The Chrysalids

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"Chrysalids" redirects here. For term in biology, see Chrysalis.
The Chrysalids
Chrysalids first edition 1955.jpg
First edition hardback cover
Author John Wyndham
Cover artist Spencer Wilson
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Science fiction novel
Publisher Michael Joseph
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
ISBN 0-14-001308-3
Preceded by The Kraken Wakes
Followed by The Midwich Cuckoos

The Chrysalids (United States title: Re-Birth) is a science fiction novel by John Wyndham, first published in 1955 by Michael Joseph. It is the least typical of Wyndham's major novels, but regarded by some as his best.[1][2][3] An early manuscript version was entitled Time for a Change.[4]

The novel was adapted for BBC radio by Barbara Clegg in 1982,[5] with a further adaptation by Jane Rogers in 2012.[6] It was also adapted for the theatre by playwright David Harrower in 1999.[7]

Plot summary[edit]

An undetermined number of years into the future, post-apocalypse rural Labrador has become a warmer and more hospitable place than it is at present. The inhabitants of Labrador have vague historical recollections of the "Old People", a technologically advanced civilisation which existed long ago and which they believe was destroyed when God sent "Tribulation" to the world to punish their forebears' sins. The society that has survived in Labrador is loosely reminiscent of the American frontier during the 18th century, with a level of technology in use similar to the Amish of the present-day United States.

The inhabitants practise a form of fundamentalist Christianity with post-apocalyptic prohibitions. They believe that to follow God's word and prevent another Tribulation, they must preserve absolute normality among the surviving humans, plants and animals, and therefore follow a eugenics policy. Genetic invariance has been elevated to the highest religious principle, and humans with even minor mutations are considered "Blasphemies" and the handiwork of the Devil.

Individuals not conforming to a strictly defined physical norm are either killed or sterilised and banished to the Fringes, a lawless and untamed area still rife with animal and plant mutations. Arguments occur over the keeping of a tailless cat or the possession of oversized horses. These are deemed by the government to be legitimate breeds, either preexisting or achieved through conventional breeding. The government's position is considered both cynical and heretical by many of the orthodox frontier community.

The inland rural settlement of Waknuk is a frontier farming community, populated with hardy and generally pious individuals. Ten-year-old David Strorm, the son of Waknuk's zealous and religious patriarch, has inexplicably vivid dreams of brightly lit cities and horseless carts that are at odds with his pre-industrial experience. Despite David's rigorous religious training, he befriends Sophie, a girl carefully concealing the fact that she has six toes on each foot. With the nonchalance of childhood, David keeps her secret. The subsequent discovery of Sophie's mutation, and her family's attempted flight from the feared reprisals, cause David to wonder at the brutal persecution of human "Blasphemies" and the ritual culling of animal and plant "Deviations".

David and a few other children in the district harbour their own invisible mutation: they have telepathic abilities. The group are initially supported, advised and protected by David's moderate Uncle Axel, who comes to know about the group through some unguarded chattering when David is still small. Uncle Axel goes so far in his protection as to kill the husband of one of the group who was abusing his telepath wife, and about to blackmail the rest of the group.

However, eventually some of the group are exposed when David's young sister Petra unknowingly exerts a mental force of command for help in her distress when a big cat attacks her horse.

As a result of the suspicions, two telepaths Katherine and Sally are captured and tortured for information, whilst David, his half-cousin Rosalind, and Petra flee to the Fringes. They are quickly pursued by a large contingent of men from across several districts who have been offered a generous reward. The intention is to capture and interrogate them, as well as to beat down the surviving people who have been sterilised and banished to the Fringes. However the posse includes Michael, a fellow telepath who covertly assists their escape. Unexpectedly, through the extremely strong telepathic range of Petra, they make contact with a more advanced society in a distant country they believe to be called Sealand.[8][9] With the help of both Michael and David's six toed friend Sophie, who now lives in a Fringes community, David, Rosalind and Petra elude their would-be captors and are rescued by a Sealand expedition sent to discover the source of Petra's telepathic transmissions. Owing to the limited amount of fuel, they are unable to take the Sealand craft back to Waknuk to collect Rachel. Michael remains behind to save her, and promises that they will then find their own way to the others.


Though the nature of "Tribulation" is not explicitly stated, it is implied that it was a nuclear holocaust, both by the mutations and by the stories of sailors who report blackened, glassy wastes to the south-west where the remains of faintly glowing cities can be seen (presumably the east coast of the US). Sailors venturing too close to these ruins experience symptoms consistent with radiation sickness. A woman from Sealand, a character with evident knowledge of the Old People's technology, mentions "the power of gods in the hands of children".

