The Tripods first strode into my consciousness with the 1984 BBC TV adaptation. Once I’d seen the stirring, ominous opening credits and the first glimpse of the marching mechanical monsters, I was hooked, and the series became a regular Saturday teatime treat.
It was unlike any show I’d seen before – the special effects were impressive for the time, especially for television. Sadly, the BBC decided the viewing figures did not justify the high costs of the series and so the final volume of the trilogy was never produced; a rushed, bleak ending was tacked to the last episode of series two.
However, the story and the world of The Tripods fascinated me and so I simply had to read the books, and I was not disappointed.
The Tripods, written by John Christopher (Sam Youd), is set in a future where Earth has been conquered and humanity enslaved by the alien Masters ,who bestride the world in the Tripods, enormous three-legged walking – and when needed, fighting - machines. Human society has returned to a pastoral, pre-industrial level, with few towns – obedience to the alien rulers is established through Caps, compulsory implants every human receives at the age of fourteen. Once the Cap is implanted, humans become docile and lose any sense of curiosity and rebelliousness.
The main hero of the book is thirteen year-old Will, an English boy, who is suspicious and fearful of the Tripods. With his ‘Capping Day’ approaching, Will flees with his cousin, Henry, to the ‘White Mountains’ in Switzerland, the refuge of the Free Men. During their dangerous journey across France, they meet up with another boy, Jean-Paul, quickly nicknamed Beanpole. Beanpole is clever and inventive, and fears that Capping will steal his curiosity, and so he joins Will and Henry on their quest for freedom. During their subsequent adventures, they face danger not only from the Tripods (and the alien Masters who control the machines) but also from Capped adults.
When I came to write my own books, it is clear The Tripods influenced my work. For example, there are elements of my first novel, The Map of the Known World, clearly shaped in part by Christopher’s trilogy, from the theme of defying orthodoxy and dogma, to key plot points, such as young people escaping a tyrannical society and seeking refuge in distant mountains, and the Null that breaks free will and enforces obedience. The Map of the Known World is a fantasy novel, not science fiction, but I freely acknowledge my debt to Christopher’s creation.
Reading The Tripods as a child I was drawn into the exciting story of aliens and adventure, especially moments such as the eerie journey through a ruined Paris and the mission to the Masters’ city. But beyond the power of a good story effectively told, the key themes of The Tripods remain fascinating and resonant.
The world of The Tripods is a dystopia, but an unusual one, as its inhabitants are, on the whole, contented, or at least – thanks to the Cap – unable to contemplate the possibility of a different existence. Indeed, humans refer to the time before the coming of the Tripods as the Black Age.
“There were too many people, and not enough food, so that people starved, and fought each other, and there were all kinds of sicknesses.”
The White Mountains
Capped humans never defy the Tripods, who they believe protect them from descending into the horrors of disease, famine and war. The world ruled by the Tripods is peaceful and humans live simple, untroubled lives; there are moments in The White Mountains (the first book in the trilogy), where Will is tempted to abandon his quest, for example, when he reaches Le Chateau de la Tour Rouge – he falls for Eloise, the daughter of the Comte and Comtesse, and feels the allure of a ‘secure and pleasant life’.
Yes, Will and his friends are brave to undertake their dangerous journey to the White Mountains, but their true courage comes in defying the views and beliefs of family, friends, teachers and village elders. It is Will’s determination to oppose all the people with whom he has grown up that marks him as a hero in the making. He knows, or at the very least senses, the society in which he is living is rotten and unjust, and so seeks to escape. And as is clear from early in the story, the freedom offered by the Free Men is not easy:
“To the south. To the White Mountains. With a hard life at the journey’s end. But a free one.”
The White Mountains
Freedom is the price of the security offered by the Tripods. The Cap neuters humans’ capacity for challenging thought, imagination and creativity, and dulls any desire for progress or further understanding of the world. It could be argued the political forces of our own age are often shaped by a desire to return to simpler times, to retreat from and turn our backs to the complexity of the modern world. In The Tripods, Christopher suggests people are happy to trade freedom for the safety and protection offered by the tyrannical rulers.
Even as a young reader, The Tripods started me thinking about questions of freedom and of the importance of challenging authority, even when (especially when) it conflicts with the entrenched views of those around you. This is made clear early in The White Mountains when Will worries about his impending Capping Day:
“Only lately, as one could begin to count the months remaining, had there been any doubts in my mind; and the doubts had been ill-formed and difficult to sustain the weight of adult assurance.”
The White Mountains
I would argue freedom, questioning authority and the desire to travel are all human rights, and in this book all are denied by the alien rulers. Christopher is, I believe, warning us we must be careful not to allow our own rulers to fool us into trading these precious rights for a feeling of safety from outsiders. As Julius, the leader of the Free Men says:
“Free men may govern themselves in different ways. Living and working together, they must surrender some part of their freedom. The difference between us and the Capped is that we surrender it voluntarily, gladly, to a common cause, while their minds are enslaved to alien creatures who treat them as cattle. There is another difference, also. It is that, with free men, what is yielded is yielded for a time only. It is done by consent, not by force or trickery. And consent is something that can always be withdrawn.”
The Pool of Fire
And, without spoiling the ending, the trilogy finishes on a melancholy, unsentimental note, but one that feels true, for humanity is, sadly, quite capable of conflict and division without the intervention of aliens.
As both a reader and an author, I continue to cherish The Tripods, and I hope new generations find both pleasure and meaning in the books.
And, of course, if someone could produce a new adaptation, and this time adapt all three books, that would be good too…