Mister Magnolia by Quentin Blake

Mister Magnolia cover

Mister Magnolia is a picture book written and illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake. It won the Kate Greenaway Medal in 1980, and the Red House Children’s Book Award in 1981. This story is an excellent lesson in simplicity. Even the rhyming is simple; everything rhymes with ‘boot’.

Boots And Scooters

The illustration below reminds me of a story my father tells from his 1940s childhood. He and his siblings desperately wanted kick scooters, which were all the rage in New Zealand, despite having been invented in Germany way back in the early 1800s.

But their father, my grandfather, said a hard no to scooters. Reason being, scooters would wear out only one boot. So they got bikes instead. (Bikes without brakes, I might add.) Back then, shoes were super expensive. I’d assumed the ‘wearing out one boot’ reason for eschewing the scooter was specific to my paternal grandfather, but Quentin Blake is the same vintage as my father and, after reading Mister Magnolia, I now wonder if parents of the early 20th century commonly believed that the scooter would result in assymetrical wear and tear to their kids’ boots, breaking the working class family’s budget.

Quentin Blake never gives us the backstory as to WHY Mister Magnolia wears only one boot, but I deduce it’s because he completely wore it out from kick scooting all over the show. This despite my own experience of scooter riding (I never had one as a kid for the SAME REASON my father never had one). But we did buy one for our kid, and I’ve given it a whirl. I find myself alternating feet constantly because one gets a bit tired. I’m not even ambifooted. (Has anyone done a study on this?)

Mister Magnolia by Quentin Blake scooter with children hanging onto his ankle

CARNIVALESQUE STORY STRUCTURE OF MISTER MAGNOLIA

PARATEXT

Mr Magnolia has only one boot.
He has an old trumpet that goes rooty-toot –
And two lovely sisters who play on the flute –
But Mr Magnolia has only one boot.

In this wittily rhyming picture book, Mr Magnolia has a full and happy life except for one serious omission – a boot. But one day, he receives a mysterious parcel, and at last Mr Magnolia can splash in the puddles with everyone else!

marketing copy

Notice how the front cover is a full-body shot of the main character… minus his feet. If the cover showed him wearing only one boot, that would ruin the surprise of the opening page… in which we are told he wears only one boot.

Notice how seldom characters are depicted in long shots minus only their feet. Very seldom. In general, it’s not recommended. It’s not a typical shot at all, and the super careful reader will know even before opening the cover that something’s going on with the guy’s feet. It’s not something we notice consciously, though.

Emphasis on the feet is a fairytale trope of yore, but usually it’s kinda gruesome. The character will look normal but have chicken feet or something. In this contemporary picture book for very young readers, Blake takes that trope and makes it fun.

A fun picture book will very likely have a carnivalesque story structure, so that’s what I’m using here to analyse the story.

Carnivalesque stories look a bit different when the star is a child hero. Below I go into how a carnivalesque story works when the main character is an adult.

An Every Child is at home

Mr Magnolia is in the body of an adult but he is a child stand-in. For our purposes he is the child. Blake first depicts him inside the house, and tells us a little about his home.

Mister Magnolia may be a child archetype but he is not the EVERY child by dint of him being an eccentric. This book is basically a character study of a wacky figure.

What I really appreciate about stories Quentin Blake has both written AND illustrated himself: They are kinder than the stories he illustrated for Roald Dahl and Roald Dahl’s chosen successor, David Walliams. For instance, Roald Dahl was hard on fat people. (This despite being an irrepresible sweet tooth and tobacco addict himself.) But in Quentin Blake’s Mister Magnolia, we are told that Mister Magnolia has two lovely sisters. And they are not both slim! One is large, the other small, and they are BOTH lovely. This simply would not happen in a Roald Dahl story, with the exception of the Grandmother figure in The Witches. (Grandmothers are exempt from female beauty standards, and the grandmother of The Witches does not conform to feminine expectations of behaviour.)

The Every Child wishes to have fun.

