Variations on a Theme

I have a photograph of a cartoon.

It is called ‘The March Of Intellect’.

It is bizarre, painted in 1829 at the dawn of the steam age, when anything seemed possible. William Heath designs outrageous transport contraptions: a Grand Vacuum Company which takes hordes direct from London to Bengal; people flying using platforms borne by four hot air balloons, one at each corner; and the iron horse really is an iron horse on wheels.

In the top left hand corner is a castle, built securely on white fluffy clouds. It is signposted: “scheme for repaying the national debt.”

We all dream. But which dreams are realistic?

There are plenty of folk tales on the subject. They have a type number: 1430. Castles in the air. Variations on the theme of daydreaming.

Here’s one, originally written in Sanscrit.

Once upon a time, there was a poor man who lived next to a wealthy merchant. And the merchant, a jovial compassionate man, took a huge flask of oil one day, and handed it to the poor man as a gift.

Whereupon the man began to dream.

“How much oil is in that bottle, I wonder….” he mused as he ate his meagre meal that evening. “I bet if I sold that I could buy five sheep.”

And he instantly sat taller, already the notional owner of livestock. The dream became bigger and more expansive: lambs, a flock, money to get married…”

His chest puffed up. “And then I would have a son, and what a fine son he would be! A tall, strong boy to do my bidding! ”

He checked himself. What if the son were disobedient?

“Why then, Β ” he cried, raising his stick, “I should punish him thus!”

But his stick came down, not on his unruly offspring, but on the bottle of oil. It smashed, and all the oil was lost.

Dreams shattered.

I like another variation, though: an Indian story called The Daydreamer.

A servant was daydreaming his way to market. He was carrying jars of oil on his head to sell his master’s wares.

What, he dreamt, shall I do when I get paid?

With the oil I could buy chickens, and they will multiply and lay eggs, and surely I must make enough money to buy goats; and later, as my goats multiply I will sell them and buy cows, and buffaloes; finally I shall have enough for farmland, and a wife.

And with my beautiful wife, I will have children, and every day I will hurry back from the hot golden fields to see them. And my wife will meet me with cool, clear water. And I will rest.

And finally it will be time for dinner and the children will run to me, and shout: “Daddy, hurry up and wash, it is time for dinner!” and I will shake my head and say No, no, not yet!”

As he shook his head vigorously to his non-existent children, the oil fell from his head to the ground.

Right, said his master, that’s two rupees for the oil, and compensation aside for the pots.

But the servant was adamant. he had lost far more than that himself. And he explained all his dreams. I lost a wife and a family an a farm, he said.

The oil merchant listened, mouth agape. There was a silence.

And then he roared with laughter.

“Having scrutinised the accounts, ” he said, “I find our losses are equal.” And they both went on their way, laughing.

Same theme, different outcomes. One leaves the bottle and the dreams in shards at a man’s feet.

The other accords real weight and gravitas to castles in the air.

Which one is the correct variation?

Written in response to Side View’s weekend theme: Variations on a theme. you can find details here


37 thoughts on “Variations on a Theme

    1. Good point πŸ™‚ Our dreams of today might seem strange to other times. Dreams are entertaining in their own right: you remind me, for some reason, of that wonderful silent film, Metropolis.

  1. Ah, this is so much like the economic situation the world finds itself in, living beyond its means, eating the air, promised-crammed. You’d think that the global crisis we found ourselves in, in 2008, and the exposing of the lies financial institutions fed and keep feeding us, would be a wake-up call, but no: we’re still snoozing on. The capitalist dream? It’ll all end in tears, and so will we.

    Ooh, it’s all gone a bit quiet…

    1. No, no, I’m nodding sagely, Chris. You are quite right: one might argue that we find ourselves here because of castles built some time ago. I am no fan of the capitalist dream, and agree resoundingly with your comment.

  2. Maybe the value of mental castles is only in the mental. I guess the real value is when we act positively on such castles and use them to move us forward. PS. I don’t much like the idea of travelling by hoover from London to Bengal, it sounds worse than budget airlines! πŸ™‚

  3. Both ‘real’ if real means ‘people are like that’. Seems to me the first story shows how to kill the dream and the second how to start bringing it to life… No contest there for preference and hope. Great response to Sidey, thanks to both of you.

  4. Love the contrast in these two variations. The first makes me sad and the second (with the very same outcome) makes me laugh. And is there a lesson in greed within both?

    1. I’m with you, there, Judy. I like the second version more. MAinly because he puts his hopes, ultimately, in a wife and children and the possessions are merely a route to these. Let us hope he was able to build on his dreams.

  5. I love that “March of Intellect” — I’m going to have to see if there’s a print of that anywhere. I suppose it’s no more fantastical than anything HG Wells cooked up, really.

    I agree that the 2nd version of the story seems more likely to be the real one but they’re both apt.

    1. I took a picture of it in the British Museum a year or so ago: I’ve not seen any of Heath’s stuff in print. He’s an amazing cartoonist with rapier-sharp wit, and I have a few of his cartoons squirelled away. For background on the artist – or what I can find – check out Inventions and Castles in the Air at

  6. Jasper Fforde’s reimagined Britain features global travel by vacuum tube. It’s wonderful to read. As to daydreams, they are easily shattered but the weight and gravitas, as you say, appeals to me.

    1. I wonder if Jasper Fforde ever got to see Heath’s illustration?

      I suppose dreams are like a snowball gathering snow: they need the right conditions to thrive, don’t they?

  7. What amazes me is that sci-fi writers of past recent centuries incorporated tech into their stories that do approach realities and they had noscience but only their imagination.

  8. What we do with our thoughts and then our dreams is key, even with setbacks. I’m watching the Olympics tonight and listening to story after story of dreams that started years before these athletes have their biggest moment. And some have had tremendous hardships along the way, yet kept going! I enjoyed both stories, Kate. I wasn’t familiar with either one, but must say I prefer story number 2! πŸ™‚ D

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