The White Mountains - John Christopher

The Tripods #1

15th July 2014

“Massive alien machines called the Tripods had ruled Earth for hundreds of years and enslaved the minds and bodies of most adults through the silvery caps they made them wear.  Determined to escape the ritual Capping ceremony, Will Parker runs away, heading for the distant White Mountains and the small rebel camp there, hoping to join their desperate attempts to overthrow the rule of the Tripods.  The journey is long, the missions dangerous and the hopes of survival very slim…”

The year was 1993.  I was 10 years old, and I was spending the weekend with my grandparents.  Despite being a bookworm, I didn’t bring any books with me, as I had been promised a trawl through my dad’s old books.  Little did I know that one book (or more accurately 3 books) would hold my attention more than the others, and remain in my ‘favourites list’ well into my adult life.

The White Mountains is the first book of the fantastic Tripod trilogy by John Christopher, published between 1967-1968.  The version of the book I read actually collected the trilogy into one volume, allowing me to read the trilogy back-to-back like one long novel.  The front and back cover had scenes from the TV series commissioned in the 1980s, which added a very retro feel to it (though it looks slightly dated now!).

The back cover specifically had a picture of one of the Tripods, which brings to mind the most famous of sci-fi novels featuring alien invasion, The War of the Worlds.  As a young boy, an adventure sci-fi story like this was just what I was looking for, and this book didn’t disappoint.

The Tripods – mysterious and frightening 3-legged mechanical monsters standing several stories high - rule the earth and have done for centuries.  The origins of the Tripods is unknown initially, and any queries from inquisitive children is hushed by the already Capped adults. 

All children are eventually are Capped, marking their progression into adulthood, which also surrenders their ability for free thought to the terrifying Tripods.  It involves being pulled inside the body one of the machines by a long metal tentacle, and a metal mesh cap being placed on your head.  There are sometimes complications with the process, resulting in Vagrants; men and women who experience a mental retardation, and who spend their remaining days speaking nonsense, and wandering from town to town. 

The first book tells the story of Will Parker, a frustrated miller’s son living in a small rural town called Wherton in England.  Will’s cousin Jack, who also is his only friend, on the eve of his own Capping poses some intriguing questions about the origin of the Tripods and the former greatness of the human race.  However once Jack is capped, he no longer holds any opinions in this vein, and drifts apart from Will.  As his own Capping ceremony grows closer, a now friendless Will begins to question his future under Tripod rule. 

Enter Ozymandias; a mysterious new Vagrant in town who latches on to Will and begins to answer some of those burning questions Will has.  There are still free-men, resistant to the Tripods rule, living in the fabled White Mountains; it lights a spark in Will.  Realising there is nothing for him in Wherton, Will decides to journey to the mountains in search of answers. 

Reluctantly he has to be accompanied on the journey by his other cousin Henry, who he despises.  Henry’s mother has recently died and has been living with Will’s family, which is how Henry happens to follow Will on the night he leaves Wherton for good.  Realising Henry could raise the alarm, Will accedes to him tagging along, although he will come to rely on Henry more than he ever thought possible.  Along the way they add a young bespectacled boy called Beanpole to their clique, after he gets them out of a difficult situation early on.

I always have seen a bit of myself in Will, a boy who is sometimes too hot-headed to make the right decision in a situation, and having to suffer the consequences for it.  Will is ultimately a “good guy”, after all, he has the future survival of mankind in his heart.  It is charming to see how his relationship with his comrades evolves as they journey towards the mountains, and how he reacts in unexpected settings. 

There is also a great sense of anticipation as they get nearer to their goal of reaching the outpost of rebel men, especially during a nervy walk through a post-apocalyptic Paris where their eyes are opened to the civilisations of the past. 

I am re-reading this book at the age of 31 and it is surely obvious by now that time has not dulled my impressions of the book; I’m happy to state that it still fills me with the same excitement it did when I was a kid.  While I grow older and my reading tastes grow ever more varied and challenging, I still like to escape every now and again to the books of my childhood.  At nearly 50 years old, the story has a timeless quality for me, in the same way The Hobbit or the Narnia books have, and fully deserves its place alongside those classic books on my own bookshelf. 

The fall of man has probably never been done better in young fiction, and will appeal to all ages for fans of the science-fiction and in particular dystopian genres.

Rating: 5/5 stars


For further reading I obviously recommend the other two books in the trilogy, where the story shifts to focus on just how mankind is going to take the planet back from the tyranny of the Tripods:

  • The City of Gold and Lead (The Tripods #2)
  • The Pool of Fire (The Tripods #3)

About the author:

Sam Youd (1922-2012), known professionally as Christopher Samuel Youd, was a British writer, best know for science fiction under the pseudonym John Christopher, including the novel The Death of Grass, and the young-adult novel series The Tripods.

Youd also wrote under variations of his own name and under the pseudonyms Stanley Winchester, Hilary Ford, William Godfrey, William Vine, Peter Graaf, Peter Nichols, and Anthony Rye.