THE TIMELESS classic The Chrysalids (also published as Rebirth in some countries) is morally ambiguous even by Wyndham standards. The narrator David Strorm lives in a technologically stunted, post-nuclear dystopia. At least the simple, rural society appears that way to anyone thought to be mutant. David and a number of other local children are bound together by a secret telepathic power that proves a double-edged sword. The eldest child Michael is the de facto leader of the group, but it is Rosalind, David’s level-headed lover, who is the real hero of The Chrysalids.
David lives in the enemy camp, since his puritanical father Joseph Strorm holds a fanatical suspicion of mutants in plant, animal, or ‘human’ form. The cause of these widespread mutations is presumably a long past nuclear war, and Christianity has also warped into one of its more intolerant incarnations.
Unlike most of Wyndham’s books, Chrysalids is not set in England, and for once the British are not even mentioned. A now temperate Labrador forms the backdrop (the concept of Canada is buried deep in the past), and large cat like predators roam the wilder regions of the island, or ‘Fringes’ as they are known. However, the real conflict is between the ‘Norms’ and the ‘Mutants’.
Chrysalids is his most richly-detailed novel, and has many important characters. The reader is undoubtedly on the side of the persecuted children, but this is a tale of survival. In what turns out to be a three-sided struggle, there is little room for compassion, especially towards the end of this compulsive and unforgettable adventure.
The Origins of Chrysalids
Although the effects of radiation play a role in Web, The Outward Urge has a futuristic setting, and genetic mutation is one of the many themes of Triffids, Chrysalids does not read like any of these. The book was published in 1955, but its conception can be traced to the publication of the short story The Wheel , two years earlier. Following a distant armaegeddon similar to the Tribulation of Chrysalids, the wheel has been banned, and become an anaethema. The terrifying combination of ignorance, intolerance, blind faith, and Ludditism is echoed provocatively in Chrysalids. The two chief characters in The Wheel are clearly templates for David and Uncle Axel, indeed the boy is even named Davie.
In terms of physical settings, the capital city of Rigo, is surely a reference to the real-life Newfoundland town of Rigolet of the eastern coast of Canada.
My Thoughts on the Ending
There are many moral nuances in The Chrysalids. We read of acts of kindness and unrequited heroism from ‘Norms’ and ‘Mutants’ alike. Wyndham hints at a quiet resistance amongst the people of Waknuk, and we know for certain that Uncle Axel, and Rosalind’s mother are both collaborating with the official foe. Conversely the Sealanders, supposedly the ‘good guys’, perpetrate a mini holocaust.
Alan Ervin’s murder is a prelude to the harsh actions taken by The Chrysalids against both the pursuing ‘Norms’ and the Fringe-dwelling ‘Mutants’. It is the youngest, Petra, who seems to question the obliteration of the penultimate chapter, through the use of a super-weapon:
Petra announced in a subdued, somewhat expostulatory, tone:
'That was very horrid.'
Her eyes dwelt reprovingly and curiously on the white-suited figure.
Yet the Sealander woman is able to soothe their unease with a well-rehearsed speech. The children lived in fear of persecution for a long time, and were then hunted like animals in a truly nerve-jangling, extended chase. As a result they become somewhat desensitised to the pain of their foes, and even the physical Mutants, who are not the outright enemy. Perhaps Wyndham’s wartime experiences influenced the direction of the plot. Our sympathies are always with The Children, but I feel the author is challenging us to think about the evils committed in a name of a good cause. The Allies claimed the moral authority in the Second World War, and most would agree that their victory was preferable to the alternative, however does that justify carpet-bombing Dresden, or atom-bombing Hiroshima? Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Chrysalids is the subtle and masterly way in which Wyndham develops the innocent, wronged children into young, cynical adults whose morals are less than impeccable.Personally I think the conclusion of Chrysalids is one of the most striking and memorable finales in English Literature.
Characters in The Chrysalids
David Strorm: David is a typical Wyndham hero; modest and fair-minded. Most of the leading males in Wyndham’s books are mature men, even in Chocky the narrator is a father, yet Chrysalids is unique in employing a boy as the protagonist. Wyndham may have pictured his own halcyon days at Bedales School in rural Hampshire, and his brief career in agriculture, as he plotted David’s wanderings in the Labrador countryside. When David enters puberty, we are possibly given a candid glimpse into the writer’s past.
Rosalind Morten: Rosalind is an ostensibly plucky, shrewd alpha-female with an underlying maternal streak, and she may inherit these characteristics from a mother more loyal to her daughter than the State. By herself Rosalind kills one of the Waknuk hunters, and appears to be a better shot with a bow than David; it is she who hits the enemy horse at the beginning of chapter 13. Yet she displays a motherly attitude to Petra, not to mention her lover David.
