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)[edit]

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 titular White Mountains.

The City of Gold and Lead (1968)[edit]

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)[edit]

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, discover that alcohol has a strong soporific effect on the Masters, and use this knowledge to simultaneously attack their cities. Having introduced alcohol into the aliens' city water systems, two raiding groups kill the resident aliens; but the initial attack on the last city (located in Central America) is unsuccessful and an aerial attack is undertaken using hydrogen balloons and a cache of grenades. During this assault, Henry jumps from his balloon onto the city's domed roof and sets off his grenade, killing himself and shattering the dome. The exposure to Earth's atmosphere kills the Masters, and Henry is remembered as a hero. The Masters' spaceship arrives, and it destroys the remains of their cities, presumably to prevent the humans from reverse engineering their technology, then leaves. Modern human technology which was halted during the Masters' rule is rediscovered rapidly, even space travel. The saga ends with a renewal of nationalist sentiments, with tensions building towards war, which Will and his friends plan to prevent.

When the Tripods Came (1988)[edit]

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, 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 existed. One, The Sphere Chase, involved 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 involved listening to strange (by human standards) sounds or watching strange lights.

Masters seem to appreciate alien beauty. They accepted men and women into their cities, but only men served as slaves. They killed and preserved 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 was made for slaves exhausted by heavy gravity to recover, slaves who became convinced they would not recover were programmed via their Caps (see Technology) to go to The Place of Happy Release. There, some form of energy killed them, and a moving belt carried the body to a furnace for incineration. The most profound indicator was their long term plan for Earth: en route from their home at the time of "The City of Gold and Lead" were spaceships containing components they could not manufacture on Earth, parts of great machines that would 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 were 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 and breaks it, then inhaling the vapor. The effect is evidently mild; it takes several such bubbles to create personality changes noticeable to humans. Use of gas bubbles brought 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 somewhat of an intellectual, constantly questioning and studying and learning. His reading of human literature awakened 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 appeared 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 housed this apparatus; the various doors did not align, so that it was necessary to travel around the perimeter of each chamber to the next entrance. Within the innermost chamber was a single lever that functioned as a main breaker. Moving it from the operating position to the off position deactivated the mechanism, while moving it in the other direction reactivated it. Contact with this lever while the mechanism operated proved instantly fatal to humans.

The most visible artefacts of the Masters were the Tripods; immense machines that walked the world outside their cities on three long legs. Described as hemispherical, with legs equidistant, the tripods could interact with the world using long, tentacle-like manipulators, each of which was capable of lifting and crushing a Challenger 1 tank (this happened at their first contact meeting; the tank had been playing the Anthem of Europe). At least some of these machines had chambers suited to Earth life, and could take individuals inside them for extended periods. When they reached age fourteen, individuals were taken inside a Tripod to be Capped: the machines visited larger towns, while individuals from smaller towns traveled to a nearby larger town to be Capped. Tripods seemed to follow a route consistently, but whether this was due to the psychology of their pilots or to some form of autopilot was never revealed. Among the facts inadvertently revealed to Will by his Master was the crew size — four individuals.

Much of the Masters' industry appeared highly automated. Machines operating without supervision created everything from food and air to intoxicants. Among these were machines that created 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 included precision machining techniques. Their airlock doors fitted so precisely that the seams were nearly invisible, and did not require gaskets or other flexible seals to compensate for imperfections.

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

Perhaps their greatest technological skill was in the area of mind control. They understood brain physiology to a high degree. In the fourth book, "When the Tripods Came" they captured at least one human for the purpose of dissection; the individual's corpse was discovered later, his brain neatly drained and removed. They later intercepted broadcast television signals, and added their own additional signals to the feed; these signals contained hypnotic suggestions. While not universally effective, these suggestions affected sufficient numbers of people so that the Masters had a substantial base of support in their early invasion effort. Whatever the method, these signals could convey detailed technical data and some of the individuals under this control constructed and distributed the first Caps.

Although their televised hypnosis was not permanent, control through a Cap evidently was, for as long as the Cap remained in place. Caps contained a fine mesh somewhat resembling an antenna. The first versions resembled ordinary hats and could even be removed, although the individual wearing such a cap would never voluntarily remove it and would actively attempt to prevent others from doing so. Successful removal of a Cap sometimes caused 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 removed the temporary caps and replaced them with Caps "married to the flesh" through some kind of bioengineering. These Caps could not be removed, although White Mountains resistance fighters eventually learned how to disable them by severing certain of the metal filaments. The Caps evidently depended on some form of transmission from within the cities of the Masters - when resistance elements turned 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 created a worshipful attitude toward the Masters; an unhesitating obedience so profound that the Masters did not fear bringing Capped humans into their cities (an overconfidence that would eventually defeat them). According to "The White Mountains," about one person in twenty became a Vagrant due to some failure of the process. One character (Will) speculated that the Vagrant's brain attempted to resist the power of the Cap and eventually broke under the strain, usually if a mind was too weak and collapsed or if a mind was too strong and collapsed resisting the cap. Vagrants were considered harmless (although this was not always true), but were generally unable to remain in one place for any length of time. Each community considered it a social responsibility to care for these unfortunates, who were unable to work, form families, or participate in most of society. Individuals seeking the resistance in the White Mountains were cautioned that if caught and Capped in a place where the natives spoke a different language, Vagrancy was almost certain, suggesting that each Cap received and relayed signals specific to expected thought processes of the wearer.

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

Home World[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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. 

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