The Tale of Mr Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) is one of Beatrix Potter’s more popular stories, and is an excellent example of how to write a sympathetic main character. Publishers had been telling Potter since she wrote it in 1893 for her last nanny’s son that frogs aren’t cute and fluffy enough to warrant main character status in children’s literature. This feels almost unbelievable today, but Potter helped pave the way for non-fluffy stars in picture books.

STORYWORLD OF JEREMY FISHER

JEREMY’S HOUSE

Jeremy Fisher lives in a part human, part animal dwelling, which looks like a regular house but with water slopping all around the corridors and larder. (Just this week I’ve had the washing machine overflow, which calls to mind Jeremy Fisher.)

STICKING PLASTERS

I was surprised to read that when Jeremy gets mildly injured he reaches for the sticking plasters. I didn’t think they’d have been around that long. I looked up ‘when were sticking plasters invented’. Certain American websites think they didn’t exist until Johnson & Johnson made them, but the adhesive plaster has a much longer history in England. These days I don’t hear kids talk about ‘sticking plasters’ — Band-aid seems to have suffered the fate of generification.

Beatrix sold Jeremy Fisher partly on her beautiful scenery to compensate for the unappealing amphibian. So The Tale of Jeremy Fisher is one of Potter’s most beautiful books. The flora, the mountainous background with its misty aerial perspective and the reflections in the water are beautifully rendered. Jeremy Fisher himself is patterned in what looks (to the modern eye) like camo pants, but they’re actually his own skin.

SYMBOLISM OF WATER

Potter is making doubly symbolic use of the water. Consider bodies of water two separate realms in storytelling: The water’s surface and the water’s depths. The water surface functions more like a vast plain (a la the Wild West) whereas the depths are more like outer space — you never know what can come out of it. You can’t see things coming, either. Humans have a natural fear of the ocean, and the further down we go, the more gruesome the fish life appears to us.

STORY STRUCTURE OF JEREMY FISHER

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Through my contemporary lens, Jeremy Fisher is sympathetic in his own right, even without the help of lush scenery. Potter did a great job of his body language and face. The illustration below succeeds in making him look super cute, don’t you think? It’s all in the tilt of the head and perhaps in the underbite jaw.

Jeremy’s Weakness is that he is a low down on the food chain. Potter depicts him as fully a part of it — Jeremy plans to eat minnows, which he catches with worms. He invites to dinner a creature who only eats salad. The reader is made fully cognisant of the food chain and Jeremy’s place within it. There’s nothing sentimental about these stories.

Potter makes Jeremy sympathetic with subtle injections of humour. For instance, his ‘boat’ looks ‘very like the other lily-leaves’. In fact it’s just a lily leaf, not a boat at all. So Jeremy thinks of himself as a human. I know when my dog does things that appear human, I find him very cute. (Curling up in my bean bag, making use of a blanket to keep warm, learning how to open the door etc.) This tends to compensate for the annoyance.

DESIRE

Jeremy Desires minnows (small fish) for his dinner. Ideally he wants to catch more than he needs so he can entertain his friends at his house. This is a likeable sort of desire — we can see Jeremy is a generous ‘person’. Like actual animals in the wild, his relationship with killing isn’t about power (with humans it’s often about power), but about sustenance.

OPPONENT

Jeremy’s Opponents are the much larger fish who swim beneath his ‘boat’. They can eat him up at any time. (He seems remarkably relaxed, considering.)

PLAN

  1. Dig in the garden for worms
  2. Take can of worms to the ‘boat’
  3. Dangle worms in water on the end of a fishing line
  4. Catch minnows
  5. Take minnows home to cook for dinner

He gets as far as 3.

BATTLE

The Battle is beautifully set up, because Potter’s unseen narrator (Potter herself) tells us before the dire moment that the situation would have been dire had he not been wearing his macintosh. This leads us to expect less than what happens: We think he’s going to get terribly splashed.

SELF-REVELATION

Plot revelation: In fact Jeremy’s almost eaten. He is only spat out because the big fish doesn’t like the taste of the macintosh. This would feel like a shock to the young reader.