Wyndham does not usually dwell as much on the qualities of his leading women, usually letting their actions reveal the personality. Josella (Triffids)and Phyliss (Kraken) are both attractive, intelligent blondes but the adolescent David gives vent to the most intimate writing in any of Wyndham’s novels:
‘Rosalind was calling me; the real Rosalind, the one who dwelt inside, and showed herself too seldom. The other, the practical, capable one, was her own convincing creation, not herself. I had seen her begin to build it when she was a sensitive, fearful, yet determined child. She became aware by instinct, perhaps sooner than the rest of us, that she was in a hostile world, and deliberately equipped herself to face it. The armour had grown slowly, plate by plate. I had seen her find her weapons and become skilled with them, watched her construct a character so thoroughly and wear it so constantly that for spells she almost deceived herself.
I loved the girl one could see. I loved her tall slim shape, the poise of her neck, her small, pointed breasts, her long, slim legs: and the way she moved, and the sureness of her hands, and her lips when she smiled. I loved the bronze-gold hair that felt like heavy silk in one's hand, her satin-skinned shoulders, her velvet cheeks: and the warmth of her body, and the scent of her breath.’
Joseph Strorm: Son of the equally fundamentalist Elais, Jopesh’s religion is ingrained in his sinews. The Strorm family are founding fathers of Waknuk, and though Wyndham sets the book in post-apocalyptic Canada, it seems likely that the Puritan pioneers of the United States are the influence behind the powerful character of Joseph Strorm. Unlike his wife and daughter Mary, who possess some humanity, Joseph has no compunction in hunting down his own children. In fact his extremism even upsets the likes of the Inspector and his relative Angus Morten. Both these men benefit from the atmosphere of fear the hangs over Waknuk, but still display a pragmatism that Joseph will never be able to comprehend. Mr Strorm’s paranoia may well stem from his own brother’s physical abnormalities.
Uncle Axel: Axel, a key ally of the children, does not appear until the fourth chapter, and is barely mentioned in the last third of the book. Nevertheless, he is one of the most important characters in The Chrysalids. It is through him that Wyndham gives us snippets of information about the wider world. Uncle Axel is an old seadog, who has travelled much of the Eastern coast of North America. He recounts the Badlands, and the pockets of strange human life found beyond its reaches, but it is his unorthodox opinions that have a more profound effect on David. He encourages, as well as protects, his nephew, and without him the children would be doomed:
'You lost your faith?' I inquired:
Uncle Axel snorted, and pulled a face.
'Preacher-words!' he said, and thought for a moment. 'I'm telling you,' he went on, 'that a lot of people saying that a thing is so, doesn't prove it is so. I'm telling you that nobody, nobody really knows what is the true image. They all think they know -- just as we think we know, but, for all we can prove, the Old People themselves may not have been the true image.' He turned, and looked long and steadily at me again.
' So,' he said, 'how am I, and how is anyone to be sure that this "difference" that you and Rosalind have does not make you something nearer to the true image than other people are? Perhaps the Old People were the image: very well then, one of the things they say about them is that they could talk to one another over long distances. Now we can't do that -- but you and Rosalind can. Just think that over, Davie. You two may be nearer to the image than we are,'
Sophie Wender: She shares with Rosalind both fiestiness and an intense loyalty to David. Sophie defends him against Alan Ervin, and towards the end of the book, kills her ‘own kind’ in support of him. Unsurprisingly, the two females do not get on when they finally meet. Sophie, who has been sterilised by the ‘Norms’, has an understandable jealousy of Rosalind, but also stands up for her abnormal-looking mutant lover ‘Spider-Man’. Her descent from David’s happy playmate in the first chapter, to a wretched vagabond, is one of the most sorrowful themes of the novel.
The Other Chrysalids: There are six other ‘gifted’ children outside the Strorm and Morten familes; Michael, Anne, Rachel, Katherine, Sally, and Mark. The eldest is Michael who is one of the first to appreciate just what lengths the children may be forced to resort to in order to survive: ‘This is a war, between our kind and theirs. We didn't start it -- we've just as much right to exist as they have.’
During the extended flight of David, Rosalind and Petra, Michael and Mark act as fifth columnists, volunteering for the party intent on hunting down the children, whilst all the time informing their kin of their latest movements. Michael then chivalrously accepts that he can not yet escape to Sealand, and remains instead with Rachel.
Sisters Anne and Rachel contrast sharply. Anne’s love of the unpleasant Alan Ervin is the catalyst of her downfall. As Uncle Axel observes: ‘There's a type of woman who isn't content until she's made herself some man's slave and doormat -- put herself completely in his power. That's the kind she was.’
