Feb 14, 2013

Running from the Tripods

The first book that I thought of as “good beyond hope" as a kid, other than The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet from my earliest childhood, was The White Mountains (1967), by John Christopher.   Centuries ago, huge, lumbering tripods invaded the Earth, destroying human civilization and forcing the survivors to live in quaint Medieval villages, where they retain no memory of their former technological prowess.   At the age of fourteen, all children undergo a “capping” ceremony: they are carried off by the tripods, and return later as adults, heartily praised by their elders and plied with tablesful of “today I am a man” presents.  They also have wire mesh “caps” fused to their skulls to ensure absolute obedience to the Tripods.

Capping is obviously a metaphor for the onset of heterosexual desire, the glorious hormone-drenched "discovery of girls" that all of the adults drone on and on about once a boy reaches the age of twelve or thirteen.

Jack and Will (played by John Shackley in the BBC television production) live in a quaint post-Tripod village in rural England.  Jack is rapidly approaching his capping day, and has misgivings about his destiny as a thrall of the Tripods.  He and Will make vague plans to run away, but it is just a pipe dream; with the full force of adult society behind the practice, resistance is futile.  Soon Jack goes to be capped with the others, and he returns changed.  He now realizes that capping is wonderful: “You can’t understand now, but you will understand when it happens.  It’s. . .I can’t describe it” (19).  I heard many similar statements from older friends who had already acquiesced to their heterosexual destiny.

Despondent and alone, Will wanders aimlessly through the ruins of the long-lost technological England that stand everywhere beyond his village.  One day he encounters a vagrant named Ozymandias, who eyes him appreciatively and quotes a compellingly homoerotic Shakespeare (“Under the greenwood tree / Who loves to lie with me?).   After several similar flirtations, Ozymandias suggests that a rendezvous in the old ruins at night, when they will not be disturbed.  It is a frightening invitation, since Vagrants have been known to murder boys (or worse), but something compels Will to forsake his safe, gender polarized, heteronormative world and venture out onto the blasted heath.

Ozymandias does not have murder (or sex) on his mind, however.  He tells Will about the White Mountains (the Alps), too high for the tripods to climb, where a small group of men and boys live free from tripods and caps.  It’s a long and dangerous journey, “and a hard life at the journey’s end.  But freedom.”

Will jumps at the idea of escaping the tripods, and, along with his cousin Henry, sets out for the sanctuary in the White Mountains.  After crossing the English Channel, they are joined by another boy, a misfit science nerd named Jean-Paul, so tall and thin that they call him Beanpole.

Gay boys "knew" that the tripods were coming for them.  All of the adults said so.  In a day, or a week, or a month at the most, they would "discover girls," and no longer dream of boys and men.  No wonder The White Mountains was "good beyond hope." It offered a glimpse of that other place, the possibility of escape.