Mister Magnolia is shown having lots of fun. He scoots through the park with children clinging onto his leg and so on and so forth. The fun of this book derives from watching Mister Magnolia have fun. He is more fun than a child figure because of the comical juxtaposition: Like a hat wearing a dog, grown-ups don’t normally have this kind of fun.

Appearance of an Ally in Fun

An adult character doesn’t require a Cat In The Hat figure to accompany them on their journey into fun because an adult has all the freedom they need to leave the house, live on their own, etc. Mister Magnolia’s ‘allies in fun’ are children.

Hierarchy is overturned. Fun ensues.

I do wonder if a story like this would be published today. When Quentin Blake was creating Mister Magnolia at the end of the 1970s, there were still plenty of men in primary school teaching. The 1980s saw a rapid and permanent exodus of men from teaching as parents became more aware of sex abuse crimes against children. Suddenly, what had earlier been hidden, precisely because it was unthinkable to non-pedophiles, became a fleshed-out fear in the minds of parents, and book-buyers everywhere.

What sort of man plays with other people’s children in the park? I personally rail against the idea that men playing with kids in children’s books should be avoided to spare those particular feelings of discomfort in adult gatekeepers. Men need to be more involved in childcare before equality is achieved, and if kids themselves grow up thinking that men are not the natural playmates of kids, that’s a problem for the next generation of fathers, step-fathers, uncles and male teachers.

Fun builds!

The fun does build, but Quentin Blake adds pathos to this carnivalesque romp by inducing audience sympathy for the poor Mister Magnolia who can’t go outside in the rain because he’ll get a wet foot. This is magnificent, because children will identify with the frustration of being stuck inside because of inclement weather.

Mister Magnolia looking out the window
Mister Magnolia looking out the window

Notice that as the fun builds, Mister Magnolia’s pets get more and more unlikely. Okay, we believe he has birds (another feminine attribute in art is to be surrounded by birds), but eventually we find he has a pet dinosaur (not just an unlikelihood, an impossibility).

Peak Fun!

In a more modern carnivalesque picture book, at least if we look at the bestsellers, the end to the carnivalesque romp will be a gag or a joke of some kind. Take a look at Stuck by Oliver Jeffers for a good example of what I’m talking about.

I was wondering how Blake was going to end this one. And because I’ve read a lot of contemporary carnivalesque picture books, I was half-expecting a Ha! moment. But that’s not Quentin Blake’s MO. He writes with what we might call a feminine sensibility. To clarify, and avoid gender essentialism: Quentin writes stories about kindness, and girls, more than boys, are acculturated to be kind by the types of games we expect thme to play (e.g. tea parties), and by the books we expect them to read (e.g. domestic stories rather than swashbuckling adventures).

Other wits have noted that masculine stories emphasise the climax, while feminine stories emphasise the build-up. Although the ‘gag’ ending is popular at the moment, and almost entirely written by men in children’s publishing, here’s what’s true about joke climaxes: They’re funniest the first time. Really good jokes don’t stop being funny, of course, and the difficult trick of picture books is to write a really good, repeatable gag. But Blake’s Mister Magnolia is an excellent example of a carnivalesque picture book that doesn’t end in a climactic gag. The jokes have been drip fed to us all through the story, and although this is an excellent rhyming read-aloud which encourages the reader to keep turning the page, the repeat-reading joy comes from really studying the humorous details of the story in subsequent sessions.

Avoiding the climactic joke, the romp in this book ends with a girl gifting Mister Magnolia a boot. Quentin Blake slows down the pace and builds up suspense as Mister Magnolia slowly opens his gift. (That’s why we wrap gifts in the first place, right? Suspense!)

Magnificently, the boot does not match his other one. But he is delighted with it, and so are we, because now Mister Magnolia is free to roam no matter the weather.

Return to the Home state

The final image is of Mister Magnolia in bed. He is very clearly a child archetype. He sleeps in a single bed, and like picture book children everywhere, his fun ends with him safely tucked in his own bed, asleep.

