Excess, Hyperbole and Pestilence In Illustration

We love stories of excess. examples of excess and visual hyperbole can be seen all across children’s literature. Literally any item can be turned into a visual gag by creating a large number of it.

In the example below it is mittens.

Too Many Mittens by Florence and Louis Slobodkin (1958)
Too Many Mittens by Florence and Louis Slobodkin (1958). The Hundred Dresses (also illustrated by Slobodkin) also features (supposed) excess.
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Anatole by Eve Titus & Paul Galdone (1956)

Anatole cover

Anatole the mouse starred in a series of children’s stories by Eve Titus, illustrated by Paul Galdone in blue, red and white. The ten books were published 1956-1979. Today I’m taking a look at the picture book that opened the series. Anatole was named a Caldecott honour book.

If you love cheese, it’s likely you’ll love Anatole. However, I’d encourage readers to look more carefully at the ideology hiding behind all that delicious cheese.

Continue reading “Anatole by Eve Titus & Paul Galdone (1956)”

Belling The Cat

Gustav Doré The counsel held by the rats 1868

‘Belling the cat’ is idiom which means that it’s all very well to come up with good ideas as a fix, but executing those good ideas is another matter. It comes from a fable of yore, in which rats come up with a great idea for foiling a predatory cat. They’ll put a bell around its neck. But who will dare do that?

This feels like one of Aesop’s, but actually that’s unclear. It’s part of that tradition, though.

Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695) included this story in his book “Fables”. It still says something very true about committees and hierarchy and how things get done (or not). Wikipedia sums it up nicely: This fable is about ‘the fundamental opposition between consensus and individualism’.

The Council of the Rats

OLD Rodilard, a certain cat,
Such havoc of the rats had made,
’Twas difficult to find a rat
With Nature’s debt unpaid.
The few that did remain,
To leave their holes afraid,
From usual food abstain,
Not eating half their fill.
And wonder no one will,
That one, who made on rats his revel,
With rats passed not for cat, but devil.
Now, on a day, this dread rat-eater,
Who had a wife, went out to meet her;
And while he held his caterwauling,
The unkilled rats, their chapter calling,
Discussed the point, in grave debate,
How they might shun impending fate.
Their dean, a prudent rat,
Thought best, and better soon than late,
To bell the fatal cat;
That, when he took his hunting-round,
The rats, well cautioned by the sound,
Might hide in safety underground.
Indeed, he knew no other means.
And all the rest
At once confessed
Their minds were with the dean’s.
No better plan, they all believed,
Could possibly have been conceived;
No doubt, the thing would work right well,
If any one would hang the bell.
But, one by one, said every rat,
“I’m not so big a fool as that.”
The plan knocked up in this respect,
The council closed without effect.
And many a council I have seen,
Or reverend chapter with its dean,
That, thus resolving wisely,
Fell through like this precisely.

To argue or refute,
Wise counselors abound;
The man to execute
Is harder to be found.

STORYTELLING NOTES

While fables use nameless animals to stand in as proxy humans, this poem opens by giving ‘a certain cat’ an individuating name — the name of Rodilard. This name is made up for the purposes of the poem and remains associated with this particular work: Rodilard is from Latin rodo (“gnaw”) and lardum “lard”. I imagine a few people have named their pet cats Rodilard.

In stories across history, especially in children’s stories, a cat often functions as the Minotaur opponent. This is very frequently the case in stories about mice and rats. He (and he is almost always masculo-coded) will be an irredeemable murderer, because that is part of his nature. Everyone else has no choice but to either kill him or protect themselves. As the poem states explicitly, this kind of opponent is basically ‘the devil’. And devils aren’t that interesting in their own right. A story with a Minotaur/devil opponent will be about the conflict that happens between his victims.

It’s therefore interesting that this cat has ‘a wife’. I think this is comically interesting for precisely the reason that Minotaur opponents have no ‘humanity’ (and family indicates humanity), but also because cats don’t have wives; this tom is out on the prowl, clearly. The story requires a reason to keep the Minotaur opponent occupied with something other than food. Another base instinct.

First, though, the poem depicts a world of ‘havoc’. This cat has been causing upset for quite some time. Like many children’s books in particular, the story opens in the iterative, describing what has been going on every day. Now it will switch to the singulative: Now, on a day…

It’s significant that ‘the dean’ comes up with the idea rather than, say, an underling. People in charge are good at coming up with ideas that will put underlings in danger rather than themselves. Bob Dylan’s song “Masters of War” is all about that.

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

Masters of War, Bob Dylan

In this case, the dean of a chapter of rats doesn’t have sufficient power to force an underling rat to bell the cat, so the meeting closes with the idea tabled and no plan. While other stories would start right about now, this story ends before it kicks off, because not a single character dares carry it out.

In case the reader has failed to realise what the rats realised, four lines at the end summarise the message for us.

We can extrapolate that the rat community continues to suffer, with the cat keeping the rat population down. Rats are not typically sympathetic characters in stories, which makes them an appropriate choice for this particular fable.

