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A triffid as illustrated by Wyndham
|First appearance||The Day of the Triffids
|Last appearance||The Day of the Triffids
(2009 TV series)
|Created by||John Wyndham|
The triffid is a fictitious tall, mobile, prolific and highly venomous plant species, the titular antagonist in John Wyndham's 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids and Simon Clark's 2001 sequel The Night of the Triffids. Triffids were also featured in the 1957 BBC radio dramatization of Wyndham's book, a considerably altered 1962 film adaptation, a more faithful 1981 television serial produced by the BBC, and in a 2009 two-part TV series also produced by the BBC.
The origin of the triffid species is never fully revealed in Wyndham's novel. The novel's central character, Bill Masen, dismisses the idea that they are a naturally occurring species, or that they are extraterrestrial in origin:
My own belief, for what that is worth, is that they were the outcome of a series of ingenious biological meddlings—and very likely accidental, at that. Had they been evolved anywhere but in the region they were, we should doubtless have had a well‑documented ancestry for them.
The 1981 TV series and some editions of the book have Masen speculating that the triffids were the creation of the real-life Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko. According to Masen's narration, the triffids first came to the attention of the Western world when a man named Umberto Christoforo Palanguez presented the Arctic & European Fish Oil Company with a mysterious vegetable oil originating from Russia. Once the scientists of Arctic & European realised how potent the oil was, Palanguez' offer to smuggle some seeds of the plant out of Russia was accepted. Palanguez disappeared, but Masen guesses that his plane carrying the triffid seeds was shot down by the Red Air Force, allowing the seeds to be carried all over the globe by wind.
Initial outbreaks and exploitation
The first triffid outbreaks occur in Indochina, where they receive little press attention until triffids also appear in Sumatra, Borneo, Belgian Congo, Colombia, Brazil and other equatorial regions. Although they develop faster in tropical zones, triffids soon establish themselves worldwide outside the polar and desert regions. When it is discovered that triffids are predatory, they are almost exterminated until they are identified as the source of the valuable oil. Upon discovery that docking their stingers renders them harmless, docked triffids soon become fashionable in public and private gardens. As it takes triffids two years to fully regrow their stings, captive triffids are safe if pruned annually. Triffid farms are built to produce triffid oil, which is of greater quality when taken from undocked specimens.
During and after the Great Blinding
After a large part of the Earth's human population is rendered blind by a brightly-coloured comet shower, triffids escape confinement and go on the rampage, killing large numbers of people. They soon overrun mainland Europe and the British Isles, thus forcing the majority of survivors to escape to the Isle of Wight and other islands.
In Simon Clark's 2001 book The Night of the Triffids, set 25 years after the events of Wyndham's original book, triffids in the British Isles are still valued as energy and food sources. Owing to an annual cull, Triffids remain absent on the Isle of Wight, until they are transported there by large floating mats of debris and vegetation. Triffids also become more aggressive because a comet shower has blotted out the sun, thus forcing them to increase their nutritional intake. In North America, standard triffids develop a form of echolocation, swamp-dwelling triffids become fully aquatic and a small number of giant triffids attack New York. Members of the Algonquin tribe escape attack owing to their immunity to triffid venom. By the end of the sequel, it is revealed that owing to their constant exposure to small doses of triffid venom in their food, a quarter of the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight are also immune to triffid venom, thus encouraging them to return to the British mainland.
Appearance and habits
According to the novel, the fictitious triffid can be divided into three components: base, trunk, and head (which contains a venomous sting). In The Day of the Triffids, adult triffids are described as typically 7 feet (2.1 m) in height. European triffids never exceed 8 feet (2.4 m), while those in tropical areas can reach 10 feet (3.0 m). In The Night of the Triffids, a small number of North American triffids reach 60 feet (18 m) in height.
The base of a triffid is a large muscle-like root mass, comprising three blunt appendages. When dormant, these appendages draw nutrients, as on a normal plant. When active, triffids use these appendages to propel themselves. The character Masen describes the triffid's locomotion thus:
When it "walked" it moved rather like a man on crutches. Two of the blunt "legs" slid forward, then the whole thing lurched as the rear one drew almost level with them, then the two in front slid forward again. At each "step" the long stem whipped violently back and forth; it gave one a kind of seasick feeling to watch it. As a method of progress it looked both strenuous and clumsy—faintly reminiscent of young elephants at play. One felt that if it were to go on lurching for long in that fashion it would be bound to strip all its leaves if it did not actually break its stem. Nevertheless, ungainly though it looked, it was contriving to cover the ground at something like an average walking pace.
Above the base are upturned leafless sticks which the triffid drums against its stem. The exact purpose of this is not fully explained in The Day of the Triffids; it is originally assumed that they are part of the reproductive system, but Bill Masen's colleague Walter Lucknor believes that they are employed for communication. It is revealed that removal of these sticks causes the triffid to physically deteriorate. In The Night of the Triffids, the character Gabriel Deeds speculates that the vibrations made by the triffid's sticks serve as a form of echolocation.