Major characters[edit]

  • David Strorm is the narrator of the story. David is one of a small group of youngsters who can communicate with each other via telepathy. However, their community's theological prejudice against anyone who is abnormal means he and the others must keep their abilities carefully hidden. David and Rosalind's love for each other is kept secret from their parents because of a bitter feud between their families.
  • Sophie Wender is a young girl born with six toes on one of her feet. Sophie lives with her parents in an isolated cottage somewhere north-west of Waknuk, her deviation from the "norm" keeping her from associating with other children. She befriends David after he discovers her secret but promises not to reveal it.
  • Joseph Strorm is the father of David and Petra. He is deeply religious and unyielding on the subject of mutations and blasphemy, even punishing David severely for an unintentionally blasphemous remark about "needing an extra hand" to apply a bandage.
  • Uncle Axel is a widely travelled former sailor, open-minded and willing to question conventional religious precepts. Upon discovering David's telepathy, he counsels caution and extracts a promise that David take great care not to allow others to learn of his mutation.
  • Petra Strorm is the youngest of the Strorm children. The group of telepaths discovers that her ability is extraordinarily strong and difficult to resist, placing the group at greater risk of discovery.
  • Rosalind Morton is David's closest friend among the group of telepaths. They become more of a couple later on in the book. She lives on a neighbouring farm and is David's half cousin.
  • The Sealand woman and her people are from a more technologically advanced society where telepathic ability, while not ubiquitous, is far more common and is accepted, promoted and studied. The woman calls her country "Zealand", but the telepaths insist on calling it "Sealand" instead.
  • Michael is the most objective, perceptive and decisive of the telepaths, the best educated, and in many ways plays a leading role in the group despite his physical absence from events in the story. His telepathic abilities remain secret, and during the pursuit into the Fringes he joins the leading posse to give updates and warnings to David, Rosalind and Petra as they flee. He is also in love with Rachel.
  • Rachel is the last remaining telepath in Waknuk after David, Rosalind and Petra are brought to Zealand. She is afraid of loneliness, while being in love with Michael, as Rosalind loves David. As a result of this, Michael remains behind with Rachel when they find out that the aircraft bringing the four of the telepaths to Zealand does not have enough fuel to collect Rachel from Waknuk and get home again. He hopes to arrive in Zealand with Rachel later, after making their own way there.

Allusions to actual geography[edit]

The inland village of Waknuk (Wabush) is in southwestern Labrador. Labrador has become a much warmer place in the fictional future, with large tracts of arable land. Rigo (Rigolet) is the capital of Labrador, a fairly large river town near the east coast. The port of Lark (Lark Harbour) is mentioned as a way-point on the west coast of the island of Newf (Newfoundland) where sailors may obtain provisions.

A large island to the north-east (Greenland) is rumoured to be inhabited by an amazonian culture with bizarre habits. Northern islands are described as being cold and inhabited chiefly by birds and sea animals. Uncle Axel, a former sailor, has travelled far to the south of Labrador, and from a distance seen the "Black Coasts", where there are areas with what look like ruins of the old civilisation. He also recounts second-hand tales of South American primates living in forests.

Later, the existence of geographic areas far less affected by the nuclear exchange and fallout are established, particularly Sealand (New Zealand), which is home to a socially and technologically advanced society where telepathy is not only the norm, but is encouraged and developed as a survival advantage.

Literary significance[edit]

Although stylistically The Chrysalids does not differ markedly from Wyndham's other novels, the subject matter is rather different. While most are set against a mid-twentieth-century English middle-class background, The Chrysalids is set in a future society which is described in some detail. Unlike most of his novels, it is also a coming-of-age story.

It was written after The Kraken Wakes and before The Midwich Cuckoos.

Critical response[edit]

J. Francis McComas, reviewing the American release for The New York Times, declared that the "outstanding success" of the novel lay in Wyndham's "creation of humanly understandable characters that are, after all, something more and less than human" and concluded that the novel "will be well noted and long remembered."[10]

The critic and science fiction author Damon Knight wrote[11] that Wyndham "...failed to realize how good a thing he had. The sixth toe was immensely believable, and sufficient; but Wyndham has dragged in a telepathic mutation on top of it; has made David himself one of the nine child telepaths, and hauled the whole plot away from his carefully built background, into just one more damned chase with a rousing cliche at the end of it... this error is fatal." gave a mixed review, stating that "The Chrysalids comes heart-wrenchingly close to being John Wyndham's most powerful and profound work." but that "Wyndham stumbles—catastrophically—at the climax, in a way that actually undermines the story's thematic foundations."[12]

