The Tripods

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The Tripods is a series of young adult novels written by John Christopher, beginning in 1967. The first two were the basis of a science fiction TV series, produced in the United Kingdom in the 1980s.


The story of The Tripods is a variation on post-apocalyptic literature, wherein humanity has been enslaved by "Tripods": gigantic three-legged walking machines, piloted by unseen alien entities (later identified as "Masters"). Human society is largely pastoral, with few habitations larger than villages, and what little industry exists is conducted under the watchful presence of the Tripods. Lifestyle is reminiscent of the Middle Ages, but small artefacts from the Modern Age are still used, such as watches.

Humans are controlled from the age of 14 by implants called "Caps", which suppress curiosity and creativity. Some people, whose minds are broken by the Caps, become vagrants. According to The City of Gold and Lead, Masters begin to believe that humans should be capped at an earlier age "because some humans, in the year or two before they are Capped, become rebellious and act against the masters"; but this cannot be done because Capping must wait until the braincase has stopped growing.[1]


The White Mountains (1967)

Life goes on largely as it had in the pre-industrial era, excepting that all adult humans are subject to Tripod control. Protagonist Will, a thirteen-year-old boy living in the (fictional) English village of Wherton, is looking forward to the next "Capping Day", until a chance meeting with a mysterious uncapped man named Ozymandias[2] prompts him to discover a world beyond the Tripods' control. He is accompanied by his cousin Henry and a French teenager named Jean-Paul, nicknamed "Beanpole". The novel climaxes with Henry and Beanpole discovering that earlier, when Will had been captured by a Tripod, he had been unknowingly implanted with a tracking device. When Henry and Beanpole remove the device, a nearby Tripod attacks them, but the boys defeat the Tripod and eventually join the resistance, located in the eponymous White Mountains.

The City of Gold and Lead (1968)

After a year in the White Mountains, the resistance charges Will, Beanpole, and a German boy, Fritz, to infiltrate a Tripod city by competing in a regional sporting exhibition. Will, a boxer, and Fritz, a runner, win their respective contests, while Beanpole fails to win in the jumping events.

The winners are taken to the Tripod city in a pressurised dome astride a river. Inside the city, the boys discover the Tripods' operators, whom they refer to as the "Masters". Human males are slaves inside the cities, while beautiful females are killed and preserved for the Masters to admire. Slaves are furnished with breathing masks to survive the aliens' atmosphere, but are rapidly exhausted by the stronger artificial gravity and must therefore be periodically replaced. Although Fritz is abused by his Master, Will is treated as a privileged pet by his. Eventually, Will's Master reveals a plan to replace the Earth's atmosphere with the Masters' toxic air to enable full control of the Earth. When the Master finds Will's diary, Will kills him to maintain the secret. With the assistance of Beanpole, Will escapes, and they return to the White Mountains. The story's title refers to the gold colour prevalent in the Masters' cities, as well as the leaden weight of the increased gravity on the human slaves.

The Pool of Fire (1968)

Will and Fritz travel to Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Middle East to organize resistance against the Tripods. The resistance, having ambushed a Tripod and captured a Master, discover that alcohol has a strong soporific effect on them, and use this knowledge to simultaneously attack their cities. Having introduced alcohol into the aliens' city water systems, two raiding groups kill the Masters by forcing open airlocks and exposing the unconscious aliens to Earth's atmosphere; but the attack on the last city (located in Central America) fails. A secondary plan is undertaken using hot air balloons and newly developed bombs. The attack is initially unsuccessful as the timers on the bombs cause them to detonate either before making contact with the dome of the city, or after the bomb has fallen clear. Henry jumps from his balloon onto the city's domed roof and holds the bomb in place, killing himself but shattering the dome. Earth's atmosphere kills the Masters, and Henry is remembered as a hero.

