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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Morlocks and Eloi

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century constitute a major period of what today we can understand as horror-science fiction publishing in english. The timing is far from coincidental. After all, this was also a time widely recognized as one of significant technological and social upheaval in much of the anglophone world of that period, and indeed much of europe. People had plenty of challenges to deal with elsewhere, not least because by that point europeans had managed to interfere with the governments and economies of the whole damned world. Meanwhile, those europeans and their colonizing relatives were beginning to feel considerable worry about backlash, most overtly in the case of those who held less power in the overall colonial systems, broadly the working and agricultural classes. Those with rather more power and more stable access to the necessities of life apparently found it almost impossible to speak bluntly about their anxieties. So it is that we get a period of remarkable novels starting in full earnest with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus first published in 1818, and staggering to an end at the turn of the century with books including Bram Stoker's 1897 Dracula and H.G. Wells' The Time Machine: An Invention first published in 1895. I describe this period of novel publishing in this way not because these novels are especially bad or good, but because that is the way it comes across, in the usual way of marketing fads. Obviously these novels, and the powerful themes that the not always solid writing took up held interest and meaning far beyond their first sales.

There is a surprising amount that Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein and Wells' Time Machine actually have to say to each other, both hinging upon the utter alienation of an individual in order to frame and produce the subsequent narrative. It is imperative for both novels that the primary narrators be fundamentally incapable of genuine communication and understanding with the other people they encounter, whether that be because of their own fault or that of the other people. This does not change how different these books are from each other, of course. Wollstonecraft Shelley's is far better written, and its staying power has proved greater. Yet The Time Machine has gifted (or cursed, depending on point of view) most science fiction readers with a go-to analogy for social inequality via the contrast Wells created between the two "races" of his novel, the Morlocks and Eloi. Whereas today he might have had the story handed back to him with directions to flesh it out and cut down its nightmare transcript quality, it went to print without any recorded severe issues. After all, Wells was an author of some reputation by the time of this first novel, and nothing smooths the path for a manuscript quite like proven sales in a capitalist system.

There is at least one other thing that Frankenstein and The Time Machine have in common apart from their staying power, being first novels for each of their authors, and taking up key areas of anxiety for their times. They are both perhaps best known via movie adaptations that are highly altered from their originals, so much so that many of us before reading these books may be convinced of the presence of memorable scenes that aren't actually there. For Frankenstein, the great example is the famous animation of the Creature by lightning, including Colin Clive's overwrought exultant screaming. For The Time Machine, the grand reveal of the nature of the Morlocks and their relationship with the Eloi. In the case of the Eloi and Morlocks, it is worth it to consider how many people's entire understanding of the original story is in fact created by the 1960 MGM movie.

Cropped still from the 1960 MGM film adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel *The Time Machine: An Invention.* Cropped still from the 1960 MGM film adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel *The Time Machine: An Invention.*
Cropped still from the 1960 MGM film adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel *The Time Machine: An Invention.*

Apart from being visually gorgeous and a widely recognized contributor to the aesthetics and secondary worlds characteristic of steampunk, the 1960 film went into regular late night television rotation for at least thirty years. When David Duncan wrote the movie screenplay, he had a task both challenging and freer than might be expected when starting from a well-known text. Since the original text has such a dreamlike quality, with almost no characters provided with individual names and barely any visual descriptions provided of the time traveller and his contemporaries, alongside suggestions of the time machine rather than specifics, he could fill those out in ways that were most convenient and evocative for his own time. He could get away with a "nineteenth century gloss." The cause of the divergence of humans in the far future into two species living in very different conditions compared to the time traveller's present is changed to something more familiar to the anxieties of the mid-twentieth century. It all starts with a terrible nuclear war, and the results are an "aryan" looking species, all white, blonde and above ground living, dressed in what verges on a caricature of ancient greek knee-length tunics, and the grey-green, mostly ape-like species that lives underground. We are carefully reinforced in the knowledge that these are related peoples by the Morlocks' flowing blonde locks.

