Curator's Choice: Gulliver's Travels

April 21, 2016 | Nicole

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When is a children’s book not a children’s book?

When it was written for adults, but “adopted” over time as a children’s classic.

One famous example of an adult work “adopted” by children is Gulliver’s Travels, the subject of a recent Curator’s Choice program at the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books.

Gulliver’s Travels was first published in 1726 as Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. By Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships. It was an adult satire targeting English society and politics.

The author, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), had it published anonymously for fear of persecution. The book was an immediate bestseller — the first printing sold out within a week.

Gullivers Travels Third Edition 1726

Title page and frontispiece to volume I of Osborne’s copy of the third edition of 1726, with an imaginary portrait of Lemuel Gulliver. 

Although filled with contemporary allusions and biting satire, the book appealed to children from its very beginnings for its depth of imagination, absurd humour and fantastic occurrences.

Francis Newbery, nephew of celebrated 18th-century publisher John Newbery printed this children’s abridgement in 1776. This is a later edition (ca. 1785) published by Francis’s widow Elizabeth. It contains the first two of Gulliver’s voyages.

Francis Newbery Gulliver

Francis Newbery Gulliver Lilliput

Gulliver washes up on Lilliput and awakens to find himself tied to the ground by a swarm of tiny humans.

Francis Newbery Gulliver Brobdingnag

Gulliver visits Brobdingnag, land of giants.

In Swift’s original, Gulliver undertakes four voyages. During each voyage he meets with calamity — shipwreck, storms, pirates, mutiny — then arrives at an unknown land peopled by strange inhabitants.

This 1805 edition for children was published by Benjamin Tabart in four volumes. It contains all four voyages in abridged form.

Benjamin Tabart Gullivers Travels 1805

Benjamin Tabart Gullivers Travels Lilliput

Gulliver’s first voyage takes him to Lilliput. Here he is seen conversing with a Lilliputian nobleman.

Benjamin Tabart Gullivers Travels Brobdingnag

During Gulliver’s second voyage he is blown off course to Brobdingnag, land of giants. He is discovered in a barley field by a farmworker.

Benjamin Tabart Gullivers Travels Flying Island

Setting out on a third voyage, Gulliver is attacked by pirates and set adrift. He is rescued by the flying island of Laputa, home to absurd mathematicians and scientists.

Benjamin Tabart Gullivers Travels Houyhnhnms

On his fourth voyage Gulliver visits the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent, talking horses.

Osborne holds many children’s abridgements and retellings spanning the 18th to the 21st centuries. Many of these contain Gulliver’s first, or first and second voyages only.

Chapbook version of Gullivers Travels

Chapbook version of Gulliver’s Travels published between 1854 and 1873. The emperor of Lilliput orders his army to march under Gulliver’s legs “twenty-four abreast, and the horse by sixteen, with drums beating, colours flying, and pikes advanced.”

Gullivers Travels FMB Blaikie 1906

Another illustration of the same scene, from the Told-to-the-Children series. This volume was written by John Lang and illustrated by F.M.B. Blaikie, 1906.

Don’t forget spin-offs and adaptations. Two examples of “Big Little-type” books from the 1930s offer “twisted” versions of Swift’s classic:

BettyBoop in Miss Gullivers Travels

Betty Boop in “Miss Gulliver’s Travels,” assisted by Bimbo and Ko-ko. Story by Wallace West. Number 1158 in the Big Little Book series, published in 1935. Jazz-age cartoon character Betty Boop features as the great-great-granddaughter of Captain Lemuel Gulliver who sets out to rediscover Lilliput.

Gulliver’s Travels Jumbo Book 1939

Gulliver’s Travels. Story by Charles C. Taylor. Number 1172 in the Jumbo Book series, published in 1939. Based on the animated film Gulliver’s Travels released by Paramount Pictures in 1939, in which Gulliver is shipwrecked on the island of Lilliput, a kingdom of tiny people at war with its neighbour Blefuscu over the choice of wedding song for a royal marriage.

Should you be interested in following Gulliver’s extraordinary adventures more closely, copies are available to borrow through the Toronto Public Library.

The Annotated Gulliver’s Travels

Check out Isaac Asimov’s The Annotated Gulliver’s Travels for in-depth analysis and historical context.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver, retold by Martin Jenkins and illustrated by Chris Riddell, is an accessible version for children that preserves the tone and humour of Swift’s original.

And for fascinating evidence of Gulliver’s far-reaching influence, view this short clip from the award-winning 1935 stop-motion animated film The New Gulliver, a communist retelling directed by Aleksandr Ptushko, in which Gulliver leads a Marxist revolution among the Lilliputians, filmed with a cast of puppets!