Jeremy’s Self-revelation is that he’s not safe down near the water and he won’t be going fishing again.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

But we’re given a nice cosy New Equilibrium, with the three friends enjoying a (disgusting) meal together around Jeremy’s dinner table. The original plan didn’t work out, but Jeremy came up with a modified menu.

Frog Went A Courtin by John Langstaff

Frog Went a Courtin

This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at Frog Went A-Courtin, a Scottish folk song from the 1500s, which was turned into an iconic picture book for children written by John Langstaff in 1955. There’s a brief history of the ballad included in the picture book which explains how the words of songs change and evolve over time. This case study is interesting because there is no true main character. This story is about a group of characters.

The illustrations are by Feodor Rojankovsky, who emigrated from Ukraine to America just as WW2 was cranking up. By that stage he’d already been a soldier in Ukraine and taken prisoner in Poland. If you’re familiar with Little Golden Books you’ll have seen his work elsewhere.

Frog Went A-Courtin won the 1956 Caldecott Medal.

First, a note on frogs in children’s stories.

Frogs and Aesop

Unless you’ve got a really unusual animal like a naked mole rat, when animals appear in children’s stories, you pretty much need to go back to Aesop’s Fables and then you’ll see why these characters are the way they are. Frogs don’t feature heavily in Aesop’s tales, but there are a number of them. Unlike foxes, which are always cunning, or hens, which are always naive and vulnerable, frogs have no clear personality archetype. In Aesop’s fables featuring frogs all of the following can be said:

  • Frogs have no natural ruler, unlike creatures of the jungle, who are ruled by the lion.
  • Frogs are quite vulnerable because they are obliged to stay near water.
  • Frogs can do silly things that lead to their own demise, but they are not natural tricksters.
  • Frogs are capable of doing good deeds. They can also be stubborn, brave, timid and mendacious.
  • Aesop used frogs when he wanted to set a story in or near a pond or in a well.
  • Amphibian frogs exist in contrast to mice, who live on land and are about the same size.

On this last point, the Scottish folktale Frog Went A-Courtin is therefore a direct descendant of Aesop, setting mice up to contrast with frogs. Or perhaps humans naturally see frogs as the ‘inverse’ of mice, Aesop’s cultural influence aside. Humans think quite differently about animals when we don’t have a formal (or cultural) education.

Bear that in mind as we get to the ‘opponent’ part of the story.

STORY STRUCTURE OF FROG WENT A-COURTIN

Story in a nutshell: Frog courts a mouse. No one says that anymore. Frog woos a mouse? No one says that either.

Mouse must ask male relative for permission to wed frog, as she is considered chattel. That’s how women were treated in the 1500s and in many parts of the modern world.

Mouse seems happy about it anyway. Mouse recounts her wedding plans to Uncle. Uncle Rat gives consent. The wedding itself doesn’t go exactly to plan, as a variety of creatures turn up. This creates a carnivalesque and cumulative story within the wrapper story of the courting. Finally the baddie turns up — the cat.

WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?

Is Mr Frog the main character? The title suggests so. Mr Frog is a male bachelor amphibian whose life will not be complete until he has found a wife. So at first glance this looks like a romance, but in fact frog’s weakness (he needs to find a wife) only starts the story. He’s like a McGuffin character. (I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a McGuffin character, but we’ll go with it.)

In a true romance/love story, the finding of the bride/groom lasts the entire length of the story and the story stops at (or just before) the wedding. The MAIN part of Frog Went A-Courtin is the wedding itself, which makes this story a madcap farce. There is no true main character. This is an ensemble cast.

What is wrong with the ensemble? (What is their biggest weakness?)

I have to get something out of the way. I’m not sure if we’re meant to think this as we’re reading, though it’s inevitable to an adult, modern reader: This is a cross-species relationship. Also, how is a mouse related to a rat? They can’t breed with each other. Okay. Let’s ignore that for the sake of the story. We’re not supposed to consider these characters animals. They are humans in animal form, to lend the story a bit of madcap comedy. (Turning people into animals always lends a bit of madcap, though we’re so used to this now it’s no longer really funny in and of itself.) As for the frog in this particular frog story, he is heavily anthropomorphised. In other words, he’s basically a human. Man as frog simply gives a story a touch of madcap humour. This frog is the Every Man.

