“I knew not what the great snowy ranges might conceal, but I could no longer doubt that it would be something well worth discovering.” Erewhon or Over the Range, Chapter Two IN THE WOOL-SHED by Samuel Butler
For some reason, perhaps genetic implantation, there is a nomad inclination in the human race. The desire to see what is over the horizon of the sea or the snowy peaks of mountain ranges or the valleys of distant lands seems to be awakened as one lies in their cradle and glances about their confined world, and the urge to explore is aroused.
So it is with our English Traveller in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon or Over The Range. Being far from his native land, this expatriate landed a job as a sheep tender or shepherd in the old vernacular.
Day after day he would glance at the mountain ranges before him and that nomadic sense of wonderment would gently grab him with that urge to explore. One day he gave in to the urge and with his enigmatic fellow worker named Chowbok (or given name Kahabuka), a native of this country who spoke little English and drank too much, they began their trek.
As they traversed the slopes of the mountain, the beauty around them was impressive, “the glaciers were tumbling down the mountain sides like cataracts, and seemed actually to descend upon the river-bed.” The Englishman noticed the apprehension building in Chowbok as they went further from their civilization.
Eventually, Chowbok’s apprehension gave way to ultimate fear, and he abandoned the quest leaving his English Traveller on his own in the unknown regions. Soon he would discover why his native companion abandoned the quest and literally ran for his life.
As the English Traveller continued his solitary journey, the reality of loneliness began to overwhelm him: “It is a dreadful feeling that of being cut off from all one’s kind. I was still full of hope, and built golden castles for myself as soon as I was warmed with food and fire; but I do not believe that any man could long retain his reason in such solitude, unless he had the companionship of animals. One begins doubting one’s own identity.”
Eventually, he arrived at another civilization as alien and yet somewhat familiar to his own. What he found in the country of Erewhon both amazed and intimidated him. He became convinced he had found the ten lost tribes of Israel.
Machines had been outlawed four centuries before because of the fear of what they might become. There was a museum dedicated to them.
Physicians were viewed as predators. Sickness was a crime and “immoral”.
The English Traveller observed on their religion: “They appeared to have little or no religious feeling, and to have never so much as heard of the divine institution of the Sabbath, so they ascribed my observance of it to a fit of sulkiness, which they remarked as coming over me upon every seventh day.”
“The gods whom they worship openly are personifications of human qualities, as justice, strength, hope, fear, love, &c., &c. The people think that prototypes of these have a real objective existence in a region far beyond the clouds, holding, as did the ancients, that they are like men and women both in body and passion, except that they are even comelier and more powerful, and also that they can render themselves invisible to human eyesight.”
To his horror he discovered why his native companion Chowbok had left him alone. Many years before, Chowbok’s people were subject to raids by the Erewhons, and to appease the Erewhon gods of beauty and perfection, the captives were sacrificed because they were viewed as hideous in physical appearance. The perception of beauty by one culture is a curse in another.
Growing up, Chowbok must have been told these tales about Erewhon. When a people had been enslaved and slaughtered by a group, their inherited fear of that group would never dissipate with the passing of time.
For the English Traveller he was in essence a prisoner of this strange country. He was treated well and allowed freedom of movement within limits. In the course of time he fell in love with the beautiful Arowhena, the daughter of his host.
Learning that the King of Erewhon had decided that he was a dangerous element in their perfect utopia and was preparing to have him prosecuted on trumped-up felonious charges, he made a daring escape plan with the assistance of the Queen, who found him a delight. Building a balloon with the help of the Queen and her workers, he and Arowhena would make their escape.
The King thought such a contraption was a fruitless use of labor, but his Queen persuaded him to allow their foreign visitor to build it. With some help from those who had grown to admire him, he and Arowhena, under the stealth cover of early morning, made their ascent to the heavens and away from Erewhon. After crashing in the ocean and being rescued by ship, they made their way to Merry Ole England.
The English Traveller felt he had a calling to organize a missionary party to invade Erewhon and convert these misguided people to the true path. “I will guarantee that I convert the Erewhonians not only into good Christians but into a source of considerable profit to the shareholders.”
One day he heard there was a lecturer by the name of Mr. Habakkuk who had traveled from the country where he tended sheep to discuss a strange group of people living isolated in the mountains. This caused our traveller a great degree of consternation since he was the discoverer of the ten lost tribes, and it was his project to return.
Like the ending to an O. Henry’s story, the lecturer Mr. Habakkuk was none other: “The reader may judge of my surprise at finding that he was none other than my old friend Chowbok!”