Several years later The Masters' atmosphere-seeding spaceship arrives and destroys the remains of their cities, presumably to prevent the humans from reverse engineering their technology - although Beanpole notes that they have already learned much from the cities - then leaves. Modern human technology which was halted during the Masters' rule is rediscovered rapidly, including the theory of space travel. The saga ends with the Resistance leader Julius being deposed, and as a result the alliance built during the resistance falls apart, with nationalistic hostilities appearing, each country going their separate ways in contrast to Julius' efforts to unite the world.

When the Tripods Came (1988)

When the Tripods Came is a prequel written twenty years after the publication of the original trilogy. The plot follows the description of the conquest given in the second book of the main trilogy. Fearing the technological potential of humanity, the so-called "Masters", unable to defeat humanity in a conventional war, hypnotise people through a television show called The Trippy Show, later using Caps to control them permanently. As in the original trilogy, the narrator of When the Tripods Came is a young English boy. As society slowly falls under the control of the Masters, he and his family escape to Switzerland, which has mounted the longest-lasting resistance. When the Swiss are eventually enslaved, the narrator and his family establish the "White Mountains" resistance movement of the original trilogy.


Editions have been published by

The series has been translated into Dutch, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Persian, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese (Taiwan).


The "Masters" are first mentioned and seen in chapter 6 of The City of Gold and Lead.


According to Will, the chief protagonist:

"They stood much taller than a man, nearly twice as tall, and broad in proportion. Their bodies were wider at the bottom than the top, four or five feet around I thought, but tapered up to something like a foot in circumference at the head. If it was the head, for there was no break in the continuity, no sign of a neck. The next thing I noticed was that their bodies were supported not on two legs, but three, these being thick but short. They had matching them three arms, or rather tentacles, issuing from a point halfway up their bodies. And their eyes — I saw that there were three of those, too, set in a flattened triangle, one above and between the other two, a foot or so below the crown. In colour the creatures were green, though I saw that the shades differed, some being dark, the green tinged with brown, and other quite pallid. That, and the fact that their heights varied to some extent, appeared to be the only means of telling one from another. I felt it was a poor one.": "I thought the words issued from the mouth — which I judged the lower of the two central orifices to be — until I saw that it was the upper one which was quivering and open while the other remained closed and still. With the Masters, I was to discover, the organs of breathing and eating were not connected, as men's are: they spoke as well as breathed through one, ate and drank only through the lower, larger opening."

As well as physical differences to humans, the Masters display chemical ones. The air they breathe is thick and green, like a chlorine fog (although the precise composition of it is never revealed). The human slaves of their city must wear specially provided breathing apparatus, although they are provided with their own atmosphere in cramped, but functional, living quarters. Unprotected exposure to the air of the city is quickly fatal, as is exposure to the Earth's atmosphere for the Masters. The apparatus provided for slaves depends on a kind of spongy cartridge that must be periodically replaced. Similarly, foods eaten by Masters and Slaves have nothing in common, with the exception of sugars, although it is never revealed whether the Masters' food would be fatal to a human, or if the Masters are able to ingest normal Earth food.

The Pool of Fire contained a subplot in which the capture and subsequent interrogation of a Master takes place. These events revealed that Masters can somehow sense harmful additions to their food, and will simply refuse to eat anything that contains drugs or poisons, with the exception of ethyl alcohol. It transpires that the Masters have a very low tolerance for this chemical, which later becomes an important plot point.

The Masters prefer high temperatures. Room temperature for them is somewhere around 40 degrees Celsius (about 105 degrees Fahrenheit). The pools that they bathe in are often extremely hot (described as "only just bearable"). This would indicate that their digestive and respiratory enzymes are quite different from those found in terrestrial life.

A Master's preferred method of moving, described as a slapping hop on all three feet, is light and fast, completely untroubled by the incredible weight that their size must hold. As shown by this lightness in a heavy environment the Masters are, physically, extremely strong, able to easily lift a human male with just one of their three tentacles. Their skin is described as being damp, reptilian and leathery, thus very resilient to attack.

The Masters do have one crippling physical weakness. The area between their respiratory orifice and their ingestive orifice is extremely sensitive. A light brush to this area causes extreme pain. More forceful contact causes unconsciousness or death.

