If the most potent elements of a creative work are those left unseen and unstated, then The White Mountains – the first of John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy – should be dangerously intoxicating. Actual white mountains, for a start, are at a premium, only fleetingly glimpsed at the book’s conclusion. Even the Tripods themselves are restricted to fleeting cameos. But the existence of both – offering tantalising refuge and dire peril respectively – overshadow and drive the events of this languidly atmospheric novel.
The White Mountains was famously adapted into BBC1’s high-profile 1984 series The Tripods, a show that has always felt decidedly autumnal to me: onscreen and in real life, it began in late summer, but was swiftly subsumed by lengthening shadows, gathering mists and a bit of lingering resentment that it had stolen Doctor Who‘s slot. The premise of both book and series is not an unfamiliar one: in fact, it’s remarkably similar to that of Peter Dickinson’s near-contemporaneous novel The Weathermonger, reviewed last month. In the near future, mankind has reverted to a pre-industrial, almost medieval existence, with the remnants of more advanced 20th century technology lying overgrown and obsolete, a mystery to the generation whose ancestors have forsaken it. This near-apocalypse has been brought about by a global alien invasion: the Tripods are gigantic three-legged war machines who have enslaved and forcibly regressed the remains of a decimated human race.
This enslavement is enforced by the ritual of “Capping”. With major cities deserted, pockets of humanity are living out what seems – on the surface – to be a rather pleasant existence in small, rural communities. There are cakes galore. The fly in the ointment being that, every summer, a Tripod arrives to weld a metal mesh – the “Cap” itself – onto the skulls of every freshly-turned 14-year-old, rendering them effectively lobotomised: superficially content, but also unquestioning, subservient and both intellectually and emotionally compromised. Insert a joke about the football fans or political movement of your choice here.
When Will Parker, a free-thinking 13-year-old in the Hampshire village of Wherton, sees the effects of Capping on his previously headstrong cousin Jack, he begins to dread his own forthcoming Capping Day, and these doubts attract the attention of a travelling vagrant, Ozymandias. Feigning madness brought on by a failed Capping and loudly quoting Shelley and Shakespeare to baffled villagers, Ozymandias is – in fact – recruiting for a band of rebels planning to overthrow the rule of the Tripods. Inconveniently for Will, they’re not in Winchester or Southampton: they’re hiding in the French Alps, hence the book’s title, and the ensuing journey will be long and arduous, made all the more trying by the insistence of another cousin – the loud and boorish Henry – on coming along for the ride.
Crossing the channel on a trawler helmed by extravagantly bearded collaborator Captain Curtis, the boys are joined by a lanky, thoughtful French teenager, Jean-Paul – or “Beanpole” as he is swiftly nicknamed – who is concerned that Capping will curtail his own thirst for knowledge and passion for invention. He has taught himself English from pre-invasion books, built his own pair of wonky spectacles, and harbours ambitions of constructing a hot air balloon. In the absence of the latter, the boys form a mismatched trio and set out on foot along the length of France, passing through both an eerily deserted Paris and the idyllic Chateau De La Tour Rouge, where Will – overcome by a dangerous fever – is looked after by the generous, friendly Comte and Comtesse and their teenager daughter, Eloise. With whom he inevitably falls in love.
Those seeking boundless thrills and derring-do may come away disappointed. The White Mountains is not high-octane. In fact, it’s barely low-octane. In truth, if all references to the Tripods and the White Mountain freedom-fighters were excised from the book, it would still make for a substantial novella about three teenage runaways exploring rural France. The Chateau section in particular is more reminiscent of Alain-Fournier’s dream-like coming-of-age novel Le Grande Meaulnes than any of the science-fiction written by Christopher’s contemporaries. But when the darkness of the alien apocalypse intrudes, it is all the more shocking for its scarcity: sea-bound Tripods sink tug-boats on the English Channel for sport; Paris is filled with queues of rusted cars, the skeletal remains of their drivers still in situ. The remains of a “lost” 20th century future protrude into this new reality, too: the boys frequently travel along abandoned railway lines (“Schmand-Fair”) without every really understanding the nature of their original use, and delight in finding working wristwatches among the remains of a Parisienne jeweller’s shop.
And the most shocking of these dark intrusions: the caring, intelligent Eloise – as Will discovers, to his shock – has already been Capped. This, coupled with the Comte’s state intention to adopt Will as his son, leaves the youngster with an overwhelming conundrum: what is the price of freedom? Continuing on his journey to the White Mountains leaves him facing certain hardship and a likely early death at the hands (or stomping feet) of a vengeful Tripod. By contrast, the worst possible outcome of staying at the Chateau and accepting his own Capping are a life of opulent wealth, unwavering contentment and sun-drenched days spent sprawled on the ornamental gardens with Eloise. Ultimately, a single, shocking, unforseen consequence of Eloise’s subservience to the Tripods drives this temptation out of his mind, but the anguish of this moral dilemma – is happiness valid if it is artificially imposed? – is at the heart of The White Mountains. This more than compensates for the lack of rampaging alien hordes and, indeed, a conclusion that is little more than a gentle nudge to get a move on and read the next book in the trilogy.
POINT OF ORDER: I’m actually really fond of the TV series. The first series began airing the week after I’d started secondary school, and – like the book – unfolded at a languid pace, a little moment of weekly brightness during a period of my life that felt unsettled and uncertain. And my friend Bill Fellows plays Mortiz in the second series, and he’s a fine actor and a lovely chap. It’s all available here:
MUSTINESS REPORT: My 1984 reprint is slathered with imagery and branding from the TV series, and I bought it from a bookstall at a fund-raising day held by my school in autumn 1985, probably around the time the second series was airing. It’s a 1/10 on the Mustiness Front… my own books, naturally, smell only of lavender and unfettered youthful optimism.