1967’s The White Mountains, 1968’s The City of Gold and Lead, and 1968’s The Pool of Fire constitute John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy.
A century after the coming of the Tripods, humans are few, backward, and well-behaved. It has been decades since any human posed a serious threat to Tripod rule.
That’s about to change.
Will Parker’s childhood in the small village of Wherton was unremarkable. Nothing about him suggested that he would not, as all the older children of the town did before him, submit to Capping at age thirteen, which would transform him into a docile, well-behaved adult. A conversation with a traveller (pretending to be one of the unlucky few whose minds are broken by Capping) sets Will on an entirely different path. There is a refuge far beyond the channel that divides England from Europe. The only trick is reaching it.
The initial stages of Will’s escape go well. For certain values of well; Will’s cousin Henry insists on coming along. The English Channel is no great barrier; the resistance has a network of agents. Things become more difficult once they reach Europe, where two boys who cannot even speak the local languages stand out as curiosities to be detained and if necessary, forcibly Capped. It’s only thanks to Jean-Paul, nicknamed Beanpole, that Will and Henry’s quest does not come to an abrupt end.
Disease brings Will down. Desperate, hoping to save Will’s life, Beanpole and Henry throw themselves on the mercy of the local French aristocrats. The aristocrats unexpectedly prove to be kind and generous hosts. The Château de la Tour Rouge’s generosity may be the greatest trap of all; once recovered, will the protagonist continue towards the secret redoubt in the White Mountains? Will he still have the desire to do so?
It’s odd that humans know next to nothing of the entities who conquered Earth a century ago. The resistance leaders have a bold plan: send their best to compete in the games whose winner will receive the dubious privilege of serving in the mysterious Tripod cities. If at least one boy can make his way into an alien stronghold, perhaps he can learn something of use to the resistance.
A skilled boxer, Will is an obvious choice — or he would be if he were not so hot-headed and impulsive. His companions’ greatest challenges will be their opponents. Will’s will be his own temperament.
Infiltrating the alien city is only the first, perhaps the smallest, problem. Nobody has ever returned from an alien city. The lucky few who gain admission to the City of Gold and Lead will find out why.
Although his companion was seemingly lost, Will returned from the City of Gold and Lead with several pieces of vital information. Humanity’s masters are indeed aliens from a distant world. More importantly, the Masters are planning to radically alter the Earth to make it congenial for the Masters and utterly uninhabitable for Earth’s native life. Most importantly, the interstellar fleet conveying the necessary equipment is on its way. The resistance had hoped to have decades to ready their attack on the Masters. They have just four years.
The number of Masters on Earth is comparatively small, concentrated in just three cities. Small teams might be able to infiltrate all three cities. They might even be able to exploit the centralized life support systems of each city to disable the Masters long enough to destroy their cities. At least, they might if they had any idea to what substances the Masters’ alien biochemistry was vulnerable.
If infiltration fails? Then the only option is a frontal assault, using newly rediscovered weapons against an alien arsenal whose capabilities are unknown to the humans. Heavy losses are certain. Victory is not.
Even if the humans somehow prevail, that leaves the greatest challenge of all. Without the threat of the Masters to unify humanity, will the peoples of the Earth simply fall back into their old evil ways of mutual distrust and warfare?
There are almost no women of note in this series. The one who does play a major role in the first book serves to motivate Will by her death at the tentacles of the Masters. She is offhandedly murdered so that she can be preserved and displayed as one might display remarkable butterflies and flowers.
As was my custom as a teenager, I came at these in the wrong order. As surprising as it may seem in these modern days ‚when libraries no doubt stock all of the books in a series, with the order clearly indicated on the spine, in the 1970s libraries — at least the ones to which I had access — were really keen on stocking intermediate volumes over initial volumes. Thus the first Dune book I read was Dune Messiah. Thus I read Foundation and Empire before Foundation. Thus, I began the Tripods series with The City of Gold and Lead. This meant I didn’t seek out the other two books immediately, because The City of Gold and Lead on its own is pretty grim reading,
Christopher no doubt plotted the trilogy out in advance, because each of the three books serves a different purpose in the work as a whole. The White Mountains introduces us to the world under the Tripods from the perspective of an ignorant boy; it’s a defeated world but the novel is careful to make it clear the situation is not hopeless; Will, Henry and Beanpole manage to defeat a Tripod before escaping to the Alps. The City of Gold and Lead reveals that in fact the situation is much worse than it seemed in the first book. While Will (barely) manages to escape with this information, he is forced to leave an ally behind to face abuse and almost certain death. It’s not until The Pool of Fire, which my library did not have, that the series pays off in a series of escalating attacks on the enemy.
Even with the final payoff, this is a grimmer book than I was used to reading as a kid. Christopher has no faith that humans would have learned anything from a century of oppression. The resistance is plagued with counterproductive rivalries as people prioritize their own status over the greater struggle. Once the Masters are no longer a factor, factionalism takes centre stage .
It is not so surprising, therefore, that Christopher wrote a protagonist amply supplied with personal failings. Will is headstrong and short-tempered, something that very nearly prevents him from carrying out his mission in The City of Gold and Lead. He starts off so fearfully ignorant of the world that it does not occur to him that monolingualism is a crippling disability on the Continent. He undervalues his allies and makes a poor showing of trying to recruit Arabs, who he dismisses as naturally subservient — something he concludes without bothering to learn their language.
Will does learn better, though, and perhaps that’s the hopeful element on which the series rests. The resistance shears along natural fracture lines but at least the series ends with Will and his friends resolved to bring Humanity back together. If hot-tempered Will can learn better, if he can forge bonds with people unlike him, people he initially disliked, then perhaps others can too.
1: One wonders if Christopher had Winston Churchill’s ouster at the end of WWII in mind as a model for the eventual fall of resistance leader Julius.