Whereas Anne wishes to integrate herself in the society that has the potential to destroy her, Rachel has fully grasped the perilous situation of the Chryslaids.
Sally and Katherine are the first of the secret children to be discovered. They resist integration, until tortured, and Wyndham never explains their eventual fate.
ChrysalyricsWyndham's book inspired musician Paul Kantner, of Jefferson Airplane fame, to write the title track of the 1968 album Crown of Creation. The LP was recorded at the height of the Californian psychedelic rockers influence, and creativity. Four pages from the end of the story during the Sealand woman's disquistion the following lines are uttered: 'In loyalty to their kind they cannot tolerate our rise; in loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction'. One verse of Crown of Creation reads thus: 'In loyalty to their kind They cannot tolerate our minds In loyalty to our kind We cannot tolerate their obstruction!'
Excerpt from Chrysalids
The following is an excerpt from Chapter Five, as David and Sophie are discovered fishing together:
A few days later we went there again. We stood the jar on the flat stone beside our shoes while we fished, and industriously scampered back to it now and then with our catch, oblivious of all else until a voice said:
'Hullo, there, David!'
I looked up, aware of Sophie standing rigid behind me.
The boy who had called stood on the bank, just above the rock where our things lay. I knew him. Alan, the son of John Ervin, the blacksmith; about two years older than I was. I kept my head.
'Oh, hullo, Alan,' I said, unencouragingly.
I waded to the rock and picked up Sophie's shoes.
'Catch!' I called as I threw them to her.
One she caught, the other fell into the water, but she retrieved it.
'What are you doing?' Alan asked.
I told him we were catching the shrimp-things. As I said it I stepped casually out of the water on to the rock. I had never cared much for what I knew of Alan at the best of times, and he was by no means welcome now.
'They're no good. Fish are what you want to go after,' he said contemptuously.
He turned his attention to Sophie, who was wading to the bank, shoes in hand, some yards farther up.
'Who's she?' he inquired,
I delayed answering while I put on my shoes. Sophie had disappeared into the bushes now.
'Who is she?' he repeated. 'She's not one of the -- ' He broke off suddenly. I looked up and saw that he was staring down at something beside me. I turned quickly. On the flat rock was a footprint, still undried. Sophie had rested one foot there as she bent over to tip her catch into the jar. The mark was still damp enough to show the print of all six toes clearly. I kicked over the jar. A cascade of water and struggling shrimps poured down the rock, obliterating the footprint, but I knew, with a sickly feeling, that the harm had been done.
' Ho!' said Alan, and there was a gleam in his eye that I did not like. 'Who is she?' he demanded again.
'She's a friend of mine,' I told him.
'What's her name?'
I did not answer that.
'Huh, I'll soon find out, anyway,' he said with a grin.
'It's no business of yours,' I told him.
He took no notice of that; he had turned and was standing looking along the bank towards the point where Sophie had disappeared into the bushes.
I ran up the stone and flung myself on him. He was bigger than I was, but it took him by surprise, and we went down together in a whirl of arms and legs. All I knew of fighting was what I had learnt from a few sharp scuffles. I simply hit out, and did my furious best. My intention was to gain a few minutes for Sophie to put her shoes on and hide; if she had a little start, he would never be able to find her, as I knew from experience. Then he recovered from his first surprise and got in a couple of blows on my face which made me forget about Sophie and sent me at it, tooth and nail, on my own account.
We rolled back and forth on a patch of turf. I kept on hitting and struggling furiously, but his weight started to tell. He began to feel more sure of himself, and I, more futile. However, I had gained something: I'd stopped him going after Sophie straight away. Gradually he got the upper hand, presently he was sitting astride of me, pummelling me as I squirmed. I kicked out and struggled, but there wasn't much I could do but raise my arms to protect my head. Then, suddenly, there was a yelp of anguish, and the blows ceased. He flopped down on top of me. I heaved him off, and sat up to see Sophie standing there with a large rough stone in her hand.
'I hit him,' she said proudly, and with a touch of wonderment. 'Do you think he's dead?'
Hit him she certainly had. He lay white-faced and still, with the blood trickling down his cheek, but he was breathing all right, so he certainly wasn't dead.
'....there was in the original (Chrysalids draft) a point where a man had his hat knocked off, and he was seen to have a third eye on the top of his head. Well there's no reason why he shouldn't have a third eye, it just has an unpleasant taste.' John Wyndham on the self-ordained limits of his genetic mutations.
Is Chrysalids your favourite Wyndham novel? Why not cast your vote on the WyndhamWeb polls?