Mister Magnolia in bed
Mister Magnolia in bed

MAGNOLIAS

Fritz Berthold-Neuhaus, Blossoming Magnolia Tree, 1924
Fritz Berthold-Neuhaus, Blossoming Magnolia Tree, 1924

Although the magnolia is a well-known flower, it’s not all that common. That describes Blake’s Mister Magnolia character, right? Well-known in the neighbourhood, but beautifully unusual.

Magnolia flowers are also thought to be symbols of femininity, dignity and purity. It comes in a wide variety of colours.

The Tale Of Pigling Bland by Beatrix Potter

As you read “The Tale of Pigling Bland” (1913) imagine Beatrix Potter sitting in a pig shed with her art gear and muck boots on, because that’s how she spent one summer, diligently rendering pigs (and then decking them out in clothes). Apparently she struggled to knock this one out. She’d had a big year.

Despite her illness, her engagement and her Escape To The Country, I’m not surprised she had trouble with this story. It’s a jumbling mess of a plot. Compare Pigling Bland to the tidy narrative of Peter Rabbit. What the hell is even happening in this one? I don’t pretend to even know, but Halloween recently passed, Beatrix did create decent talking-animal body horror fiction, so I’ll give it my best shot and enjoy every minute.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TALE OF PIGLING BLAND

(The plot summary quoted below is snagged from the Gutenberg  website.)

NARRATION

Pigling Bland begins as Potter’s stories often did — with what sounds like an omniscient, third person narrator.  Then boom:

Aunt Pettitoes and I dragged him out by the hind legs.

Beatrix Potter

(Harsh.) At first I’m like, who is this first person narrator? One of the other two pigs?

We soon learn this is Beatrix Potter talking. She’s put herself in the story. She’s in the illustrations as well (but presumably not in this one).

A hugely successful pair of Australian children’s book creators do the same thing in their Treehouse series. Inserting oneself in your fiction must be a useful tactic for authors and illustrators doing the publicity rounds, visiting schools and whatnot. Extra stardom! I assumed that’s mostly why Andy and Terry do it. But Potter did it first! (Was Potter required to do publicity rounds?)

SHORTCOMING

Pigling Bland begins in carnivalesque fashion, with a series of images depicting the fun mischief of piglets. First Potter lists the fun names of the piglets (by the way, Chin-Chin in Japanese is a colloquial, cutesy word for ‘penis’, a problem also for anyone reading “The Three Pigs” to Japanese kids.) Stumpy has had an accident to his tail, so it’s not all fun and games.

The piglets get stuck in things, they eat soap, they get into baskets of clean clothes, root up carrots…

Aunt Pettitoes, an old sow, can no longer cope with her eight troublemaking offspring and thus makes them leave home, with the exception of a well-behaved sow named Spot.

But suddenly the story turns dark.

Two of them, boars named Pigling Bland and Alexander, go to market.

Pigling Bland is now a mythic journey.

In a mythic journey you’ll probably find images of roads. (Or rivers.)

The point of view switches to the piglets and away from Beatrix Potter and Potter’s sow alter ego, Aunt Pettitoes.

Let’s call these little piglets the main characters. I reckon this is a harrowing story for young readers. I still remember a nightmare I had as a kid. I came home to find my entire family gone. For some reason we lived in a forest, but I knew it was meant to be home. I had to drive the family car to try and find them. (How they were meant to have got to where they’d gone without the family car, I will never know. I awoke before finding any answers.)

The illustration of the little pigs in the wheelbarrow is heartbreaking, actually. I shall never enjoy bacon again. (Or wheelbarrow rides.)

piglets in a wheelbarrow

DESIRE

We assume the little pigs don’t want to be turfed out of home, right? Well, not too much is made of that. They may not have a loving and secure home life, but at least they get their adventure.

PLANS AND OPPONENTS

As befits a mythic journey, the pigs meet a variety of characters along the way: allies, enemies and not-sure-yets. The pigs themselves have different personalities and I imagine Pigling Bland is cracking the shits with Alexander. If you’ve ever been abroad with a flake you know what I mean. They lose tickets and burn through all their money (or their ‘conversation peppermints’).