The novel also got some positive reviews. The Ottawa Citizen judged the novel as "brilliant" and "a top-notch piece of sci-fi that should be enjoyed for generations yet to come."[13] The Guardian described it as "a remarkably tender story of a post-nuclear childhood" and "a classic to most of its three generations of readers".[13] Hartford Courant reviewer George W. Earley praised it as "a compelling story and Mr. Wyndham's best novel to date."[14]

Galaxy reviewer Groff Conklin praised the novel as "so skillfully done that the fact that it's not a shiny new idea makes absolutely no difference."[15] Anthony Boucher similarly found the novel made "something completely fresh" out of a familiar theme, commending Wyndham's "accumulation of minutely plausible detail" and "greater depth and maturity than he has shown in previous novels."[16] Writing in Astounding, P. Schuyler Miller reported that Wyndham "has made the Mutant theme believable in a way that Odd John, Slan and the stories of the Baldies never quite were."[17]

There is critical disagreement regarding whether the intervention of the Sealand culture at the end of the novel should be considered a deus ex machina.[12]

Critics have disagreed with Wyndham's implication that two differently evolved species must necessarily fight to the death. Wyndham justifies this in a lengthy speech from the Sealand woman near the end of the novel, but her reasoning seems at odds with the implicit plea for tolerance in the earlier part of the novel.[12] This implication also exists in The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos.

Radio adaptations[edit]

BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour presented an unabridged reading by Geoffrey Wheeler of the novel in ten 15-minute episodes, broadcast daily between 17 and 28 August 1970.

The novel was adapted by Barbara Clegg as a single 90-minute drama for BBC Radio 4, directed by Michael Bartlett, and first broadcast on 24 April 1981. The cast includes:

This version was released on CD by BBC Audiobooks in 2007.

The Chrysalids in popular culture[edit]

The song "Crown of Creation" by Jefferson Airplane was inspired by the novel. Its title and lyrics are drawn from the text and plot with permission from Wyndham.[18] One example lifted almost verbatim from the text reflects a philosophical explanation by the Zealand woman: "But life is change, that is how it differs from rocks, change is its very nature." This line is rendered in the lyrics as "Life is change—How it differs from the rocks." The portion of the song that reads: "In loyalty to their kind / they cannot tolerate our minds. / In loyalty to our kind / we cannot tolerate their obstruction" is from an explanation by the Zealand woman that asserts the inevitability of conflict between a more advanced species and its less advanced progenitors. (The book's original phrase is "they cannot tolerate our rise.")


  1. ^ "The Chrysalids — Novel". UK: BBC. 7 November 2001. 
  2. ^ Aldiss, Brian W (1973). Billion year spree: the history of science fiction. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 254. ISBN 978-0-297-76555-4. 
  3. ^ Jo Walton Telepathy and Tribulation: John Wyndham's The Chrysalids
  4. ^ Revill, Joanne. "The John Wyndham Archive, 1930–2001". SF Hub. Retrieved 19 September 2010. 
  5. ^ Lou Martiniano. "Chrysalids & Survival, The". Retrieved 22 May 2010. 
  6. ^ "Classic Serial:The Chrysalids". BBC. Retrieved 10 August 2012. 
  7. ^ "David Harrower". 20 February 2007. Retrieved 22 May 2010. 
  8. ^ "The Chrysalids, Chapter 12 Summary". 
  9. ^ "Locations-Settings". The Chrysalids Answers. 
  10. ^ "Spaceman's Realm", The New York Times Book Review, 10 July 1955, p. 15
  11. ^ Knight, Damon (1967). In Search of Wonder. Chicago: Advent. ISBN 0-911682-31-7. 
  12. ^ a b c "The Chrysalids / John Wyndham ☆☆½". Sf Reviews.Net. Retrieved 22 May 2010. 
  13. ^ a b Wyndham, John. "Random House, Inc. Academic Resources | The Chrysalids by John Wyndham". Retrieved 22 May 2010. 
  14. ^ "Science Fiction", The Hartford Courant, 16 October 1955, p. SM22
  15. ^ "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, September 1955, p.91
  16. ^ "Recommended Reading," F&SF, August 1955, p.94.
  17. ^ Miller, P. Schuyler. "The Reference Library," Astounding Science-Fiction, October 1955, pp.144–45.
  18. ^ Kantner, Paul (2003). Lyrica – Paul Kantner's Theory of Everything. Little Dragon Press. 

External links[edit]