Only one form of disease appeared within the novels. This, called approximately "The Curse of the Skloodzi", evidently caused the Master sufficient discomfort as to preclude work; when Will's Master developed the ailment, he had Will retrieve him and return him to his home, where he used gas bubbles (see Technology) and his hot pool to at least ameliorate his discomfort. The ailment also caused his skin to discolour somewhat, becoming streaked with brown.


The Masters are also different from human beings psychologically. They are completely incapable of lying, finding it difficult to tell the difference between a novel and a biography. As such they are extremely gullible, taking everything told to them as indisputable truth.

Their reaction to despair, as well, shows a marked difference. The Masters are incredibly tolerant of hardship and difficulty, to the point of becoming ill if they do not work hard. However, if they find themselves in a situation to which there is absolutely no escape, they die. It is unknown whether this is natural or some form of suicide. When the Masters' xenoforming ship turned back after discovering the success of the human rebellion, the last Master on Earth, a prisoner of the Freemen, died. It is not explained how it knew that it had been abandoned.

Masters have very little in the way of a social life. They spend most of their time in their own home. It is unlikely that Masters form any kind of nuclear family; throughout the books there is no mention of there being any more than one Master to an apartment.

On the rare occasions that they do meet with others, very little conversation or activity between the two takes place. There are various events and functions around their city - communal baths, museums, and others that have no human equivalent - but each Master will attend and enjoy these events on their own. Even when in close proximity to other Masters doing the same thing, they are unlikely to engage in any kind of social intercourse, and if they do then it will be short-lived and limited.

Several forms of recreation exist. One, The Sphere Chase, involves Masters in smaller versions of their Tripod vehicles chasing a glowing sphere, with the evident goal of directing it through an opening in the side of the arena. Others involve listening to strange (by human standards) sounds or watching strange lights.

Masters seem to appreciate alien beauty. They accept men and women into their cities, but only men serve as slaves. They kill and preserve the women, arranging them according to aesthetics of their own devising. In one exhibit, Will finds a girl he loved arranged with other women in the order of hair colour shades.

But this, and their habit of taking slaves generally, suggests that they do not hold life other than their own in high regard. Although some provision is made for slaves exhausted by heavy gravity to recover, slaves who become convinced they would not recover are programmed via their Caps (see Technology) to go to The Place of Happy Release. There, some form of energy kills them, and a moving belt carries the bodies to a furnace for incineration. The most profound indicator is their long term plan for Earth: en route from their home at the time of "The City of Gold and Lead" are spaceships containing components they cannot manufacture on Earth — parts of great machines that will accept Earth's atmosphere and turn out an atmosphere like that found on the Masters' home and in their cities. Such a transformation would be eventually fatal to all life on Earth, except such few live specimens that the Masters are debating whether to house in zoos.

At least some Masters enjoy an intoxicant they call (for the purposes of their slaves) a gas bubble. The master places the plastic bubble near his respiratory orifice, breaks it, and in hales the vapor. The effect is evidently mild; it takes several such bubbles to create personality changes noticeable to humans. Use of gas bubbles brings out latent personality traits in at least one Master.

The Masters are not of uniform character. Will's Master (the one whose personality is most explored in the trilogy) is something of an intellectual, constantly questioning and studying and learning. His reading of human literature awakens a loneliness, so he wishes to keep Will as a beloved pet. Fritz's Master, however, is a sadist, most interested in physical exertion as well as inflicting pain on whatever slave he happens to have at the moment. The captured prisoner, Ruki, the only Master to be named in the trilogy, is explored little. However, he is the only Master seen to display any understanding of humor and sarcasm.