Now Alexander has scoffed all his own peppermints and wants Pigling’s.

This could almost be a scene from To The Manor Born.

Basically, Pigling Bland has more advanced executive functioning skills.

Pigling Bland is very sensible but the more frivolous Alexander loses his pig license and, when he fails to produce them to a passing policeman, is made to return to the farm.

Sheee-it.

Now Pigling Bland is all alone in the world. This is basically a mish-mash between The Three Little Pigs and that nursery rhyme, quoted by Potter in this, in which one little pig goes to market, etc. (then runs wee wee wee all the way home). Because which of the Three Little Pigs was the most sensible? The one who built his house of bricks (not just cheap ass brick veneer, either). Pigling Bland is basically Sensible Brick Pig.

The policeman accuses the disenfranchised child pigs of… stealing pigs. This feels like a gag, except for an associated dark history. I’m reminded of several ridiculous laws:

  1. During the era of slavery in America, an escaped human being would be accused of stealing themselves from their ‘owners’.
  2. Even today, sex workers can be legally tried for ‘trafficking’ themselves, most at risk when crossing international borders.

The policeman takes Alexander back to Beatrix Potter, who re-homes him nearby. (Why did she not do that in the first place?) Apparently Alexander gets used to it after a while. Let’s not ask further details.

Reluctantly going on alone, Pigling Bland later finds the missing papers, which ended up in his pocket as a result of an earlier scuffle with Alexander.

Well, shit. How guilty would you be?

In any good mythic journey the main character will end up in their deep, dark Jungian subconscious (ie. the woods).

He tries to find his brother but ends up getting lost in the woods and has to spend the night in a stranger’s chicken coop.

Hey, weren’t the pigs told to keep away from hens/chicken coops whatevs?

Ever found something weird in your chicken coop? I once had a dead chook come back to life. At least, that’s what I thought until learning the mundane truth: My own chook died; coincidentally, a neighbour found someone else’s chook and put it to bed in our coop that very same evening. Rhode Island Reds all look exactly the same, too.

And is this gruff farmer gruff in general, or only gruff on the outside? Appearances can be deceptive… but never trust a beard, kiddies:

 He is found in the morning by a gruff farmer, Peter Thomas Piperson, who allows him to stay in his house, but Pigling is not sure the farmer is trustworthy.

Sure enough, the beard is a baddie and the poor little piglet has waded into a house of grisly horrors. He doesn’t just have a beard — he is ‘offensively ugly’. Now we have Hansel and Gretel in the mix, the archetypal fairytale of cannibalism and famine.

All Pigling wants right now is food to eat, which is weird because as I mentioned in my take on “Singing My Sister Down”, appetites tend to disappear when our lives are at stake.

But Mr Peter Thomas Piperson seems to realise this ain’t no ordinary pig. For starters, the pig’s in pants. So he lets the pig sleep on the rug. Maybe he’s going to keep Pigling as a pet, like a dog. Or maybe not. There’s not enough food here, either. For a murderous individual, Mr Piperson has a typically English way of ousting his uninvited visitor: “You’ll likely be moving on again?” But then he threatens to skin Pigling if he doesn’t leave the house without meddling.

Instead of getting the hell out, Pigling decides to have a leisurely, tidy breakfast at Mr Piperson’s. He’s singing to himself while wiping the dishes when another voice joins in. Creepy much? This scene reminds me of Roland the Minstrel Pig. (Maybe it’s just the singing-pig combo.)

Pigling discovers that Piperson has a second pig in his house who was stolen from her owner and whom he intends to turn into bacon and ham. The second pig, a beautiful black Berkshire sow named Pig-wig, suggests they run away so that they won’t be sold, or worse, eaten. Pigling Bland has in any case decided to avoid the market and become a potato farmer instead.

The meet cute scene

BIG STRUGGLE

Like Hansel and Gretel, Pigling and Pig-wig make their escape:

At dawn the pair sneak off but in the course of their escape they come across a grocer in a cart who recognises Pig-wig as the recently stolen pig for whom a reward has been issued.