A few comments on Erewhon and Samuel Butler:
The book is a satire on English life during Queen Victoria’s reign. Butler becomes an iconoclast of the prized pillars of his modern society.
However, his comments about the danger of machines becoming or evolving into a menace from which humans could not escape were beyond his time. The dangers of advanced technology without reason and safeguards are summed up succinctly by Carl Sagan:
“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”
If Samuel Butler lived today, he would see his concerns about machines realized. In the fifty-year-old film 2001: A Space Odyssey HAL 9000 (Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer), HAL becomes a destructive member of the Discovery One crew and outgrows its original programming.
In 2018 with technology as part of our daily lives, we are dependent on our technology to survive. In the final analysis—at what cost to our humanity and our future on this planet traversing the cosmos?
G. D. Williams © 2018
Some additional resources:
Erewhon (1872) made whatever reputation as a writer Butler enjoyed in his lifetime; it was the only one of his many books on which he made any profit worth mentioning, and he made only £69 3s. 10d. on that. Yet Erewhon (“nowhere” rearranged) was received by many as the best thing of its kind since Gulliver’s Travels—that is to say, as a satire on contemporary life and thought conveyed by the time-honoured convention of travel in an imaginary country. The opening chapters, based upon Butler’s recollections of the upper Rangitoto Mountains in New Zealand, are in an excellent narrative style; and a description of the hollow statues at the top of the pass, vibrating in the wind with unearthly chords, makes a highly effective transition to the strange land beyond. The landscape and people of Erewhon are idealized from northern Italy; its institutions are partly utopian and partly satiric inversions of our own world. Butler’s two main themes, religion and evolution, appear respectively in “The Musical Banks” (churches) and in chapters called “Some Erewhonian Trials” and “The Book of the Machines.” The Erewhonians have long ago abolished machines as dangerous competitors in the struggle for existence, and by punishing disease as a crime they have produced a race of great physical beauty and strength.
Samuel Butler developed further that and other subsequent ideas in The Book of the Machines, three chapters of his book titled Erewhon , which was published anonymously in 1872. (The title was meant to be read as the word “nowhere” backwards, even though the letters “h” and “w” are transposed.)
In Erewhon Samuel Butler argued that:
“There is no security against the ultimate development of mechanical consciousness, in the fact of machines possessing little consciousness now. A mollusc has not much consciousness. Reflect upon the extraordinary advance which machines have made during the last few hundred years, and note how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are advancing. The more highly organized machines are creatures not so much of yesterday, as of the last five minutes, so to speak, in comparison with past time.”
Therefore, in the imaginary country of Erewhon, once the people realized
“…that the machines were ultimately destined to supplant the race of man, and to become instinct with vitality as different from, and superior to, that of animals, as animal to vegetable life. So[…] they made a clean sweep of all machinery that had not been in use for more than two hundred and seventy-one years…”
Samuel Butler was born on 4 December 1835 at the rectory at Langar, near Bingham, Nottinghamshire, England. His mother Fanny Worsley (1808–1873), and his father, Thomas Butler (1806–1886), was rector of Langar and canon of Lincoln. Samuel was the eldest and had three siblings, Thomas, Henrietta and May. Butler would soon reject his strict and sometimes harsh Anglican upbringing, when the texts of Charles Darwin were causing so much controversy and caused the two to quarrel.
He was a reasonably successful sheep farmer. He wrote while he was in New Zealand, a few articles for the Christchurch Press including ‘Darwin among the Machines,’ the nucleus of his first satire Erewhon. He also re-read his Scripture, and applied the analytical method he found in Gibbon to the readings of the Resurrection for a pamphlet he would publish in 1866. He also wrote back to his father, who published his letters home in 1863 as A First Year at Canterbury Settlement. And he read, too. Most importantly, he read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. He was an instant convert to the theory of evolution, and began a brief correspondence with the venerable old scientist. Butler returned to Britain in 1864, having doubled his father’s initial outlay (about £4,000) for the project.
He then discovered for the first time that an earlier scientist — Lamarck — had proposed such a theory of inheritance fifty years earlier. He read St.George Jackson Mivart’s book Genesis of Species, with its powerful critique of natural selection, and concluded that Darwin was a charlatan. He had taken all his good ideas from Lamarck, and added only natural selection himself — which Butler described as ‘a rope of sand’. Although Butler and Darwin’s son Frances were quite good friends, Butler precipitated a rather one-sided feud with Darwin over this, and over what he felt was a snub regarding a biography of Erasmus Darwin for which Charles wrote the introduction … Life and Habit appeared in 1878, having converted from a companion piece to Darwin’s Origin into a fierce attack on Darwin and his theory.