The Masters power their city with a form of atomic energy that appears to uneducated and casual observers as a "pool of fire." This description lent itself to the title of the third novel. It is loosely inferred by the character Jean Paul (Beanpole) to be nuclear fusion. A concentric series of chambers located near the center of the city and below ground level house this apparatus; the various doors do not align, so it is necessary to travel around the perimeter of each chamber to the next entrance. Within the innermost chamber is a single lever that functions as a main breaker. Moving it from the operating position to the off position deactivates the mechanism, while moving it in the other direction reactivates it. Contact with this lever while the mechanism is operating proves instantly fatal to humans.

The most visible artefacts of the Masters are the Tripods, immense machines that walk the world outside their cities on three long legs. Described as hemispherical, with legs equidistant, the tripods can interact with the world using long, tentacle-like manipulators, each of which is capable of lifting and crushing a Challenger 1 tank (this happens at their first contact meeting, as the tank plays the Anthem of Europe). At least some of these machines have chambers suited to Earth life, and can take individuals inside them for extended periods. When they reach age fourteen, individuals are taken inside a Tripod to be Capped: the machines visit larger towns, while people from smaller towns travel to nearby larger ones to be Capped. Tripods seem to follow a route consistently, but whether this is due to the psychology of their pilots or to some form of autopilot is never revealed. Among the facts inadvertently revealed to Will by his Master is the crew size — four individuals.

Much of the Masters' industry appears highly automated. Machines operating without supervision create everything from food and air to intoxicants. Among these are machines that create gravity at levels roughly twice that of Earth (this heaviness lent itself to the title of the second novel, "The City of Gold and Lead"). According to Will's Master this is less than the gravity enjoyed by the Masters on their home planet; it is not revealed if this is due to technical restrictions, energy saving, or because such extreme gravity would be very wearing on their human slaves.

The Masters' technology includes precision machining techniques. Their airlock doors fit so precisely that the seams are nearly invisible, and do not require gaskets or other flexible seals to compensate for imperfections.

They have the means to remove heat from objects, akin to air conditioning. Because of their water requirements, each of their cities straddles a major river. As part of treating the water before it leaves the city, mechanisms cool and filter it until it was very close to its original outside characteristics of temperature and composition.

Perhaps their greatest technological skill is in the area of mind control. They understand brain physiology to a high degree. In the fourth book, "When the Tripods Came" they capture at least one human for the purpose of dissection; the individual's corpse is discovered later, his brain neatly drained and removed. They later intercept broadcast television signals, and add their own additional signals to the feed; these signals contain hypnotic suggestions. While not universally effective, these suggestions affect sufficient numbers of people so that the Masters have a substantial base of support in their early invasion effort. Whatever the method, these signals can convey detailed technical data and some of the individuals under this control construct and distribut the first Caps.

Although their televised hypnosis is not permanent, control through a Cap evidently is, for as long as the Cap remains in place. Caps contain a fine mesh somewhat resembling an antenna. The first versions resemble ordinary hats and can even be removed, although the individual wearing such a cap will never voluntarily remove it and will actively attempt to prevent others from doing so. Successful removal of a Cap sometimes causes the individual to react in bizarre ways, becoming irrational or breaking down in tears. In a later phase of the invasion, Tripods dispatched to various locations remove the temporary caps and replace them with Caps "married to the flesh" through some kind of bioengineering. These Caps cannot be removed, although White Mountains resistance fighters eventually learn how to disable them by severing certain of the metal filaments. The Caps evidently depend on some form of transmission from within the cities of the Masters - when resistance elements turn off the city power supplies, Capped individuals ceased to venerate and obey the masters. As earlier, some reacted irrationally to the loss of outside will, even to the point of suicide.

Caps create a worshipful attitude toward the Masters, an unhesitating obedience so profound that the Masters do not fear bringing Capped humans into their cities (an overconfidence that eventually defeats them). According to "The White Mountains," about one person in twenty becomes a Vagrant due to some failure of the process. One character (Will) speculates that the Vagrants' brains attempt to resist the power of the Cap and eventually break under the strain. Vagrants are considered harmless (although this was not always true), but are generally unable to remain in one place for any length of time. Each community considers it a social responsibility to care for these unfortunates, who are unable to work, form families, or participate in most of society. Individuals seeking the resistance in the White Mountains are cautioned that if caught and Capped in a place where the natives spoke a different language, Vagrancy was almost certain, suggesting that each Cap receives and relays signals specific to expected thought processes of the wearer.