Thusly, Pigling Bland (basically a porcine Walter White) turns from a bland sensible guy trying to make his own way in the world despite terrible odds into a sneaky trickster to get what he wants. Which is to not be eaten, thank you.

This trick reminds me of an episode of The I.T. Crowd(Roy in the wheelchair). Not positive fake disability gags really fly in the year of our Lord 2019, however…

ANAGNORISIS & NEW SITUATION

By being co-operative [Anagnorisis], and with Pigling Bland faking a limp, the two pigs manage to gain time and, once the grocer is at a safe distance, flee to the county boundary and finally, over the hills and far away, where they dance to celebrate their new-found freedom.

The ending is more like The Three Little Pigs than like the most enduring versions of Hansel and Gretel because the pigs never go home again. They find a new home. Mythic journeys can go either way but they all end with some version of home. But we knew Pigling Bland was never returning to his original home, didn’t we? First we were told there’s not quite enough to eat. Then Potter the Narrator says “if you once cross the county boundary you cannot come back”.

I think these two are going to get on like a house on fire because they both love to sing and dance.

Pigling Bland is almost your classic Slavery > Greater Slavery > Freedom journey, except the story opened with quite a bit of frivolity and fun (Freedom) for the piglets.

Overall, I found the authorial insertion weird by today’s standards. And the mythic journey of Pigling Bland feels episodic. The modern reader wants a more integrated journey than is offered here. However, there is something fun about Pigling’s chaotic journey, and the randomness of events. We never really know why that psychopath Piperson goes from ‘let’s eat the pig’ to ‘let’s keep the pig for a pet’ to ‘I’m gonna skin the pig’ to ‘affable’, but that hardly matters, does it?

What about you? Did you enjoy it?

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle by Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter wrote Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle specifically to appeal to girls. She thought that Lucie’s feminine garb, with its emphasis on the lost clothing items (o, calamity!), would appeal to girls especially.

Even today, authors and publishers are creating children’s books for the gender binary* e.g. this book will appeal to boys because X; this will appeal to girls because Y.

*Gender binary is not an ideal term, though it’s used widely. We don’t live in a gender binary — that suggests two categories which are equal. We live with gender isomorphism, in which there are ‘men’ and ‘failed men’.

Potter’s concept was a hard sell — publisher Norman Warne (about to become her fiancé) couldn’t see the appeal but he must’ve conceded he wasn’t a girl himself so Beatrix would know better, and Beatrix won (as she often did).

But Beatrix was wrong about the appeal of Lucie. Everyone who sets out to write ‘boy books’ and ‘girl books’ is always completely wrong, of course. Lucie didn’t garner much of an audience at all — everyone preferred the character of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.

Norman hadn’t been keen on a ‘hedgehog book’, either. He didn’t think dirty hedgehogs would appeal to kids — probably because they’re not fluffy. (The spines are modified hairs, Norman.) Perhaps it was Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle herself who paved the way for an entire raft of animal children’s books featuring non-cute creatures. Now we see reptiles, naked mole rats, fish, likeable insects and almost anything you can think of in picture books.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MRS. TIGGY WINKLE

Since Potter intended Lucie to be the main character, that’s where I’ll go with it.

SHORTCOMING

Lucie’s shortcoming is that she keeps losing things.

DESIRE

Lucie wants her handkerchief and pinnies back, which sets her out on her journey.

OPPONENT

This is a carnivalesque story, so the Opponent is replaced by a fun creature who allows the child to enter fully into a world of fantasy.

Any sense of danger comes only from the ‘hair-pins’ poking through Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle’s bonnet, wrong end out. This suggests she could snap at any time… though she doesn’t, of course! She’s a working class woman and remains deferential to Lucie, who comes from a middle-class household. (Back then it was very easy to tell socio-economic status from clothing.)

Although I’m sure most readers won’t bring the story of Chicken Little to front-of-mind when reading Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Chicken Little exists in a corpus of scary folk and fairy tales in which children go off looking for something, enter a wild creature’s house and come to a messy end. Goldilocks and The Three Bears is another example. So with those tales as palimpsest, there’s an ominous atmosphere to Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, despite the fact that Lucie is always very safe with the hedgehog, despite her dagger-like spines.