In the original book, Wells provides two explanations for the Eloi, the first from before the time traveller encounters any Morlocks, the second afterward. Both accept without much question a social Darwinist framework, in which social divisions are taken as a product of natural selection and therefore potentially reinforced or decreased by it. Also taken as given is the notion that humans may intervene successfully in natural selection such that it becomes human selection instead. Furthermore, Wells takes it as given that without some sort of challenge to acquire the necessities of life, humans in particular and perhaps animals in general must become lazy and stupid, senselessly repeating the same actions by rote. There is one more assumption at play here, one that astonishingly few people comment on even today. Within the book and the movie, it seems there are no other people anywhere else on Earth, just in the specific area of southern england at immediate hand for the story. Most readers and viewers don't notice the traveller's intense parochialism and by implication that of the original and subsequent authors, since the traveller helpfully never tries to go anywhere else or speculate on the fate or existence of other sentient beings.

In the first explanation presented in the novel, the traveller concludes that the Eloi are the product of human evolution after their ancestors succeeded in remaking their living conditions so that they no longer have to work to acquire food, clothing, and shelter. He is quite downcast at the results in the book, but in the movie of course we are presented with a blonde race who while not ambitious or aware of their abilities only need an outsider to swoop in and wake them up. The second explanation presented in the novel is much darker, in that Wells presents a model in which the divide between rich and poor becomes first entrenched as the rich monopolizing the Earth's surface, and forcing the poor into permanent service to them underground. We can argue over whether Wells or his time traveller are more horrified by the powerful implications of systemic and heinous cruelty over time on the part of the supposedly "better" rich, so often conflated with being morally better, or with the shock reveal that apparently the Morlocks are in control of the Eloi, breeding them to eat. In both movie and book, the Morlocks are basically stupid brutes who have enough mean cleverness to revere technology and keep doing the things that ensure their access to fresh meat.

While preparing to write this essay, my research turned up Rebecca Curtis' contribution to a 2015 time travel themed issue of The New Yorker, titled "What I Know About the Future." Her discussion is based upon the novel rather than the movie, and she draws out some interesting assumptions many of us may hold when reading the book today and that indeed Wells made himself. A big one is of course that somehow, some way, there must be meat eating by human descendants in the future, and she notes as Wells carefully states in the novel that there are no game animals or other obvious domesticated ones. I am not sure how she came to the conclusion that the smell of the meat or general atmosphere of the Morlocks' realm from though, because Wells is quite clear that it isn't pleasant at all.

The place, by the bye, was very stuffy and oppressive, and the faint halitus of freshly shed blood was in the air.

I did have to do some hunting to clarify the meaning and connotations of halitus apart from my own impression of how freshly shed blood smells. The examples I can find all imply that the smell is heavy, damp, and not pleasing. It may be invigorating to smell fresh blood, because we humans are animals, and we instinctively look out for trouble and danger when we smell it. That little jolt is our limbic system giving us a punch of stimulating hormones to enable us to respond to danger.

I am not trying to pick on Curtis here, in fact, this bit seems to me to reiterate the broader analogy she was making. By implication Curtis and her beau who shared her love of Wells' novel, are members of the upper classes who map onto the Eloi. But which would she want to be, her boyfriend asks her, declaiming – of course – that he would be a Morlock. Curtis agrees for frankly fatuous reasons, and I wonder if at this key moment she decided, or perhaps her editor decided, to take the bite out of her reflections on the novel and its themes. After all, she was building up the argument that the Eloi and Morlocks deserved their fate, indeed, deserved each other. In the end, she is trying to agree with Wells' pessimistic imagining of distant human descendants in this early novel. These are in the end the most common themes people discuss from the novel, even as later science fiction film and television program makers gleefully ring the changes on the images of the two descendant species and obsessively reproduce the trope of giant crustaceans finally getting their own after being relentlessly slaughtered to fill expensive seafood plates in the distant past. The wry additional commentary on the exploited coming back to consume the exploiters is reiterated in grotesque form.