CATS AND MICE IN ART

Cat Calendar art c. 1980s Gary Patterson (1941-present)
Iliane Roels, 1969
Iliane Roels, 1969
Mouse Club Rules by Louis William Wain (1860-1939)
Mouse Club Rules by Louis William Wain (1860-1939)
Cover of Almanaque de la Esquella de la Torratxa, 1911
Cover of Almanaque de la Esquella de la Torratxa, 1911
Ida Bohatta
Ida Bohatta

SEE ALSO

Strat and Chatto

ISLAND OF THE SKOG

The Island of the Skog is a 1973 American picture book by Steven Kellogg which is basically an allegory for cosy colonialism. There is an animated version, including a clear ‘belling the cat’ scene. The mice, who have fled persecution as ‘underdogs’ and decided to make a new life on an almost deserted island, know they must first defeat the Skog, fearsome by reputation. They come up with a plan, but who will carry it out?

Listen to Betsy and Kate discuss The Island of the Skog on the Fuse 8 n Kate podcast.

Header image: Gustav Doré The counsel held by the rats, 1868.

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The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse cover

Which mouse are you? Fight, flight, freeze or appease? Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tittlemouse (1910) is inclined to appease, as perhaps you must, if you are small and vulnerable.

Except every mouse I have ever met is a bolshy, ‘sit on this and swivel’ type. In winter they hang out behind the dishwasher and will hurtle their brown little bodies across the kitchen, even with me, the rightful inhabitant, standing right there. Contrary to literary depictions, mice are definitely not the appeasing type. A realistic personification of mice would render them stunt doubles and heist criminals.

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse, 1910

But what of Mrs. Tittlemouse? Mrs. Tittlemouse is the 1910 epitome of the perfect, uncomplaining housewife. She is also the epitome of a partner violence victim.

Just as rapport-building has a good reputation, explicitness applied by women in this culture has a terrible reputation. A woman who is clear and precise is viewed as cold, or a bitch, or both. A woman is expected, first and foremost, to respond to every communication from a man. And the response is expected to be one of willingness and attentiveness. It is considered attractive if she is a bit uncertain (the opposite of explicit). Women are expected to be warm and open, and in the context of approaches from male strangers, warmth lengthens the encounter, raises his expectations, increases his investment, and, at best, wastes time. At worst, it serves the man who has sinister intent by providing much of the information he will need to evaluate and then control his prospective victim.

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

So do I approach this story like it’s 1910 or like it’s 2019? Well, let’s not be boring. Let’s see how this story from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature has fared.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MRS. TITTLEMOUSE

Mrs. Tittlemouse is a classic domestic story, which were aimed at girls — not exclusively read by girls, of course. Stories aimed at boys tended to be adventures in which the boy character left the home, had fun away from the home, then returned at the end.

SHORTCOMING

The Shortcoming of every single mouse in children’s literature ever (well, not quite) is: smallness, shortcoming, vulnerability. The mouse is the animal stand-in for the child. Within that archetype there are many variations, but vulnerability is the standout feature.

Morally, there’s no fault on the part of Mrs. Thomasina Tittlemouse. There is nothing in this tale which sees Mrs. Tittlemouse treating another creature badly. That’s exactly what makes the story boring. Not all main characters of children’s stories have a moral shortcoming, but the most interesting ones do.

Important: Mrs. Tittlemouse’s ‘kindness’ towards her intruders is a survival strategy:

Niceness is a decision, a strategy of social interaction; it is not a character trait.

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

DESIRE

Mrs. Tittlemouse is a homebody who only wants to keep her house clean and tidy.

What does Mr. Jackson want? He wants her attention. He wants her labour, her material store, her living space. He wants to intrude; he wants her to notice him.

OPPONENT

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse, 1910

Mrs. Tittlemouse’s opponents comprise the various creatures who come into her dwelling, creating chaos and messing up her good work. In they come, one after another:

  1. Beetles
  2. Ladybirds
  3. A big fat spider (who mistakenly thinks the house belongs to Miss Muffet).

Notice how Beatrix Potter has made use of the Rule of Three in Storytelling. As usual she got a bit of intertextuality in there, with reference to the nursery rhyme:

Little miss Muffet she sat on her tuffet, eating her curds eating and whey
Along came a spider who sat down beside her
And frightened miss Muffet away
Little miss Muffet she sat on her tuffet, eating her curds eating and whey
Along came a spider who sat down beside her
And frightened miss Muffet away

In his analysis of Little Miss Muffet, Albert Jack writes:
Arachnophobia is clearly not a modern compliant. Although cobwebs have traditionally been used as a dressing for wounds (and, scientifically tested, have turned out to contain all kinds of antibiotics), spiders have long been seen as malevolent. Richard III, presented by William Shakespeare as the most evil English king, is described as ‘a bottle spider’, which comes from the belief that spiders were inherently toxic — if one were dropped into a glass of water, every drop would be poisoned. It is therefore entirely understandable that this particular little girl from days gone by would have been frightened away by one…

Pop Goes The Weasel

Beatrix Potter has subverted the trope of the scary spider in The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse, because the spider is not scary at all. In a story with a succession of opponents, some of these will at first appear to be opponents but will turn out to be benign, or possibly even mentors. (Otherwise a succession of baddies gets boring.)

