The fictional world of John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, published in 1957, is a very long way from that of Lord of the Flies. But, like Golding, Wyndham is primarily concerned with fundamental questions about the future of the human race – questions for which the figure of the child provides a useful and challenging focus.
The action begins when all the inhabitants of the small English village of Midwich suddenly fall unconscious. When they come round several hours later, they seem unaffected, but gradually all women of child-bearing age in the village are discovered to be pregnant. They all give birth on the same day; and their children share an unusual appearance, including glowing golden eyes, pale skin and platinum blond hair. The children develop unnaturally quickly, and they can communicate telepathically with each other: as one learns something, so do the others. Eventually, they abandon the homes of their adoptive parents for a school run by the Ministry of Defence, where they are taught by a local man, Professor Gordon Zellaby. For the most part, the children remain silent about their motivations. However, there is a series of increasingly violent encounters with the villagers, in which the children telepathically force their attackers to turn their weapons on themselves. Meanwhile, Zellaby learns from the Ministry about the existence of other villages with similar groups of children. While most have died, the Soviet Union has destroyed its own brood when it became apparent that the children’s powers were too much for it to control. Ultimately, Zellaby decides he must do the same: he hides a bomb in his projection equipment, and detonates it while showing the children an educational film, killing himself and all of the children.
On the basis of this summary, The Midwich Cuckoos might sound like an action-packed sci-fi yarn: sinister, mind-controlling aliens attack a peaceful English village, and engage in a violent struggle for survival. In fact, it is something rather different. Much of the action takes place ‘offstage’, and is reported by the characters at second hand, almost in the manner of a Greek tragedy: for much of the time, the reader learns about what is happening indirectly, rather than actually ‘witnessing’ events. As the novel proceeds, increasing amounts of the narrative are taken up with lengthy speculative dialogues between Zellaby and the other characters, not so much about why these strange events are occurring, but about their wider significance for the future of the human race. At first, Zellaby is portrayed as academically pompous and impractical, and his interpretations are challenged, but his voice ultimately becomes the dominant one. John Wyndham himself described the book as a ‘logical fantasy’ – a kind of ‘what would happen if…’ story that he perceived to derive from the work of H.G. Welles. It is very much a novel of ideas rather than of realistic characters or emotions.
Wyndham was famously (and dismissively) described by the science fiction writer Brian Aldiss as ‘the master of the cosy catastrophe’. However, this is to understate the dystopian, even apocalyptic elements of his writing. As in Lord of the Flies, it is the prospect of the destruction of the human race – through the atomic bomb, or (in this case) in a struggle for dominance with a more powerful species – that motivates the story. And, like Golding’s novel, The Midwich Cuckoos seems to have little faith in the value of liberal democracy as a means of resisting such a fate.
Politically, Wyndham is probably best described as an old-fashioned liberal, but his ideas were particularly informed by a version of Darwinism that is apparent throughout the novel, and indeed in his other works such as The Crysalids and Day of the Triffids. Nature, Zellaby informs us, is no cosy matter: ‘each species must strive to survive, and that it will do, by every means in its power, however foul’. The cuckoo-children have a shared consciousness, a form of ‘collective-individualism’ that makes them more efficient and powerful than humans. Ultimately, they cannot be brought under the control of human laws, and so they have to be exterminated. Zellaby perceives himself to be involved in a ‘primaeval’ struggle for the preservation of the species; and in this context, liberal scruples are merely a handicap.
Thus, after it emerges that the Russians have destroyed their own group of children (along with the inhabitants of the remote town in which they were living), one of the Midwich children explains to him why this will prove more difficult for the British:
In Russia, the individual exists to serve the State; if he puts self above State, he is a traitor, and it is the duty of the community to protect itself from traitors whether they are individuals, or groups. In this case, then, biological duty and political duty coincided…
But for you, the issue is less clear. Not only has your will to survive been much more deeply submerged by convention, but you have the inconvenience here of the idea that the State exists to serve the individuals who compose it. Therefore your consciences will be troubled by the thought that we have “rights”.
