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Jasper Fforde Reworks Five Children's Classics as Allegories

Posted on 27th June 2020 by Mark Skinner

As the author of The Constant Rabbit, a comic tale of anthropomorhised rabbits in post-Brexit Britain, Jasper Fforde is well-versed in the construction of potent literary allegories. In fact, the writer has discovered hidden meanings in a number of children's classics, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In this exciting, exclusive and, dare we say, revolutionary piece, Fforde expounds a number of theories that will change the way you view comforting kids' books forevermore.      

Eric Carle's wildly popular 1969 classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a children's favourite and for good reason - but I can't help thinking that the relentless hunger of the caterpillar represents Karl Marx's concept that the people must move through the capitalism phase and reject the inequities to fully embrace socialism. The caterpillar is represented as the voracious capitalistic appetite of materials and people, which begins simply enough as an apple, then rises incrementally to consume all around it. The stomach ache on the 6th day follows the rampant over-consumption and decadent indulgent lifestyle (the chocolate cake and ice cream). On the last day is the revolution, the rejection of the capitalist way and the dawning or a new era of a just and pluralistic society, when the caterpillar, consuming the nourishing yet more proletarian food of a leaf, emerges as the bright butterfly of socialism, with equality and abundance for all.

Lewis Carroll's classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, penned in 1865, is an allegorical orgy with one overarching message: Don't do drugs. As we begin the story we see a bored young Alice - the feckless teenager, easily swayed - deciding to try something mild to liven up her life - and then promptly hallucinating a talking white rabbit. Far from rejecting her first foray into drugs, she literally 'falls into a rabbit hole' of drug experimentation, and indulges in a huge array of psychotropic substances. Most notably of all, she meets a caterpillar who is completely off his head on a hookah, and who offers her hallucinogenic mushrooms, which lead to a paranoid descent into body dysmorphia. After changing in size in a frightening manner she becomes literally 'trapped in her own house' and has to 'kick the habit', here represented by her literal kicking of Bill the lizard who is climbing down the chimney 'to get her'. Finally, after a confrontation with a madman in the guise of a hatter, she becomes oddly fixated with death in the form of decapitation. Thoroughly unnerved, she agrees to 'chuck her hand in' by declaring: 'you're nothing but a pack of cards' and is instantly transported back to the real world, a sober, drug-free and valued member of society. Unfortunately, the book had quite the opposite effect, and Carroll had to publish another volume, whose title might more accurately be described as: 'Weren't you listening? I said DON'T do drugs'.

While Beatrix Potter's celebrated 1908 The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck is more generally seen as the story of a mildly dappy but well-meaning mother duck being hoodwinked by a fox who gets his comeuppance, the reality is more complex. Beatrix Potter was, in her lifetime, one of only four people on the planet who actually understood the complex manoeuvrings of the Schleswig-Holstein question of the early 1800s, simply stated as whether the Duchies of Jutland should either remain independent or cede to either Denmark or the emerging German confederation. While the 876 page treatise of Professor Milton Frobisher offers a 'sterling effort' at explaining Jemima Puddle-Duck in the context of European politics of the 1840's, the precise allegorical meaning of the adventure is never truly clear - much like the Schleswig-Holstein question itself. What is beyond dispute is that the fox represents the German confederation, and the fox-hound puppies (who while liberating Jemima, also eat her eggs) are a proxy to the 2nd Schleswig war. Scholars eagerly awaited the publication of the sequel, The Tale of Mr Tod, which did indeed clear up any misconceptions over the Schleswig-Holstein issue, but raised a few controversial issues regarding Count Otto Von Bismarck, that no amount of Flopsy Bunnies could dispel.

Judith Kerr's 1968 classic The Tiger Who Came to Tea is a delightful tale about an anthropomorphised tiger who turns up one day and consumes everything in Sophie's house, leaving them no choice but to eat out upon Daddy's return. It is now thought to be a not-so-subtle allegory of the International Monetary Fund. The tiger portrays a dangerously imprudent overspend in a nation here represented by Sophie's house. As the spending increases out of all proportion to potential ability to repay debt, the overspend leads to hyperinflation which quite literally 'drains' the house-nation of all liquidity, here symbolised by consumption of the beer and even 'all the water in the tap'. The tiger then leaves the nation bankrupt and without food to feed its citizens. This is where the International Monetary Fund steps in, represented by the patriarchal wise banker father figure, who lends Sophie's house-nation emergency funds which allows it to eat again 'at a cafe in town'. The next day the country, its coffers replenished, go about rebuilding their shattered economy - and in a clear nod to taking on greater fiscal responsibility, buy 'Tiger Food' in case the overspend returns, which, so long as you adhere to the clear and wise economical models demanded by the IMF, you will never need.

The 1977 children's book Burglar Bill seems on the face of it a moralistic tale about two petty thieves atoning for their past crimes in order to live together as a family, but I've always viewed the book as a thinly veiled allegory about British Expansionism in the Colonial Era. Burglar Bill's oft-repeated phrase encapsulates the policy of amoral greed perfectly, and was indeed paraphrased frequently in the Foreign Office of the time: 'That's a nice nation, I'll have that.' Although Burglar Bill did not have the might of the Army and Navy, he perfectly understood the utter indifference to legal and moral ownership. As the story progresses, Bill accidentally steals a baby - an allusion to the wholesale exploitation of the newly acquired workforce - and then meets up with Burglar Betty who presumably represents another European power, also involved in Imperial expansion. After much talk they decide to give everything back, which in this context could be described as independence to the nations, although, as can be seen, the baby is retained - a clear nod to how even if lands may be returned, the continuity of cultural development, wealth and clear national identity is forever tarnished by foreign hands.

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With its pioneering, hand-painted tissue paper illustrations and interactive elements, Carle’s preschool masterpiece has beguiled generations of children, eager to follow the eponymous hero’s gastronomic adventure. From its iconic opening line to the transcendent reveal of the finale, The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a true touchstone of children’s publishing.
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Alice’s collected adventures in the blazingly surreal Wonderland constitute nothing less than the beginning of modern fiction for children. Populated by a cast of unforgettable characters from the White Rabbit to the Queen of Hearts, as well as an addictive internal logic all their own, Carroll’s remarkable works fizz with imagination and invention.
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One of the best loved instalments of Beatrix Potter’s classic series, The Tale of Jemima Puddle Duck finds the scatty Jemima tricked by a sinister ‘foxy gentleman’ with designs on her unhatched eggs. Full of pastoral period charm and adorned with exquisite illustrations, this is one of Potter’s most sublime achievements.
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There can be few books as well loved as Judith Kerr’s mischievous classic of a hungry tiger that turns up for a tasty morsel or two around the kitchen table. But tigers are awfully big and have appetites to match; will Sophie and her mother have enough in the cupboards to keep the tiger from gobbling them up for dessert? One that demands to be read again and again and again.
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From children’s picture book royalty Janet and Allan Ahlberg comes a side-splitting story of theft and redemption featuring one of the duo’s most popular characters. Boasting dynamic artwork and wry, hilarious text, Burglar Bill is an enchanting work beloved of adults and children alike.
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Comments

Elaine Weaver

Brilliant!
Has persuaded me to read this author! View more

Elaine Weaver
14th January 2021
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