Next come the bumble bees, and finally Mr. Jackson, the epitome of unwelcome guests. (Though is he entirely unexpected? Methinks he’s intruded before.)

Mrs. Tittlemouse know exactly who he is, but when we first meet Mr. Jackson he has his back to us, which makes him appropriately ominous.

Mr Jackson Mrs Tittlemouse

Mr. Jackson’s shortcoming is that he doesn’t hear a woman’s ‘no’.

I’ve successfully lobbied and testified for stalking laws in several states, but I would trade them all for a high school class that would teach young men how to hear “no,” and teach young women that it’s all right to explicitly reject.

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

PLAN

Mrs. Tittle mouse ‘bundles the spider out at the window’. Then she sets about getting dinner when she discovers her main opponent, Mr Jackson.

BIG STRUGGLE

Instead of telling him to get the hell out, Mrs. Tittlemouse gets on with pleasantries. She even offers him dinner. Then I suppose she wonders why he won’t leave.

Life is made up of challenges that cannot be solved but only accepted.

Roger Ebert

Mr. Jackson is a Cat In The Hat character (or maybe we should say it the other way round). The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse is now a carnivalesque comedy in which an intruder comes into a tidy house and creates havoc. He drips all over the place and blows thistle-down all over the room. He pokes through her cupboards in search of honey — he’s a bit of a Pooh Bear character.

Since Mrs. Tittlemouse is obsessed with tidying up, and therefore a boring character, Mr. Jackson meets a variety of insect foes as he explores the mouse house.

As animals are wont to do, they eventually leave of their own accord. Mrs. Tittlemouse has been holed up all that time, waiting for them to get the hell out.

ANAGNORISIS

It is ultimately Mrs. Tittlemouse who becomes the trickster. She saves her own abode by fetching twigs and partly closing up the front door, before they can come back.

She seems to have realised that although her small size makes her vulnerable, she can also use this to her advantage.

Mrs. Tittlemouse also seems to have realised that she only enjoys the company of other mice — all turned-out nicely and with good table manners.

NEW SITUATION

Perhaps this story could not end in any other way, but when Mr. Jackson turns up, gatecrashing the mouse party, Mrs. Tittlemouse hands him acorn-cupfuls of honey-dew through the window even though her door is too small for him to come in.

This is a story of archetypal appeasement: A character ignores your boundaries, so you do the bare minimum to pacify them. You hope they won’t retaliate or become violent if only you give them a little.

This is terrible advice.

Mr. Jackson clearly understands he is not wanted, yet he demonstrates highly troubling persistence.

And so the story ends, and apparently all is well in the world. Everyone is happy. Mr. Jackson can still enjoy reciprocation from the target of his attention.

But with that jerk right outside, can Mrs. Tittlemouse be truly happy? Can she ever be truly free?

If you tell someone ten times that you don’t want to talk to him, you are talking to them—nine more times than you wanted to.

Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Pair this children’s picture book with “The Little Governess“, a modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield, likewise about a female character who is obliged to be ‘nice’ to a man who invades her space. In the case of the little governess, she is out on a mythic journey, but the case of Mrs. Tittlemouse shows another reality: Women don’t have to even leave their homes in order to suffer the imposition of entitled men. Therefore, it’s not up to the woman to take measures to avoid such men, such as avoiding public (male coded) spaces.

Certain animals are coded as industrious and others as lazy. Another animal coded as industrious when anthropomorphised is of course the bee.

Dutch-American illustrator Charles Verschuuren (1891–1955)
Dutch-American illustrator Charles Verschuuren (1891–1955)
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The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Samuel Whiskers by Beatrix Potter was originally called The Roly-Poly Pudding and written as a Christmas present to a child. Potter’s image of the cat rolled up in dough is one of those resonant illustrations which, once seen, can never be unseen. Perhaps this image scarred you, too, as a child.

Perhaps it scars you now.

What makes an image resonant? I’ve explored that question elsewhere. In any case, I’m not surprised Potter originally used the story’s most scarring imagery as the original title, and I’m also not surprised that the title was changed. It wasn’t exactly in keeping with the rest of the Beatrix Potter books.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TALE OF SAMUEL WHISKERS

Reading through the Beatrix Potters is like watching a series of wildlife documentaries — watch the one about the lions and you’re rooting for the lions. Watch the one about the deer and you’re rooting for the deer, and mad at the lions for killing the deer.

The Tale of Samuel Whiskers places reader empathy firmly with the cats, in contrast to The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse, in which the cats in a big Edwardian house are positioned as horrific enemies.

Samuel Whiskers has its own version of horror, not least the ‘spatial horror‘, which needs its own entry on TV Tropes. Spatial horror is very much a part of Beatrix Potter’s oeuvre. I’d hazard a guess Beatrix did not like to be locked up in tight spaces and hated feeling giddy and disorientated. The onomatopoeic ‘roly poly’ of the pudding is in itself a type of spatial horror.