For my part, I wound up going back to this book in part because the Eloi-Morlock analogy keeps percolating up in curious places, and I found myself pondering their curious names. "Eloi" is clearly meant to imply something along the line of "divine" or "chosen," the resemblance of the term to "Elohim" is unlikely to be coincidental. "Morlock" is a bit tougher, but it's resemblance to the name Moloch, widely reputed from the bible to be a Canaanite deity worshipped with child sacrifice is also unlikely to be a chance one. Knowledge of specific names and stories from the bible was much greater in Wells' time versus our own, when now it is common to encounter people for whom the resonances of these names comes from their use by Wells and not from the bible at all. Perhaps then, his novel seemed much less dreamlike in its own time precisely because he could depend on his readers filling out more detail from their familiarity with such sources. Having sorted their names out, and with recent revisions of The War of the Worlds and The Island of Doctor Moreau done, I finally delved into the text itself, and discovered how much of my original sense of this book came from the 1960 movie, and how there seems a persistent consensus not to discuss a great deal of what he said in this book in public.

Let's start with how Wells, or rather his alter-ego the traveller, actually describes the Eloi, whose group name we do not learn until over halfway through the book, although we don't learn what to call the Morlocks until then either. He observes that the Eloi are about four feet tall, wear simple knee-length tunics and sandals, that they are frail and flushed "like a consumptive," with small and pink hands, uniformly curly hair, no beards, big eyes, tiny ears, and small mouths with thin red lips. At this point they were sounding just enough like J.R.R. Tolkien's hobbits that I had to check publication dates, but they are even more reminiscent of the pudgy cherubs depicted on nineteenth century candy boxes. Their language is "...a strange and very sweet and liquid tongue..." and from the start he presumes that they have no more mental ability than five year olds, which should lead us all to wonder just which five year olds he had spent time around. He interprets their lack of enthusiasm for what he is interested in, including teaching him their language, as proof that they are lazy, which goes together nicely with is observation that they are apparently vegetarians. Just in case we haven't gotten the hint that these are extremely effeminate people, the traveller states,

...I perceived that all had the same form of costume, the same soft hairless visage, and the same girlish rotundity of limb.

So we are set up to be completely unsurprised when the Eloi fail to do anything to help Weena when she nearly drowns. Indeed, we are set up to be barely surprised even by the revelation that the Eloi are apparently food cattle for the Morlocks, in part by the traveller's first moments of interaction with them. When he first appears, they are understandably alarmed by him, and he is horrified and disturbed when he concludes they think he fell from the sky during a just finished rain shower with thunder and lightning. But the traveller says this to his eager audience about the Eloi first:

[The Eloi] came a step forward, hesitated, and then touched my hand. Then I felt other soft little tentacles upon my back and shoulders.

There is a startling level of visceral disgust in this sentence, and while it could be simply explained away as a general human reaction to being touched where we can't see by strangers, it seems disproportionate. And even as the traveller describes the Eloi, even as he begins to view them in a more and more paternalistic manner, that adds to the impression of disgust. They have fallen from a proper human state into a less sexually dimorphic and predominantly effeminate and degraded state due to lack of proper work and challenge to their mental and physical capacities. The point about their ostensible effeminacy is reiterated again just in case we missed it by the traveller's description of the Eloi reaction to his suggestion that they try to get into the sphinx structure his time machine is now inside, moved there by the Morlocks.

Suppose you were to use a grossly improper gesture to a delicate-minded woman – it is how she would look.

Under the circumstances, it is no wonder that Wells has the traveller rescue and learn the name of at least one of the Eloi, Weena. He needs to rehumanize both the traveller and the Eloi somehow. Arguably this backfires a bit, because Wells can't quite decide whether the Eloi should behave more like cattle or dogs – and today we know how poorly urban people in britain understood the behaviour and actual intelligence of those animals. In any case, the traveller seems to feel that anything he does with Weena won't affect the Eloi in general as a society, as he determines to take her with him to the past. This never happens because he loses her in the course of accidentally starting a forest fire while fending off a Morlock raid.