PLAN

There are elements of many classic tales here, not only Chicken Licken, which involves a character going from character to character asking the same question. (Also birds. Lots of birds.) In this case Lucie is looking for her handkerchief as a kind of McGuffin. (Not technically, because she does get her things back at the end.)

Jon Klassen uses a similar story structure in I Want My Hat Back.

Eventually Lucie’s plan is to follow a particular bird, who appears to be leading her somewhere — to the top of a hill where she has a revelation. See: The Symbolism of Altitude.

Potter is also making use of the Miniature in Storytelling technique, starting when it appears Lucie can drop a pebble down a chimney, even from the top of a hill. This is describing how Little-town looks tiny from the elevated vantage point, like a dollhouse. She is about to enter a world of play.

When Lucie finds the footprints she follows them, almost in spite of herself. This has the vibe of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland — she eventually finds a portal — not a rabbit hole but a door straight into the hill. (Pied Piper, anyone?) The Alice imagery continues when Lucie enters the hedgehog’s house and seems to shrink, though she hasn’t literally changed size within the setting — it’s just that the ceiling is low and everything is in miniature. This is the wish fulfilment fantasy of shrinking down and entering your own dollhouse. I can imagine this appealed, though not just to girls.

BIG STRUGGLE

Although this story begins as a mythic journey, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle is still a pretty standard Domestic Story, set inside the home, with female characters doing feminine things. But because this is a hedgehog washer-woman, this alone is enough to thrill the young audience of its era, and the carnivalesque ‘fun’ involves watching Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle wash clothing items belonging to a variety of woodland creatures.

When Lucie is excited to meet Peter Rabbit and Benjamin Bunny, this is a clear early example of intertextual marketing. You’ll see the same thing done today. For instance, some of the later Babymouse books make sure to mention the authors’ ‘boy book’ companion series about the amoeba.

Finally, the visit concludes when Lucie and Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle sit down and drink tea.

ANAGNORISIS

In a carnivalesque story like this, the Anagnorisis phase is replaced by a stage that marks the end of fun and passage back into the real world. In this case, the stile marks the portal back into the real world.

The inevitable message: Magic must be real. If you can imagine it, perhaps it might come true. Lucie realises this, and so might the reader.

NEW SITUATION

(Now some people say that little Lucie had been asleep upon the stile—but then how could she have found three clean pocket-handkins and a pinny, pinned with a silver safety-pin?

And besides—I have seen that door into the back of the hill called Cat Bells—and besides I am very well acquainted with dear Mrs. Tiggy-winkle!)

Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is an early example of what TV Tropes calls “Or Was It A Dream?” Potter is very clear about what she’s doing, with a note at the end. These days the reader is given no such hand-holding. You see an example of this trope in a picture book like The Polar Express, in which the child seems to go off on a fantasy adventure but is left with a token of proof.

Lamb To The Slaughter by Roald Dahl

Lamb to the Slaughter is one of Roald Dahl’s most widely read short stories, studied in high school English classes around the English speaking world. In this post I take a close look at the structure from a writing point of view. Why has this story found such wide love? What appeals?

STORY STRUCTURE OF LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER

The ‘main character’ of this short story isn’t clear because this is a story about a scenario, and the characters are required in order to carry out the scenario. The characters are archetypes. However, the story opens with Mary Maloney. We are encouraged to identify with Mary Maloney, and it is Mary who goes through an extensive range of emotions. We end with a conspiratorial relationship with Mary.

SHORTCOMING IN LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER

Mary Maloney is childlike, as housewives of the mid 20th century often were. Mary is economically and emotionally vulnerable, and she is extra vulnerable because she is six months pregnant. She is unable to simply move on from this relationship, or get a job. Re-partnering will be hard for her, too. This situation encourages the reader to empathise with her plight, even if we don’t agree with her way of dealing with things. Also, readers are like ducklings and we tend to empathise with the character first shown to us. If Dahl had instead described the policeman’s arrival home, starting with him leaving work, turning the difficult situation over in his mind, we might have empathised with him instead.