SHORTCOMING

The story of Samuel Whiskers starts off with the problem of a mother cat, who is anxious and cannot keep tabs on her kittens. You’d think her anxiety would help her to keep tabs on them, but no. This is Tabitha Twitchit, who readers will know from The Story of Miss Moppet, The Tale of Tom Kitten and so forth.

DESIRE

The kittens want to have fun; their mother wants to keep them out of mischief; the rats want to make a roly-poly pudding out of one of the kittens; John Joiner the dog wants to complete whatever job he’s charged with.

OPPONENT

Parents and children are natural opponents — the kittens want to make mischief; Tabitha wants to know where her children are.

This house is also infested with rats. Functionally, these rats are the ghosts which haunt the big house — I’m thinking of a film such as The Others. You sort of know they’re there, but you only hear them scuttling. There’s a veneer between the two worlds.

The ‘old father rat’ is the most fearsome rat of all. He has yellow teeth and is too much for the cats. He appears occasionally like a ghost. He steals the rolling pin and pats of butter.

According to the other kitten, there is also an old woman rat who steals dough.

The reader should deduce at this point that the rats are stealing supplies to make their own pudding. It’d be easier on the rats if they simply waited for the cats to make the pudding and then steal the entire thing, but perhaps they like it made a certain way?

PLAN

While their mother was searching the house, Moppet and Mittens had got into mischief.

The cupboard door was not locked, so they pushed it open and came out.

Half the time when good guys get locked in a cell, all of the equipment that they need to escape is in the cell with them.

TV Tropes, Locking Macgyver In The Store Cupboard

Tabitha goes off looking for her kittens. This is where the spatial horror is introduced:

It was an old, old house, full of cupboards and passages. Some of the walls were four feet thick, and there used to be queer noises inside them, as if there might be a little secret staircase. Certainly there were odd little jagged doorways in the wainscot, and things disappeared at night—especially cheese and bacon.

SPATIAL HORROR

As if old houses aren’t creepy in their own right, the creepier thing about them is that you can get lost in them — not just in the rooms themselves, but in the spaces between.

The Rats In The Walls, as well as Neil Gaiman’s The Wolves In The Walls encapsulate this particular fear. A Lovecraftian fear of passages, corridors and spaces in between may be more common than I realise. Jeff Kinney even makes a gag out of it in Wrecking Ball (2019). Greg can’t stand the thought of creatures poking about in the walls, so his future dream house will be made entirely of glass. The illustration shows Greg sitting downstairs, looking straight through the floors into an upstairs toilet.

Point of view switches to the kittens — stand-in children for child readers. Moppet and Mittens are all about mischief. That’s their ‘plan’. They are playing bakers, making ‘dear little muffins’ out of dough.

Point of view switches back to the adult cats. Cousin Ribby has arrived. The two adult cats lament the mischief made by kittens. It is revealed that Thomas has gone missing. Together the lady cats search.

Now there’s another sequence of spatial horror, with Tom Kitten stuck in the chimney of an old house, ‘where a person does not know his way, and where there are enormous rats.  [Cats are not people, but we are not supposed to think about that.]

It was most confusing in the dark. One flue seemed to lead into another.

There was less smoke, but Tom Kitten felt quite lost.

Eventually, John Joiner the dog is brought in to sniff Tom Kitten out.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle between Tom Kitten and the rats culminates in that horribly memorable image of the kitten inside the dough. The build up is reminiscent of fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk, where a formidable male creature orders his wife to make him a very particular sort of meal — one which includes our main character:

“Anna Maria,” said the old man rat (whose name was Samuel Whiskers),—”Anna Maria, make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner.”

“It requires dough and a pat of butter, and a rolling-pin,” said Anna Maria, considering Tom Kitten with her head on one side.

ANAGNORISIS

There is no anagnorisis, unless you count the fact that Samuel Whiskers and Anna Maria have realised they cannot remain in the house.

The plot is resolved when John Joiner finds Tom Kitten by sniffing around and through the cracks in the floorboards. John Joiner is a dog, who has been called in by the cats to help.

This is where the most horrifying part of the story ends.

NEW SITUATION

But Potter adds a cosy addendum to the end of this story, bringing herself as narrator. She tells the reader how the carpenter dog cannot stay for tea with the cats because she herself has charged him with the task of building chicken coops.

And in a comic twist, Beatrix Potter sees the evil rats running off with her wheelbarrows. They have piled their luggage into the wheelbarrow and are moving into Farmer Potatoes’ barn (presumably because of the dog, though they haven’t been scared of the cats). They do very well in the barn and all the rats there today are descended from Samuel Whiskers and Anna Maria.

Moppet and Mittens grow up into ‘very good rat catchers’. They earn their living as such, tacking tails onto the wall as proof. This in itself is a horrifying scene to me.

But Tom Kitten is forever scared of anything bigger than a mouse.

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The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse cover

Leading up to 1918, Beatrix Potter’s publishers were asking her for a new story. This was wartime. Austerity all around. Frederick Warne and Co. were affected alongside everyone else and required something new from their bestselling children’s author. But Beatrix had moved to the country and the country was keeping her very busy. Rather than come up with something wholly original, she chose to rewrite an Aesop fable: The Town Mouse & The Country Mouse. Potter personalised the mouse by giving him a name: The Tale of Johnny Town-mouse.

