If you are following along in the Summer Read, it would be helpful if you’ve read Chapters I-II of Brobdingnag in Gulliver’s Travels.
Another week, and with it another voyage alongside Lemuel Gulliver. Having glanced through the story of Brobdingnag at the footnotes, I’ve noticed one significant difference in this second tale: his time in Brobdingnag seems less about Swift picking on particular English contemporaries, perhaps to spend more time considering Gulliver himself? The footnotes contain definitions and clarifications, but far fewer name references. On the islands of Lilliput and Blefuscu, Gulliver was a magnificent Man-Mountain, observing and analyzing from his elevated perspective. He spoke from a position of dignity, respect, and valor. As such, his opinions carried a certain weight.
Now, on the island of Brobdingnag, Gulliver himself is in the position of being quite small. He has quickly become the lesser creature, already compared to a weasel! Of all the details in the opening chapters, I was drawn to Gulliver’s comparison to his own experiences on Lilliput:
“I lamented my own Folly and Wilfulness in attempting a second voyage against the advice of all my friends and relations. In this terrible Agitation of Mind I could not forbear thinking of Lilliput, whose inhabitants looked upon me as the greatest Prodigy that ever appeared in the world: where I was able to draw an Imperial Fleet in my hand, and perform those other actions which will be recorded for ever in the chronicles of that empire, while posterity shall hardly believe them, although attested by millions. I reflected what a mortification it must prove to me to appear as inconsiderable in this nation as one single Lilliputian would be among us. But, this I conceived was to be the least of my misfortunes: for, as human creatures are observed to be more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk, what could I expect but to be a morsel in the mouth of the first among these enormous barbarians that should happen to seize me?”
Gulliver recalls with fondness how great it was to be big, significant in the eyes of all who looked upon. It was good to be the Man-Mountain! And now, the tables have turned and Gulliver finds himself at the mercy of these larger creatures. But notice the irony of his own statement! He takes it for granted that human creatures are more savage and cruel in proportion to their bulk! As I understand the narrative, Gulliver considers himself throughout his adventures to be the standard in humanity. In other words, he is normal. Lilliputians are small, Brobdingnagians are large. He remains normal. And I suppose it is possible to maintain that perspective, but it’s hard to avoid the obvious fact that, in the eyes of the Lilliputians, Gulliver would have been the more savage and cruel creature – proportionate with his bulk.
The comparisons continue as he observes the giants. He describes their complexion with a touch of horror, their eyes with a note of humor. He describes the accommodations they provide as being rough and coarse – their finest linens seeming as sackcloth. With every colorful description, Gulliver is further casting light upon his own nature through the eyes of a Lilliputian. At times, he does recognize what he is doing, referring back to his friends on the tiny island. As I read the story, with these details, and observe the lack of contemporary references in footnotes, I can’t help but believe Brobdingnag exists (at least in these early chapters), to provide a commentary on the story we’ve just completed, shedding light on the narrator himself!
On Pride and Surrender
Gulliver taps into something very human in these words from the Christian perspective – though I understand this was certainly not Swift’s intention! I couldn’t help but think of the very natural progression in the young Christian. Original sin reveals that pride lies at the core of the human heart. The desire to rule, to be a self-significant Man-Mountain, is rampant and among our most basic realities. For the Christian, the transition from being ruler of my own roost to being a subject in the Kingdom of Christ is humbling, and, if I’m to be honest, troubling. Coming to grips with the effects of depravity, lingering sin, and eternal shortcomings is nothing short of life-altering. Surrender is a painful endeavor, particularly because surrender highlights my inability where I once saw myself as wholly sufficient and the possessor of elevated opinions.
The apostle Paul’s words to the Roman church, though, provide help. Too many Christians believe in free will without giving any consideration to what Martin Luther called the bondage of the will. Yes, we are free creatures and we decide here and there as our little hearts desire. But under the light of Romans 6, it becomes clear that our freedom is in bondage to one master or Another. Apart from Christ, we are slaves to sin. Our free hearts desire sin, and so we pursue sin. In Christ, we are slaves to righteousness. Our free hearts desire righteousness, and so we pursue righteousness. Romans 7 then goes on to describe the internal struggle that results from the lingering nature of sin amidst our pursuit of that which God describes as right and good.
I find Romans 6 & 7 helpful because they remind me that even when I was a Man-Mountain, sovereign in my own eyes, utterly free in my sin, I was not so large. I was responsible, but not sovereign. I was prostrating myself, albeit in ignorance, to a damning master. This truth serves both to humble my heart which is oh-so-prone to pride, and to magnify the glory of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ – Jesus who loved me though I stood as his enemy. Jesus who loved me in order that I might cease to be the Man-Mountain and instead strive to stand among the least in the eternal Kingdom of my Lord.
And so as I consider the matter of surrender to the Lord, I realize that it’s not a matter of choosing surrender over personal sovereignty – crying with the saints rather than laughing with the sinners (sorry, Billy Joel). Rather, it is a matter of humble surrender to a good Master over ignorant surrender to a deadly one.
At times, like our friend Gulliver, I miss being the Man-Mountain. But then I remember that being the Man-Mountain was eternally less than I had believed it to be.