Mary also has a Virgin Mary association — we don’t think of murderers when we think of ‘Mary’. I guess that’s why when we do get a murderer named Mary, we are intrigued by the story and it becomes lore.

DESIRE

Mary’s desires seem to be right there on the page: She is lonely during the day and home with no adult company, waiting for a scrap of human interaction from her husband after spending the entire day preparing the home for his arrival. But this interaction with her husband is her surface level desire, and points to a deeper desire: to assuage her utter loneliness. This is especially well set up by Dahl, because the very worst thing that could happen to Mary is to be left all alone.

OPPONENT

A simple web: Mary wants to remain married to her husband; her husband wants to leave her for another woman (we guess). Because their desires are in direct conflict, this makes them opponents. Later, the dead husband’s colleagues arrive. Part of what makes this story work: The husband was himself a policeman, so when his colleagues arrive to replace him as new opponents, these men seem like basically the same person to Mary.

Note also the writing trick employed by Dahl — he leaves the exact words of the break-up conversation off the page, instead giving us enough clues to work it out ourselves. This works partly because Mary is so blown-away by this revelation that she wouldn’t be able to take in all the words. This aligns the reader with Mary. It also works for another reason: Break-up sequences are pretty boring for most readers, who have seen the exact same conversation played out time and again in stories. It’s very hard to write a break up scene with any kind of originality, so Dahl just skips it, and trusts us to fill in those blanks. Also, the break-up is not a big part of the story. The Story = what comes after.

A question we might ask ourselves when writing short stories: Which parts of this story have been done so many times before that I can easily skip them? Narrative summary is a useful tool, especially in short stories.

PLAN

When a character snaps and does something crazy, you can’t really argue that there was a plan. Mary only makes her plan later: She didn’t plan to kill her husband, but she does plan to get out of it. She will visit the grocer, then return home to ‘discover him dead’, then get rid of the murder weapon by acting like a grieving wife in shock, then she will encourage the policemen to eat the lamb. This plays out with what I like to call a ‘heist plot’. I just mean that the reader doesn’t know what Mary’s going to do until she does it. Dahl puts the reader in audience inferior position. Reader satisfaction derives from seeing Mary carry out her plan and then get away with it.

Be wary of writing characters who just snap and do something crazy. I have heard judges of short story competitions complain that they see too many of those — perhaps writers are hoping to emulate Lamb to the Slaughter. Why does it work for Dahl? Because a woman snapping is not the story. Stories which end with a character snapping don’t work because:

  1. It’s generally unbelievable that people just snap — people who commit these crimes in real life have a history of violence. And in a short story you don’t have time to get into someone’s entire history, so it’s going to feel unfinished.
  2. It works here because Lamb to the Slaughter is basically melodrama. It’s written with a wry, tongue-in-cheek smile right from the start, and even Mary’s giggling is comical and over-the-top. Lamb to the Slaughter is written in the tall tale tradition.
  3. If a writer concludes a story by having their main character just snap and do something murderous, it feels like the writer can’t think of a more interesting way to finish the story off. ‘And then she killed him’ is akin to ‘And then she woke up and it was all a dream.’
  4. There is already a long history of tales which end in sudden death. Take Fitcher’s Bird, a tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. The final sentence: ‘And since nobody could get out, they were all burned to death’.

BIG STRUGGLE

It’d be easy to think the bit where Mary slaughters her husband is ‘the big struggle scene’, but it’s not, really. There’s no big struggle in that. She comes at him from behind. For storytelling purposes, the big struggle scene comes after a plan has been concocted and mostly carried out. Thus, the ‘big struggle scene’ in this story comprises the sequence in which the policemen hum and ha about whether or not they should go ahead an eat the lamb, with Mary encouraging them to eat. Mary wins that big struggle of words and manners.

ANAGNORISIS

The story ends when Mary giggles to herself from the next room. She has concluded she’s getting away with murder.