Is it ironic that Beatrix Potter glorified the country even while country life made her so busy she barely had time to write and illustrate anymore? Probably not ironic, given how post-purchase rationalisation works. Beatrix had moved the country and she’d enjoy every minute, dammit. And if she couldn’t convince herself on a daily basis, she’d write a book about it.

Actually, I have no idea what Beatrix Potter was thinking. That’s what I’d be thinking if daily chores left me with no time to write and illustrate. In any case, what’s writing for if not to cement your own ideologies?

…there was no quiet; there seemed to be hundreds of carts passing. Dogs barked; boys whistled in the street; the cook laughed, the parlour maid ran up and down-stairs; and a canary sang like a steam engine.

The ideology expressed in Johnny Town-mouse was echoed over and over throughout the 20th century by authors such as Enid Blyton and E. Nesbit. Towards the end of the 20th century children’s literature started to offer similar commentary on video games, connecting video games to the city, supposedly absent in rural areas. (I have news for those authors.)

More recent children’s books have turned the tables and as a member of Gen X I feel personally vilified — now children’s books feature parents staring at screens while the children are ignored, sometimes to disastrous effect, sometimes simply to allow modern kids an adventure.

Read Johnny Town-mouse as a prime example of ‘city bad—rural good’ ideology from the first golden age of children’s literature.

STORY STRUCTURE OF JOHNNY TOWN-MOUSE

Johnny Town-mouse has the structure of a mythic journey. The hero never wants to set out on adventure; instead he is thrust out into a dangerous world because he fell asleep inside a hamper.

SHORTCOMING

First up, why mice? We’d have to ask Aesop. Shame. He’s dead. However, we can guess why mice are so popular in children’s books. People have studied this stuff.

The Shortcoming of a mouse is the same as that of the Every Child — mice are small and vulnerable, though full of life, bravery and mischief. Mice will happily go off on an adventure. This also gets them into strife. In a children’s book, if a mouse leaves home, you can guarantee it’ll meet with life-and-death danger.

The opening of this story is a little bizarre (by today’s standards). Potter basically summarises the entire narrative in two opening sentences. These sentences feel disjointed to my ear:

Johnny Town-mouse was born in a cupboard. Timmy Willie was born in a garden. Timmy Willie was a little country mouse who went to town by mistake in a hamper.

There’s also the unpleasant word echo of ‘hamper’. I get the feeling this story really was rushed out. I suppose in war time there are bigger problems than a bit of word echo.

DESIRE

So Timmy Willie gets taken to town by mistake in a hamper.

One thing you don’t get in Potter’s universe is ‘stock yuck‘ based on green vegetables. Greens are wholesome and good.

Presumably he does not want to go to town. He’s horribly disorientated inside his wicker cage, borrowing from that cosmic horror trope we now have a word for: spatial horror. I’m noticing children’s stories use it frequently. Children (and mice) are so small they can get bundled up inside things and thrown around from movement, against their will, outside their control.

He awoke in a fright, while the hamper was being lifted into the carrier’s cart. Then there was a jolting, and a clattering of horse’s feet; other packages were thrown in; for miles and miles—jolt—jolt—jolt! and Timmy Willie trembled amongst the jumbled up vegetables.

OPPONENT

The “Minotaur Opponent” in this story is the cat, whose smell lingers as a pervasive threat. The cat doesn’t make for great dinner-time music, either:

“Why don’t those youngsters come back with the dessert?” It should be explained that two young mice, who were waiting on the others, went skirmishing upstairs to the kitchen between courses. Several times they had come tumbling in, squeaking and laughing; Timmy Willie learnt with horror that they were being chased by the cat. His appetite failed, he felt faint. “Try some jelly?” said Johnny Town-mouse.

Between the mice themselves, there is another sort of Opposition: The stereotypical opposition that occurs between ‘cultured’ and polite city folk when they rub up against the working classes from the country. Timmy is naked, wearing only his fur, whereas the city mice are wearing expensive clothes. In this case, with sympathies so fully lying with Timmy, these expensive clothes are coded as a type of deceptive mask — who do these city mice think they are, dressing up fancy like that? Underneath, we are all just plain old mice.

So are these mice allies, or are they false allies?

PLAN

Timmy’s Plan is to make it back home to the country where he feels safe. The entire story is about that. He is stuck in this big house where everything is supplied, but it might as well be a haunted horror house. Potter makes use of death metaphors, for example the ‘smears of jam’ (blood). Is this a Hotel California situation?

BIG STRUGGLE

Apart from the very real threat of the cat, this is a psychological horror. Timmy is so upset he loses significant weight in just a few days in the big, city house.

ANAGNORISIS

Timmy’s journey back home is surprisingly easy and underwhelming — the hamper goes back to the country weekly. All Timmy needs to do is get back in it. So that’s what he does, resolving the plot.

Potter tacks an extra story onto the end of this one: Seasons change and Timmy gets a visit from Johnny Town-mouse. We learn that the cat has killed the canary inside the house of horrors. So, there was a big big struggle scene after all, but Potter decided to recount it via a hypodiegetic narrator rather than turn it into a horrifying bloodbath of a scene.

