Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Find Suggests a Real "Gulliver"

Jonathan Swift's Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, first published in 1726 and better known to modern readers as Gulliver's Travels, has since its publication been assumed to be a fictional piece, a satire on contemporary human culture and a tongue-in-cheek response to the popular travel narrative genre. But a recent discovery in an English country house is leading many scholars to question their longstanding views on the book and its origins. Was there a real Lemuel Gulliver?

Late last week, contractors performing renovations on a centuries-old house near Rotherhithe, England broke through a brick wall to find a small closet which contained a large, locked wooden sea chest, along with several shelves of books and other assorted detritus. Stenciled on the chest was the name "Samuel Tolliver," known to be the original owner of the house, the oldest parts of which were built c. 1725. The contractors reported their find to Peter Tolliver, the current resident of the house and a direct descendant of Samuel. "I had to find out what was inside," Tolliver said. A local locksmith successfully removed the lock, and Tolliver, his wife and two children gathered for the opening.

"I figured sure it would be nothing but old clothes or junk," Tolliver said. "Finding what we did, well, that was the shock of a lifetime." The chest's contents have sent shock waves through the community of Swift scholars, as they seems to reveal a new, very real source for Gulliver's Travels. "The first thing we noticed was the gold ring," Peter Tolliver told a group of reporters who flocked to an impromptu news conference outside his house on Monday afternoon. "It's huge!"

Of all the items contained in the chest, the ring, elegantly decorated and eight inches in diameter, is by far the most striking: displayed for reporters on Monday with the rest of the items found in the chest, it shone brilliantly in the spring sunshine. The ring matches the description of that which Swift's Gulliver describes at the end of his voyage to Brobdingnag. He writes that the queen of that nation "made me a Present of [the ring] in a most obliging manner, taking it from her little Finger, and throwing it over my Head like a Collar."

The ring was only the beginning, however. Also in the chest were what appear to be other materials described by Swift as Gulliver's souvenirs from his travels. Additional items from Brobdingnag include the remnants of what may be the two combs Gulliver fashioned from the beard-clippings of the king (the hairs themselves have degraded); a number of large pins and needles each measuring more than a foot in length, and a cup set in silver (possibly that made of the "Corn ... from a Maid of Honour's toe"). Another item found in the chest may be the large wasp-sting described by Gulliver.

In a small wooden box, originally found in a corner of the chest, were artifacts which appear to confirm another of Gulliver's adventures, his unsought voyage to Lilliput and its neighbor Blefescu. Within the box the Tollivers found a small, dollhouse-sized oil portrait of a man in royal garb (Gulliver reported having received just such a painting from the king of Blefescu upon his departure from that country), plus a leather bag full of miniscule gold coins and several articles of very small clothing. A badly-prepared biological specimen was also found in the box; it may have been one of the sheep or cows Gulliver brought back alive from his travels and later had taxidermied, but it is in very poor condition after centuries of storage.

Assorted letters and documents attesting to the various pieces found in the chest were also present, the Tollivers told the assembled reporters, but the family is currently withholding those from public view until the collection can be appraised. Experts from Sotheby's and Christie's are said to be vying for the opportunity to authenticate and perhaps eventually sell the collection. Peter Tolliver did reveal a letter written by Samuel Tolliver in 1726 which he says was folded and placed atop the items in the box. That letter indicates that Tolliver felt betrayed by Swift's publication of what he called "my own true life," and that he planned to hide the materials so that no more "prying uses" could be made of them by "nasty scriblers."

Peter Tolliver said that not much is known about his ancestor's maritime travels, but that family legend had it that he was known as an "unlucky sailor, more often wrecked than on course, and daft as can be at the end of his life." Local parish records note Samuel Tolliver's death in 1728, just two years after the original publication of Swift's book. When or how Samuel Tolliver met Jonathan Swift has not yet been determined, but Swift's correspondence is now being carefully combed for clues.

The Rotherhithe cache has had a ripple effect: librarians at London's Gresham College have provided an exemplar from a pair of wasp-stings in their possession to make a comparison to that found in the Tolliver chest (Swift has his Gulliver donate three stings to Gresham and retain one for himself), and a small Devonshire church has offered to provide its so-called "Gulliver tooth" for testing as well. "We've always believed it was true," vicar Alex Dodge said. "We've had the story all along that this was the giant's tooth given by Gulliver to the captain who rescued him from that awful land of behemoths, but until now everybody's thought we were barking mad." The tooth, along with several other of the biological specimens, have been sent to a national forensics lab for examination.

While many Swift scholars are exuberant about the findings, some aren't convinced. Dr. Everard Wicks, Professor of English at Twickenham College, says the find is "simply impossible. Swift wouldn't have stolen a story, it wasn't his nature. Curll, sure, but not Swift," he sniffed, referring to the infamously unscrupulous printer/published Edmund Curll, a Swift antagonist. The Tolliver chest, Wicks maintains, "must be outright fakery." But, he admitted upon seeing pictures of the artifacts, "if they're fakes, they are good ones."

Asked to respond to Wicks, Peter Tolliver chuckled. "I didn't even know that room was there," he said, "and I've lived in this house my whole life. If all this is fake, I'd sure like to know how and why they did it." He said he bears Jonathan Swift no ill will, but hopes that this new find will revitalize interest in his ancestor's travels. "Gulliver's Travels is a great book," he told reporters. "Go home and read it. You'll learn something."

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