The Masters have a means of suppressing electrical activity at range. They disable a biplane attack on their Central American city in this fashion.

Home World

Their Home World is briefly mentioned to Will by his Master as being larger and hotter than Earth, and consisting mostly of swamps. Masters take care to bathe and wallow in water several times a day. The numerous pools in their domed cities compensate for this when the Masters are on Earth. Nothing is revealed about how much of the galaxy they have a hold on. The true name of their species is never revealed. The closest that is ever got to a name is "Skloodzi". Will comments that he is unsure whether this is his Master's name, his Master's family name, the name of his Master's race or the name of their species.

Comic books

Multiple graphic adaptations have been produced, notably including:

  • Boys' Life, The Boy Scouts of America magazine, serialised all three books in the trilogy from May 1981 to August 1986. Artist Frank Bolle drew the single page black and white proofs which were then inked by another person.
  • In 1985, the BBC initiated BEEB, the BBC Junior Television Magazine, and started to present in picture strip form additional adventures of Will, Henry, and Beanpole on their way to the White Mountains, starting at some unspecified point during the fourth episode of the first BBC serial as the trio pass through ruined Paris, and then heading off at a tangent to the television version. From Issue 6, the boys were accompanied on their journey by a young woman named Fizzio, a character original to the strip. The strips were drawn by John M. Burns and in each issue, they consisted of three pages; the first two in colour and the third in black and white. The storyline was never concluded as BEEB ceased publication after only 20 issues.
  • Masters were one of the species detailed in Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials.

Television series

The television version of The Tripods was jointly produced by the BBC in the United Kingdom and the Seven Network in Australia. The music soundtrack was written by Ken Freeman. The series was noted for being one of the first to feature computer generated graphics and special effects.[citation needed]

Series one of The Tripods, broadcast in 1984, which had 13 half-hour episodes written by the well-known author of many radio plays Alick Rowe, covers the first book, The White Mountains; the 12-episode second series (1985) covers The City of Gold and Lead. Although a television script had been written for the third series, it never went into production.

The first series was released on both VHS and DVD. The BBC released Tripods — The Complete Series 1 & 2 on DVD in March 2009.[3]

Comparison with the novels

When the BBC made the television series of The Tripods in the 1980s, they departed from Christopher's description. The Masters somewhat resembled the Tripods they drove. This makes the Tripods seem much more like mecha than purely eccentric vehicles. In the BBC serial, the Masters did not need to eat, sleep or drink. Additionally, they were not the rulers of the city, but were, in turn, under the rule of beings made of pure energy, known as Cognoscs. The Masters came from a planet named Trion that was in the center of a triple star system.

The method by which the Masters name themselves is also different. Rather than having names, they are simply called by their address. Will's Master is called West Avenue 4, Sector 6, Level 8, or West 468.

The Masters in the BBC production did not breathe green air and did not prefer the high gravity and high temperature of those in the book, since these would have been extremely difficult or expensive to recreate onscreen at the time. Their treatment of the slaves, rather than being harsh and thoughtless, was reasonable to the point of being friendly; with luxuries provided for them.

To avoid an overuse of the mechanical Tripods, the producers invented a new faction, the "Black Guards" as a police force with the task to enforce the will of the masters. They served as a more immediate threat for Will, his friends and the resistance.


  1. ^ Christopher, John (2003). The City of Gold and Lead. NY: Simon Pulse. p. 148. ISBN 0-689-85666-0. 
  2. ^ In antiquity, Ozymandias was a Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II.
  3. ^ "Tripods — The Complete Series 1 & 2 DVD". Retrieved 18 June 2010. 

External links

  • Tripod books at Simon & Schuster website
  • Blue Peter segment with The Tripods cast (17/9/84) on YouTube
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