In this illustration there’s no dead canary, but I assume it’s inside the cat’s belly. Cat sits on windowsill, currently digesting, looking godlike upon the chaos while the cook turns her back, oblivious to the animal stories happening all around her.

Johnny finds the country just as noisy and startling as Timmy finds the city, with the cows mooing and the lawnmower engine running.

NEW SITUATION

After his excursion to the country, Johnny Town-mouse finds the country too quiet. (Despite the cows and the lawnmower.) So he returns. Each mouse is happy in his own environment.

The moral of the Aesop fable is as following:

Poverty with security is better than plenty in the midst of fear and uncertainty.

This is a fairly complex message. In bowdlerised versions of this fable, the message tends to get simplified by the younger audience: country life is fun; the city is a child cage. And so it is here. Potter vastly simplifies the message, and offers readers her own personal opinion:

One place suits one person, another place suits another person. For my part I prefer to live in the country, like Timmy Willie.

In case we didn’t pick it up.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Other authors and illustrators have adapted this tale for children.

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (1971) Paul Galdone
The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse (1971) Paul Galdone
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Zoomorphism and Chremamorphism

man surrounded by rock pigeons

In literature, an object with human characteristics is called ‘personification‘.

Granting an animal human-like characteristics is called ‘anthropomorphism‘. (Anthropo = human being, as in ‘anthropology’. ‘Morph’ = change.)

Both personification and anthropomorphism are types of metaphors.

But what do you call it when it’s the other way round? i.e., when a human being is compared to an animal by virtue of animal characteristics? Reverse personification? Animalification?

Turns out the word for ‘reverse anthropomorphism’ is zoomorphism. But because this word isn’t used much, people make up their own terminology, independently of one another.

Someone on Urban Dictionary noted the words fantasy lovers have come up with:

ANTHRO

An animal with human-like characteristics. A human with animal-like characteristics can also be called an anthro, but technically they are not. An anthro is, technically, an animal that can: a) walk upright, b) talk, or talk somewhat (AKA has human vocal chords), c) has human features (i.e. a centaur, half human, half horse), d) has the bone structure of a human, with some of its animal counterpart (i.e. a cat-anthro that although looks like a human, can jump like a cat). These characteristics separate anthros from humans with cat ears and tail (or something like that).

EXAMPLES OF ZOOMORPHISM

It’s common in literature to give a human character animal characteristics, even when the genre is not speculative.

We are used to animal idioms in daily life e.g.

  • picky eaters as birds
  • greedy people as pigs
  • thin people as stick insects
  • night owls

In literature, the metaphor may last the length of a work, leading readers towards the conclusion, or it may be short-lived e.g. a single observation.

A lengthy example of zoomorphism: In S.E. Hinton’s That Was Then, This Is Now, one of the main characters is depicted as a lion in preparation for his eventual fate.

A singular instance of zoomorphism: ‘I love your dress,’ she purred. (Women as cats and birds is cliche in literature.)

As children we get used to picture books where the people are ostensibly animals — they have the heads and bodies of animals but essentially behave like humans. Often there’s no metaphorical reason for this — it’s the ‘hat on a dog’ type humour that children love. Why is Olivia a pig? I have no idea, but it gives Ian Falconer’s illustrations a childlike interest which may not otherwise be there given his limited colour palette and style.

Authors of adult work also make use of people as animals, and can continue animal metaphors across an entire story. It might be limited to a character sketch. Alternatively, character-as-animal may comprise the beef of the story and function as integral to the plot.

The Human Squirrel

The following examples persist throughout the story and are integral to the story as a whole:

  • The Ratcatcher” by Roald Dahl (short story)
  • Caleb by Gary Crew and Steven Woolman (horror picture book)
  • Mercy Watson Thinks Like A Pig — ironically it is the Animal Catcher who thinks like a pig. Here we have a double layer of animalification, because Francine Poulet is also described as a chicken (the big clue is in her symbolic name).
  • Mercy Watson Fights Crime — Kate diCamillo and Chris Van Dusen do enjoy designing opponents with an animal in mind — in this one the cowboy-wannabe burglar is depicted as a weasel. (I know this from listening to Kate diCamillo talk about the character design in an interview — it’s not over-the-top obvious.)
  • Mr Reginald Peacock’s Day“, a short story by Katherine Mansfield takes the vanity symbolism of the peacock and applies it to a singing teacher.

EXPANDED EXAMPLE

OLDER WOMAN COMPARED TO GREY FIELD MOUSE

Roald Dahl uses a rat in “The Ratcatcher” but mice are considered really quite different from rats. Rats are sinister; mice are more often harmless, vulnerable due to their size, cute. The idiomatic expression ‘timid as a mouse’ doesn’t represent the reality of mice — whenever I’ve had them in the house I’ve been struck by how brazen they are.

