Oct 29, 2020

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.


  1. I first came across The Tripod books when I was aged twelve in the mid-1980s and, as you can imagine, I just remember being fascinated by this strange idea that when you reached the age of fourteen you had to be capped. That this must happen to boys when they finally approach their fourteenth birthdays - before they can begin to think and to reason for themselves. Indeed Masters even considered capping boys at the age of twelve, not only to be sure of it, but also because a younger child is less resistant and less questioning. More curious and more willing. In the end the Masters decide against doing this as a child’s skull is not yet fully formed or developed. Capping Day becomes the mandatory annual "coming-of-age" ritual for each and every boy. One in which they must all take part. The head of every son and daughter is shaved before they are all brought together to be capped. One by one. Indeed each child is proudly presented by their parents as a future slave for The Tripods. As I child I could not understand why parents would do this. Until I realised the parents had been capped too when they were children. After being presented before The Tripod, the boy is lifted up gently inside the capsule so a cap of metal wiring can be inserted and successfully enmeshed and embedded deeply into his skull and brain. Interestingly before children are capped they often question it. “Why? I do not see why it has to happen. I would sooner stay as I am.” Indeed what rebellious teenager has not said to himself: “I will not believe in what adults believe in. I will rip up the rules of society. I will never conform like them.” Therefore as the child is taken to be capped he must be very gently reassured, encouraged and, most importantly of all, made curious by the adults as to what Capping is. “You can’t understand now, but you will understand after it happens. I can’t describe it. You won’t be hurt. As a person I am happy now.” Indeed when boys are returned to their parents, it soon becomes clear they no longer question as teenagers but are happy and contented adults. Yet another generation of future slaves successfully programmed and educated to serve, obey and even worship the current social, economic and political order. Their new Master. Their God, their Ruler, their State. Sound familiar. I urge parents today do encourage their children to read these subversive books. Particularly boys aged twelve.

  2. His other books are not nearly as subversive. Most aren't even for juveniles.

  3. I had a similar experience when I read "Re-Birth" ( The Crysalids) by John Whydham. This 1995 sci-fi adventure novel is set in a post nuclear holocaust world in which technology is forbidden. Mutant children are exiled or killed at birth. The heroes discover that their mutation is not visible they have psychic abilities. They receive messages from a distant city in which people like themselves are able to live free. The gay metaphor seemed obvious to me.

    1. A more accurate gay metaphor would be "live free for about six blocks, because once you leave that area it's just as awful".

  4. "The Chrysalids" was first published in 1955. I think I picked it up when I was in high school in the 1970s, but didn't like it and stopped after a few pages. I don't remember why.

  5. I just watched the TV series. It's very heterosexist, the boys immediately fall in love with all the girls they meet.


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