The Day of the Triffids at Seventy

The triffids are seventy years old.  It is hard to believe.  John Wyndham’s iconic dystopian novel The Day of the Triffids was first published by Michael Joseph in December 1951.

I can’t remember how many times I must have read The Day of the Triffids, but the recent chance discovery of a first edition copy in a local charity shop provided the perfect excuse to read it again.

When I first read the book as a teenager it was the triffids themselves that provided the focus of the novel for me; they were the scary monster villains in the vein of Dracula, or Frankenstein; at the time, I was not looking into these books for any other meaning beyond quick thrills.

However, on each subsequent reading, I find so much more in The Day of the Triffids––and in Dracula and Frankenstein, too.  Since its publication, each decade has had its own particular fear or threat hanging over it––nuclear bomb; Cold War; terrorism; climate change; pandemic––and the story of a world waking up to a global catastrophe is relevant to every one of them.

The book raises many moral dilemmas about the best way to behave faced with a crisis of apocalyptic proportions.  It examines what aspects of our past it is essential to fight to preserve and which conventions need to be ditched simply in order to survive.  It considers the idea of ‘right’ as something that is not set in stone, but is mutable throughout the ages, dependent on need and circumstances; a lesson by which we should judge both our ancestors but also our contemporaries living under different situations.  The reason that The Day of the Triffids is able to examine all of these big themes without sounding preachy is because it does so from the perspective of one individual––Bill Masen––and how he comes to terms with survival in a post-apocalyptic world.  The reader shares Bill’s trials and tribulations––the day-to-day physical struggle to provide food and shelter but, also, his mental battles––to overcome loneliness, combat guilt, and to discover a new meaning and purpose for humanity.

And then, of course, Bill must also face the triffids.

On the back cover of the first edition of The Day of the Triffids is a photograph of the author John Wyndham––actually John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris––and his own potted biography.  In his account of his life, he is modest about his achievements to date, concluding about his current writing: “Try topical thriller––Plan for Chaos.  Mistimed.  Wrote The Day of the Triffids.  Hoping.”

I hope that he would be proud of his legacy seventy years on.

© Fergus Longfellow

Fergus Longfellow knows what to do when he sees a triffid.

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