Robin Black opens her short story “Tableau Vivant” with real mice, which have come into a house. She then focuses on one (actual) bolshy mouse who won’t leave the house even though it’s no longer winter. Next, we get a thumbnail sketch of the woman who lives in this house. The focus is on her physical resemblance:

Jean Kurek looked a bit like a field mouse herself, with her close-cut gray hair, in her shapeless gray dress—no zippers, no buttons. Stroke clothes. Her appearance was no more or less distinguished than it had been all her sixty-eight years, the most likely description of her a string of negatives. Not really tall or short, you wouldn’t say she’s heavy but she isn’t particularly thin, not ugly, not at all, but not pretty either, her hair is that color that isn’t blond or brown. Arguably, her most striking feature was the absence of any striking feature—though her hair had finally claimed a color, gray.

“Tableau Vivant” a short story by Robin Black from If I Loved You I Would Tell You This

But Black doesn’t stop at the physical resemblance:

Jean had spent a lifetime trying to be inconspicuous, appreciating that nature had given her a good start. As she stepped out from the kitchen now and crunched her way over the garden’s gravel pathways, even the briskness of her pace seemed designed to make her presence as little disruptive as possible, and the arm hanging loose by her side, like something she would soon remember to gather up. [She has lost the use of one arm due to a stroke.]

“Tableau Vivant” a short story by Robin Black from If I Loved You I Would Tell You This

Note that not every aspect of the human character needs to resemble the chosen animal. Mice don’t ‘crunch’ when they walk across gravel, for instance, but they do walk like that, just in their miniature way.

CHREMAMORPHISM

Whereas zoomorphism is the inverse of anthropomorphism, chremamorphism is the inverse of personification. Chremamorphism is the literary technique of comparing a person to an object in some way.

For example, an old man character might be compared to a rock or a chimney. A man might be compared to a flower.

A man lives as briefly as a flower, destined all too soon to decay into the stink of flesh. Humanity strives all its days to sear its own flesh in the flames of base desire.

THRONE OF BLOOD (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
Brick sculpture by Brad Spencer
Brick sculpture by Brad Spencer

The song “Grandfather’s Clock” might be considered an example of chremamorphism and personification combined, because the old man and the clock are one and the same.

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Header photo by Caitlyn Wilson 

The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes by Beatrix Potter

Beatrix Potter was already popular by the time she published The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes (1911). The introduction to our 110th anniversary copy says the tale was created specifically to appeal to a new, American audience, with the inclusion of chipmunks.

Unfortunately, Beatrix had never seen a chipmunk in real life. She must have relied upon photos when illustrating the chipmunks, but good reference photos wouldn’t have been easy to come by in England at the time.

The publisher pointed out that Potter’s chipmunks looked more like rabbits. She initially insisted chipmunks DO look like rabbits, but was required to re-do them regardless.

Chipmunks are small mammals with distinct stripes, while the tree squirrel is larger and doesn’t have stripes. Rabbits are… um… also mammals.

This story is notable for its depiction of bird calls set to words. Like the riddles found in other Beatrix Potter books, and like nursery rhymes in general, my generation of parents may be skipping the teaching of these bird calls set to words. e.g. “A little bit of bread and no cheese” to describe the call of a yellowhammer, introduced to New Zealand by Acclimatisation Societies between 1865 and 1879. My own father taught this to me, but I remain unfamiliar with the calls of European birds.

The calls in Aristophanes’ Birds (produced in 414 bce) must be some of the oldest examples of this on record: Torotorotorotix, Epopoi popopopopopopoi and so on.

Aaaaw to Zzzzzd: The Words of Birds North America, Britain, and Northern Europe is a book by John Bevis. Its marketing copy reads: The distinctive and amazing songs and calls of birds: a meditation and a lexicon.

We do have a few New Zealand-specific bird calls set to words, most notably from Denis Glover’s famous poem “The Magpies”, which I learned in school. My parents’ generation were required to memorise poetry and this was one that New Zealanders over about 75 will be able to recite for you, but the skill of poetry recital had died by the time I went through primary school in the eighties. I didn’t memorise a single poem (outside Bible verses). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96VZpN5xtMM

New Zealand’s magpies are from Australia. Now I live in Australia, surrounded by an array of outstandingly noisy birds. The magpie barely makes an impact against the cockatoos, so it’s no surprise the poem was written in New Zealand, where the magpie remains distinctively loud.

When it comes to birds, regional dialects develop. Haha. So yellowhammers probably sing with a Kiwi accent these days.

VIOLENCE in timmy tiptoes

The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes is a remarkably violent story of the kind you won’t see published anew today. The scene where Timmy is wrangled through a very small hole leaves him close to dead. This is Tony Soprano stuff.

A MODERN THEORY

But it’s also a tender story of two male characters spending time together, one looking after another in a way far more typical of feminine caring. I just did an Internet search in case my thoughts on this are already done to death in literary circles, but found nothing. I may plough a lonely furrow, and this may sound facetious, but through my contemporary lens Chippy Hackee reads as a gay man, perhaps gender queer, or some related combo.

STORY STRUCTURE OF TIMMY TIPTOES

This story is written in classic mythic structure. Timmy leaves home, encounters baddies and goodies, must decipher which is which and eventually returns home slightly changed. Beatrix Potter mixes things up a bit by switching the squirrel main character out for a chipmunk, who continues this same linear journey into darkness. It is the chipmunk who faces the biggest big struggle (with the bear). Potter’s empathetic character remains safe.