NEW SITUATION

The new situation phase is cut off in this story — as it is in many short stories — and left for the reader to extrapolate. We may also conclude that Mary has gotten away with murder.

LITERARY INFLUENCES ON LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER

Dahl wasn’t the first to shock readers with a cannibalistic yet strangely genteel scene involving a character eating its own kind in a story about duplicity.

The Juniper Tree was one of the tales collected by the Grimm Brothers. In a patrilineal culture, a mother is angry that she and her daughter will inherit nothing while her husband’s son will inherit all. She is soon so overcome with anger that she is possessed by the devil, and eventually shuts the boy in a trunk, luring him with apples. The boy is decapitated. The woman tries to tie it back on with a neckerchief, but then the daughter accidentally knocks it off and believes she’s the one who killed him. The boy ends up in a stew. The father comes home, asks where the son is, and is told that the boy has gone away to stay with relatives for six weeks. The man eats the delicious stew — which he feels is part of him somehow — and throws his son’s bones under the table, which makes me wonder if that’s what men did in those days. (It reminds me of modern casino culture, in which big gamblers — mostly men — simply piss on the casino carpet rather than leave their stations to visit the toilet.) It’s the daughter’s job to tidy up after him. She collects the bones in a silk cloth and buries them under the juniper tree. The boy is reborn into the shape of a bird and the story goes on from there. The boy/bird eventually exacts revenge and kills his mother figure for killing his human form and feeding his flesh to his father. The mother is therefore punished, for letting herself become so angry and scared about becoming old and homeless and letting herself go crazy. Presumably, her daughter escapes this kind of crazy with her youth, and lack of understanding about how the world works. The sister doesn’t know that she, too, may become homeless — she is young and is likely to marry. So the inheritance thing probably doesn’t affect her.

Roald Dahl had a different relationship with retribution. Matilda is an entire middle grade novel made of revenge sequences against her terrible parents and Miss Trunchbull. Dahl certainly enjoyed pranks and tricks and loved to let his characters get away with bad stuff. Lamb To The Slaughter is another revenge tale, but unlike in The Juniper Tree, Dahl’s murdering woman is never punished. Dahl leaves his readers to imagine that her husband fully deserved to die.

The Juniper Tree was collected by the Grimms, but originally written down (in low German) by a painter called Philipp Otto Runge. There’s an entire family of tales in which one parent kills a child, the other eats him. (It’s usually a boy who is eaten.) Though these tales weren’t originally for children, food and death have become linked over the course of children’s literature.

Since sex and death (violence) are intertwined in mainstream stories, it is food and death which are intertwined in stories for children.

— for more on that, see Food and Sex in Children’s Literature

Later, in 1857 the Fables of Aesop were translated into Human Nature. Aesop’s Fables had been published many times before this, but until now, readers had not seen them illustrated so adeptly by a well-known comic illustrator of the time: Charles Bennett (1828-1867).

Bennett dressed Aesop’s animals completely and gave them a contemporary mid 1800s setting. The characters are Victorian Londoners, but with animal heads. In order to find the illustrations funny the reader needs to know something about that particular social milieu. It was funny that Bennet turned the Fox in ‘The Fox and the Crow’ into a philanderer and the Crow into a rich widow, for example. Animals dressed in clothes appeal to children and so Grimm’s fairytales and Aesop’s fables became stories for the whole family, and eventually considered ‘children’s stories’. Likewise, Lamb to the Slaughter is not a children’s story, but when I taught high school English, this short story was studied by year elevens.

Aesop’s Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing is dressed as a policeman, taking supper in the basement with the cook, who is a sheep. They are ominously dining on a leg of lamb, and I wouldn’t mind betting Roald Dahl read the Bennett version of the Aesop’s Fables at some point, perhaps during his childhood. I’m sure Bennett’s comic illustrations would have appealed to Roald Dahl anyhow, whose own work was illustrated by famous British comic illustrator of the late 20th century and beyond, Sir Quentin Blake.

Wolf Lamb