Another child goes on to explain how governments, whether of Left or Right, will be constrained by political expediency and the need to appeal to conflicting groups of voters, and will ultimately be unable to destroy them in the way the Russians have done. Zellaby defines this as a ‘moral dilemma’: it is humans’ duty to exterminate the children, because they represent a threat to the species; yet human culture presents ‘scruples about the ruthless liquidation of unarmed minorities’; and moving the children elsewhere would be a form of ‘evasive procrastination which lacks any moral courage at all.’ Liberal democracy, it seems, is ill-equipped to cope with such a challenge; and Zellaby’s ultimate choice, while on one level an act of heroism, also accords with the children’s Darwinian logic. (Again, there are notable parallels here with Lord of the Flies.)
In this context, the figure of the child becomes a vehicle – even a cipher – for these wider concerns. These are, self-evidently, not normal children, a fact that is signaled in the novel by the use of the capital letter: they are the Children. They appear attentive to adults, but they cannot be controlled by adult discipline, and they develop alarmingly quickly (although it should be noted that their appearance is also disturbingly Aryan, especially in the film version). As they mature, the children display fewer and fewer child-like characteristics, aside from a continuing taste for candy, which Zellaby gives them just before he detonates his bomb: in doing so, he reminds himself that ‘they are still children – with a small “c” – too’.
Along with the critic Miles Link, one might see these fictional Children as a manifestation of parental fears of the power of a new, post-War generation – a generation that has not known war, that is better educated and healthier than their parents. In this account, The Midwich Cuckoos is a kind of early warning of the generational conflicts of the decade to come. Alternatively, like Steven Bruhm, we might regard them as examples of the ‘possessed’ (or ‘self-possessed’) children that frequently recur in gothic science fiction and horror genres (The Omen, The Exorcist, Poltergeist): they might be seen to represent a kind of adult terror of children’s power, and even a form of child-hatred. Ultimately, however, I would argue that their status as ‘children’ hardly matters. As Zellaby observes, they are not invading Martians (as in Welles), nor indeed are they menacing alien ‘pod-people’ (as in the contemporaneous Invasion of the Body Snatchers); but they are similarly understood as representatives of a superior alien species.
The Midwich Cuckoos was filmed as Village of the Damned (directed by Wolf Rilla, released in 1960). The film generated a sequel, Children of the Damned (1964), which bears little relation to the novel, and an American remake, directed by John Carpenter in 1995. The 1960 film was due to be produced by MGM in Hollywood, until religious groups objected to the portrayal of the virgin births; it was eventually made in the UK. Compared with the book, the narration of the film is much more conventional. Details are obviously missing, but the viewer is shown events directly as they occur rather than being told about them retrospectively or at second hand. As a result, the story is much more taut and economical: the film is a mere 74 minutes long. Zellaby, played with characteristic British stiff-upper-lip by George Sanders, does engage in debate with other characters, but Wyndham’s philosophical speculations are almost wholly absent. Here, Zellaby becomes a much more familiar science-fiction stereotype, the voice of ‘science’: he wants to study the children on the grounds that this will advance scientific knowledge, and potentially solve the world’s problems.
The film was also marketed as conventional science fiction. ‘Beware the stare that threatens all mankind’, booms the American voice on the trailer. The children are ‘demon forces of another world’: ‘could any force on earth stop their supernatural fury?’ Apparently the UK censors removed the ‘glowing eyes’ effect superimposed on the children at key moments, although it was retained in the US version; and it appears in the final shot of the film, as pairs of eyes float away from the burning school, presumably flying off to generate mayhem elsewhere…
The novels and films considered in this essay have been fairly disparate, covering a range of media genres. All of them centre on representations of children – although with the exception of Mandy, they seem to tell us fairly little about the realities of children’s lives in the period in which they were made. In all of them, the figure of the child is used primarily as a cipher for broader hopes and fears about social change, and even about the future of the human race itself. If the optimism of Mandy has to be earned through a process of struggle, the others are much more profoundly pessimistic.
And yet in different ways, each of these texts reflects some of the underlying tensions of the period – a period that is often represented as stable and secure. The shadow of the Second World War hangs over Mandy, while the threat of nuclear destruction lies just off-stage in Lord of the Flies and the Midwich Cuckoos. And even though it is mostly set in another historical period, The Go-Between seems to be informed by its author’s nostalgic critique of the present, twentieth century world. In these respects, the figure of the child is a kind of metaphor for concerns that are quite particular to their time. How this cultural use of the child both recurs and evolves will be considered in subsequent essays on Growing Up Modern.