An intriguing aspect of all this is that in the end, while the Morlocks are mentioned by name more often, the description of them that Wells provides is minimal. After all, the traveller never so much as tries to communicate with them, and he actually identifies with the Eloi in his assumption that they must be a physical threat to him as much as them. He presumes the Morlocks are carnivorous, based on observing a joint of meat set out at a table in their underground facilities and the lack of cemeteries he finds above ground. In appearance, the traveller describes the Morlocks as ghostlike, therefore pale coloured, apelike, with flaxen hair down their backs, and small red-reflecting eyes. When he returns to the question of how they treat the Eloi, the traveller describes the Morlocks as "ant-like" although it is not clear that there is any other reason to do so except for their fantastic climbing ability and apparent numbers. Wells is very careful to have the traveller note that he is speculating and surmising, that he sees only flashes when he is able to look around by matchlight or briefly torch or firelight. His assumption that the Morlocks are less than intellectually gifted seems borne out by their attacks and that he never recognizes them as trying to speak even to one another, except his observations of them are so few. He takes as given that the Morlocks must provide the Eloi food and clothing by dint of rote behaviour, even though that makes no sense. The reader is of course not meant to notice that the climate is so mild above ground that the Eloi hardly seem to need clothes, or that there is never enough information given to confim or deny whether the Morlocks wear any.

The denouement of the story is intriguing in its own way, because having gone through all this material, including the implication that somehow the Morlocks have become hyper-masculine even as the Eloi have become the opposite, a person might conclude that this is a deeply pessimistic novel. Wells was concerned about the implications of social inequality, expressed in part through his lifelong commitment to socialism and efforts to imagine how human societies could make their way from the flagrantly unjust and destructive present to an at least more just and real future. In the novel, there is a strong suggestion that his time traveller would be understood as at best a sort of Cassandra, prophesying what no one will believe, and that perhaps he takes off again in hopes of averting the grim future he saw. Yet perhaps most striking today, no doubt precisely because of the current anti-Feminist and general anti-woman backlash, is Wells' refusal to imagine outside of presumed masculinity and femininity. According to him, there were only those two ways to be, and one was definitely far worse than the other. His traveller may be subtly and persistently disgusted by the Eloi, for whom he has real contempt, his respect for the Morlocks, even approval of their persistence underground and their meat-eating ways is clear. Wells considered still sex stereotyped roles as innate like many of his immediate contemporaries, and this entirely in spite of the evidence all around him during his long life. Born in 1866, he lived through the end of the second world war, dying in 1946. The key difference in his views from many others is his blunter depiction of sex stereotyped roles as open to both sexes and supposedly necessarily present so that humans could become intelligent and inventive.

All of which makes his pessimism and his current resurgence in popularity far from surprising.

  1. Wollstonecraft Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. (3 Volumes) London: Printed for Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, and Jones, Finsbury Square. 1818. Also see the excellent Frankenbook essay and annotation project.
  2. Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Westminster: Archibald Constable and Company, 1897.
  3. The Internet Archive has a full scan of this edition of The Time Machine:
    Wells, H.G. The Time Machine: An Invention. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1922.

  4. The original 1895 text published with William Heinemann, London can be seen via wikisource.
  5. Wells is perhaps better known now for his 1897 novel The War of the Worlds, in part due to the (in)famous 1938 mercury theatre on the air broadcast of it by Orson Welles.
  6. British Library. Works: The Time Machine.
  7. I realize the film still shows the Morlocks as unambiguously green, but this seems to me to be about the lighting rather than the costumes.
  8. Curtis, Rebecca. "What I Know About the Future: Morlocks and Eloi," The New Yorker (Time Travel Theme Issue), 1 june 2015.
  9. Wells, page 129 of the Henry Holt and Company 1922 edition.
  10. Wells 1922, page 118.
  11. Wells 1922, pages 50-51, 53-54.
  12. Wells 1922, page 52.
  13. Wells 1922, page 55.
  14. Wells 1922, pages 60, 62.
  15. Wells 1922, page 66.
  16. Wells 1922, page 53.
  17. The traveller's discourse on the role of "struggle" in species development starts on page 67.
  18. Wells 1922, page 88.
  19. Wells 1922, pages 149-150, 176, 184.
  20. Wells 1922, pages 96, 128-129.
  21. Wells 1922, pages 106, 208, 148.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2021
Last Modified: Friday, January 1, 2021 17:15:45