The upper part of a triffid consists of a stem ending in a funnel-like formation containing a sticky substance which traps insects, much like a pitcher plant. Also housed within the funnel is a stinger which, when fully extended, can measure 10 feet (3.0 m) in length. When attacking, a triffid will lash the sting at its target, primarily aiming for its prey's face or head, with considerable speed and force. Contact with bare skin can kill a person instantly. Once its prey has been stung and killed, a triffid will root itself beside the body and feed on it as it decomposes.
Triffids reproduce by inflating a dark green pod below the top of the funnel until it bursts, releasing white seeds (95% of which are infertile) into the air.
A recurring question in The Day of the Triffids is whether or not triffids are intelligent or merely acting on set instincts. The character Lucknor states that although triffids lack a central nervous system, they nonetheless display what he considers intelligence:
And there's certainly intelligence there, of a kind. Have you noticed that when they attack they always go for the unprotected parts? Almost always the head—but sometimes the hands. And another thing: if you look at the statistics of casualties, just take notice of the proportion that has been stung across the eyes and blinded. It's remarkable—and significant.
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Triffids were illustrated on the front cover of the first edition of The Day of the Triffids.
The triffids made their first screen appearance in Steve Sekely's 1962 film adaptation. The triffids are portrayed as extraterrestrial lifeforms transported to Earth by comets. This is directly contradictory of the literary source, in which Bill Masen states:
In the books there is quite a lot of loose speculation on the sudden occurrence of the triffids. Most of it is nonsense. Certainly they were not spontaneously generated, as many simple souls believed. Nor did most people endorse the theory that they were a kind of sample visitation—harbingers of worse to come if the world did not mend its ways and behave its troublesome self. Nor did their seeds float to us through space as specimens of the horrid forms life might assume upon other, less favoured worlds—at least I am satisfied that they did not.
This is later reinforced in The Night of the Triffids, in which a young David Masen replies negatively to his teacher's question as to whether or not triffids are extraterrestrial.
The 1962 film triffids (now given the binomial name Triffidus celestus) also differ physically: the film triffids were designed with flaying tentacles below their stems, which they use as slashing weapons and to drag their dead prey. Also, their stinger is shown as a gas-propelled projectile, rather than a coiled tendril. Finally, the film triffids are vulnerable to sea water.
Triffids later appeared in the 1981 BBC serial, in which they are portrayed much as described in the book. Designed by Steve Drewett, the triffids were operated by a man crouched inside, cooled by a fan installed in its neck; the 'clackers' were radio-controlled. The gnarled bole—based on the ginseng root—was made of latex with a covering of sawdust and string, while the neck was fibreglass and continued to the floor, where it joined with the operator's seat. The plants were surmounted by a flexible rubber head, coated with clear gunge. After the end of the production, one was displayed for a time in the Natural History Museum in London, where Drewett had once been employed. Some inferior copies of the props were later used in a cocktail party sketch in an episode of Alexei Sayle's Stuff.
A triffid makes an appearance in one panel of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, a 2007 graphic novel written by Alan Moore and drawn by Kevin O'Neill.
In the 2009 two-part TV series, the triffids are portrayed as a naturally occurring species from Zaire, discovered by the West and selectively bred as an alternative to fossil fuels, in order to avert global warming. Rather than walking on three blunt stumps, the triffids drag themselves with prehensile roots which can also constrict their prey. Their stalk is surrounded by large agave-like leaves, and they secrete their oil (green rather than the novel's pink) from their surfaces. Their stingers, which in previous film adaptations could not penetrate glass, are powerful enough to shatter windows, like those of the original triffids of the novel. Instead of a cup they have a pink flower-like head, resembling a cross between a lily and a sweet pea, that enlarges before releasing the sting.
Other uses of the term
- The Day of the Triffids, the 1951 novel by John Wyndham
- The Day of the Triffids, the 1962 film adaptation
- The Day of the Triffids (radio), a BBC radio dramatization
- The Day of the Triffids (1981 TV series)
- The Night of the Triffids, a 2001 sequel to Wyndham's book by Simon Clark
- The Day of the Triffids (2009 TV series)
For Wyndham's explanation of the true origin of the triffids, see David Ketterer, "John Wyndham's World War III and His Abandoned *Fury of Creation* Trilogy" in Future Wars: The Anticipations and the Fears, ed. David Seed (Liverpool University Press, 2012), 103-29.
- "The Return of the Triffids . . ." The John Wyndham Archive
- Wyndham, "The Day of the Triffids", ch.2.
- John Wyndham, The Day Of The Triffids, chapter 2
- Merriam-Webster: trifid
- Clark, "The Night of the Triffids", ch.3.
- Clark, "The Night of the Triffids", ch.26.
- Clark, "The Night of the Triffids", ch.31.
- Clark, "The Night of the Triffids", ch.41.
- Clark, "The Night of the Triffids", ch.28.
- Clark, "The Night of the Triffids", ch.45.
- Wyndham, "The Day of the Triffids", ch.5.
- Wyndham, "The Day of the Triffids", ch.11.
- "In the Kingdom of the Blind: BBC's The Day of the Triffids". Phantom Frame. Heaton, Greater Manchester, UK. Archived from the original on 2004-07-08. Retrieved 2016-06-17.