However! When we get to the battle scene (see below) we can no longer ignore the animal-ness of the animals, because that is integral to the plot. The cat would not be dangerous to those smaller creatures if it were not a cat.

To cut a long story short, in stories starring animals, sometimes the animals are people, sometimes the animals act as animals. Authors and illustrators use animals how they wish at any given time in order to suit the plot. That can happen. I do think it happened more in earlier eras of children’s literature. Olivia the Pig is always a little girl, for instance. She never goes rolling about in mud. Then again, Julia Donaldson’s Highway Rat is a contemporary story, and he is both humanlike (as a highway robber) and ratlike (as his punishment, cleaning crumbs from the bakery floor).

Here’s another point about animal characters: When animals act like human and are then required to act like their animal selves, that means everything’s gone to pot. Something’s gone wrong. Someone’s being punished. When humanlike animals behave like animals suddenly, this will only happen from the Big Battle onwards, not before. This is a different take of Masks in Storytelling. All along, the animals were only sort of pretending to be genteel like humans. Then something bad happens and their untamed, wild side emerges.

WHAT DOES THE CHARACTER ENSEMBLE WANT?

They want to have a fun time at the wedding party.

OPPONENT/MONSTER/BADDIE/ENEMY/FRENEMY

No one, until the cat turns up! A cat is the natural enemy because it is a much larger hunting animal.

WHAT’S THE PLAN?

There is a sequence where Miss Mouse tells her Uncle Rat how she would like the party to go. This makes it funny when the wedding party does not go like that. Planning a wedding is a bit like planning a birth — it’s impossible to plan everything to the last detail because events will take their course!

BIG BATTLE

Obviously this is the part where the cat turns up. With no words, the pictures show us the cat creates havoc. The small animals scatter.

WHAT DO THE CHARACTERS LEARN?

Frog Went A-Courtin is not a complete narrative because the ending is left up to the reader. Or rather, the reader is invited to participate in the story to create a full narrative of our own. I believe the ending is left off because it would not be interesting.

HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?

Either that, or Miss Mouse got killed and eaten by the cat. Maybe that’s why the ending was left out. Jon Klassen did a similar thing in This Is Not My Hat. We surmise the little thieving scoundrel fish was eaten up by the big fish.

Let’s not dwell on this sad ending. Let’s say Mr Frog and Mrs Frog-Mouse lived happily ever after? And had beautiful frog-mice babies between them?

 

 

SOME MORE STORIES WITH FROGS IN

Because Aesop invented many uses for the frog, when you meet a frog in a modern children’s book you don’t know who you’re going to get. Frogs can be quirky and funny. They have the endearing habit of extending their tongue and catching flies.

Frog's Outing
Frog’s Outing — a Japanese picture book depicting a quirky, likeable frog character. Likeable frogs tend to have human eyeballs. Amphibian eyes are inherently off-putting to humans, as they look like the eyes of snakes.

On the other hand… frogs extend their tongues and catch flies. This is disgusting.

Frogs seem to have great fun. It’s fun to leap and jump like a frog, which is part of flight symbolism.

The Duck Tale by Virginia Bennett. Illustrated by E. Stewart. London – Ernest Nister New York – E. P. Dutton & Co. .c.1908.
“Les enfants et les bêtes” (1936) livre de lecture illustré par Armand Rapeno
The Princess Frog.1956. Artist – Nika Goltz. The frog in this fairy tale is a bit of a trickster. But then, he’s not really a frog but a prince. These stories must exist to coax daughters into marrying whoever is chosen for them, regardless of physical attraction. I suspect a lot of these men chosen for girls were much older, to boot.

SEE ALSO

The Many Versions Of Frog Went A-Courtin from Mama Lisa