Literature / War with the Newts

Aliens, zombies, robots, apes, sure... but newts!?

War with the Newts is an 1936 novel by Karel Čapek.

Czech Captain Van Toch is ordered to go pearl fishing and ends up on Tana Masa, an island near Sumatra. The natives won't let him into Devil Bay, contending that there are demons there, but Van Toch goes there anyway with a few gutsy native boys, who return with several pearls and a strange tale of darkly colored newt demons. Toch, after quite a bit of drinking, teaches these newts to fetch him pearls but sees that their small population is threatened by sharks. As he has become to see these newts as almost his children, he becomes enraged, and goes to his old childhood rival from his village, Bondy, who is now an industry magnate. Which isn't as unlikely as it sounds, considering the small size of Czechoslovakia.

The doorman Povondra is not sure whether to let him in, which eventually becomes a plot point. Bondy does not believe the insane, rambling, racist-epithet-full tale, but has a feeling that he should grant the request of a ship to carry the newts around and establish newt colonies. Which happens to have some very far-reaching effects on the planet Earth.

Karel Čapek segues from this point into short stories and newspaper clippings to tell of the eventual eponymous war with the Newts, as they come to be called, while sharply satirizing everything from Nazism to Hollywood. Oh, and he seemingly foretells the Munich Agreement, except Czechoslovakia is China, and Germany is the Newts.


  • Bilingual Bonus/Fun with Foreign Languages: For five languages. There is a group of five scientists, the most renowned biologist of the time in field of fish parasites, segmented worms, plant biology, ciliates and aphids: P. L. Smith, W. Kleinschmidt, Charles Kovar, Louis Forgeron and D. Herrero. The surnames mean "smith" or "blacksmith".
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The final chapter is titled "The author speaks to himself". He stops the story as a deus ex machina character and asks himself whether he feels sorry for the human race and their sad fate.
  • Bridal Carry: A wanna-be star invokes this trope when she demands she be carried. She feels fabulous and as light as a feather, while her lover is less comfortable and thought she wouldn't be as heavy.
  • Downer Ending: Newts are about to take over the world, and Povondra is dying, guilt-ridden, as he considers himself responsible. However, the author then starts an argument with an internal voice, that tells him that he can't finish the story like that. He eventually envisions a war between the different kind of Newts in which they destroy themselves, and humanity can retake what remains of Earth.
  • Fictional Document: The novel contains many fictitious newspaper clippings about the Newts.
  • Gratuitous Foreign Language: The Czech original novel has tons of Gratuitous English to spice it up and give it a feel of exotic lands and the life on the sea. There is some Gratuitous German, already lurking as Black Speech connected with Those Wacky Nazis. "Solche Erfolge erreichen nur Duetche Molche." (Only German newts accomplish such great things.)
  • It's All My Fault: When the use of the Newts has positive effects, Povondra likes to claim that it's all thanks to him, because he let van Toch in. When the war breaks out, and the Newts reach Czechoslovakia, he feels horrible guilt. His son, however, tells him that it isn't really his fault; everyone is guilty.
  • Master Race: Poking fun at the Third Reich, Čapek has German government claim that German Newts are a superior Nordic race and deserve more "lebensraum" than the inferior Newts of other countries.
  • Punny Name: The story opens with introducing Captain J. Van Toch and the name of his ship and that he works for a company based in Amsterdam strongly imply he's Dutch. However, it's later revealed his name is actually Vantoch which is a very ordinary-sounding Czech surname. He comes from Moravia and speaks in irresistible local dialect.
  • Same Story, Different Names: The general plot of War with the Newts is very similar to that of R.U.R., which Čapek had published 15 years earlier.
  • Scrapbook Story: Capek worked also as a journalist, and this novel shows. It is a collage of various story-telling methods and Capek employed and spoofed techniques of popular journalism for expressing scientific, political, social or philosophical ideas related to the story. The story is presented from multiple perspectives, and there are many documents, scraps and clippings from in-verse scientists, journalists, politicians, businessmen, celebrities or working-class people.
  • Slave Race: The Newts.
  • Turned Against Their Masters: The inevitable Newt rebellion.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The debates surrounding treatment of the Newts.
  • You Have to Believe Me: Bondy does eventually listen to van Toch about the Newts.

Alternative Title(s): War With The Salamanders