Kansas: but in the South Wales valleys. Though I never saw it, the novel apparently lost nothing in the new setting.

              Anyway, I’m glad to see my guess that the destination is Switzerland is confirmed later in the trilogy, further incentive perhaps for Lory to reconsider it! 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

    1. Post-apocalyptic fiction feels distanced enough from any dystopia one finds real life may be dishing out, which is why Sinclair Lewis, George Orwell et al don’t appeal to me just now — too reminiscent of the news — because sure as hell we don’t need reminding what stinks in current politics.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t help feeling I’ve read this, a long time ago. You’ve given me a tantalizing feeling of deja vu, because other than the caps, I can remember nothing about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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