SHORTCOMING

Timmy Tiptoes starts out with a remarkably hygge vibe — life is good for this young married couple, living in a utopian woodland with plenty of food and meditative days out collecting food for winter.

Timmy and Goody in utopia

DESIRE

Timmy Tiptoes and his wife want to collect enough nuts for winter.

Chippy wants a different lover from the one he’s got, or maybe he only wants the freedom to express the feminine-coded act of caregiving in an era where that’s not permitted for men. But that’s just my reading. (It would not have been Potter’s intention.)

OPPONENT

The name Silvertail sounds vaguely piratey

Something must happen to upset Timmy’s idyllic life. Turns out this is no utopia at all — only an snail under the leaf setting. There are baddies in these woods. Thieves.

If you are a hibernating creature and your food store gets stolen, that’s a life and death matter.

The birds are unwitting opponents by outing where the Tiptoe couple are hiding their stash.

Squirrels go to great lengths to hide their nuts — they meticulously arrange leaves to make them look undisturbed. (I think Potter would’ve seen that herself.)

Chippy is also an opponent to Timmy despite his caregiving — Timmy just wants to go home to his wife, but Chippy keeps offering up all this delicious food. He becomes too fat to fit back through the hole.

PLAN

Our main character has no plan other than to get on with his happy, day-to-day life, so in this case the baddies are the ones with the plan — they steal the Tiptoes’ nuts.

Silvertail is a forgetful squirrel, so his plan is to just dig up whosever nuts he finds. Potter was right about squirrels forgetting the location of some of their nut stores, but their memory is far more amazing than even naturalists knew back then:

Depending on the squirrel species and the type of nut, squirrels are generally able to retrieve up to 95 percent of their buried food, research shows.

Live Science

BIG STRUGGLE

Timmy has his near-death moment when he is squeezed through the hole in the tree. He lies semi-conscious upon his own store of nuts. Meanwhile we are subjected to the heartbreaking scene of Goody, his wife, searching everywhere for him. This Battle happens at about the midway point in the story. But Timmy is saved by the tender care of an (at first) non-gendered, unidentified chipmunk (referred to as the distancing ‘it’), who tucks Timmy into his own bed and even lends Timmy his night cap. Then he keeps Timmy captive by feeding him nuts so he will never make it back out through the woodpecker’s hole. This is Emma Donahue’s Room mashed up with Se7en mashed up with Brokeback Mountain.

Conveniently for the story, wind blows Chippy’s tree over. This allows Timmy to escape and the mythic journey now switches to the chipmunk, whose name we learn is Chippy Hackee, but only after the wives get together to lament their missing husbands.

Mrs Chippy Hackee has been abandoned for reasons that remain unexplained within the world of the story. Nor are we given any clues — she seems a perfectly adequate wife — everything one would want in a chipmunk. I deduce the setting reason for Chippy leaving his wife must be this: Timmy has been busy filling their marital home with his nut store and Chippy is dissatisfied because his wife fails to keep their house clean — the main job of a wife in 1911, and perfectly obvious to Potter’s contemporary audience. An obvious plot hole: Chippy’s new hiding place is no less full up with nuts. The nuts are not the problem in that relationship, people.

We learn via Mrs Chippy Hackee that her husband ‘bites’; i.e. he bites her. She assumes he bites everyone. But we have seen the opposite behaviour from Chippy in his tender loving care for the larger, injured (male) squirrel.

Chippy refuses to go home to his wife even when the tree blows over, leaving him exposed to the elements. He would rather CAMP OUT IN THE ACTUAL RAIN than go home to his wife, who pleads with him nonetheless. He’s in a total slump. He had a soul mate in Timmy — now Timmy has gone home, arm in arm with his own wife, and if Chippy can’t have Timmy he would rather have no one.

The only thing that shoos Chippy home is the appearance of a hangry bear.

ANAGNORISIS

And when Chippy Hackee got home, he found he had caught a cold in his head; and he was more uncomfortable still.

More uncomfortable because of the head cold? His wife is nursing him back to health despite his previously biting her. Perhaps Chippy is more comfortable in the caregiver’s role. He’s had a taste of his gender expansive freedom and now he’s stuck being someone’s reluctant husband forever in the strict gender binary of 1911.

I don’t believe for one second that this was Beatrix Potter’s intent for the story. So what is the 1911 Anagnorisis of her Timmy Tiptoes tale?

That home with your wife is better, because wives take care of you. Go home to your family. Be loyal to your heteronormative family.

As for the Tiptoes, they buy a lock for their nut stash. Moral: If you don’t want your stuff nicked, lock it up. Hey, that’s what Chippy thought. (‘Lock up what you love’ doesn’t apply to living creatures, Chippy. You can’t just force feed a lover so he can’t escape through the hole, Chippy.)

NEW SITUATION

The Tiptoes have new babies, which makes Goody’s earlier scene all the more upsetting — she was pregnant with at least three when she thought she’d been abandoned by her husband.

The final illustration suggests the chipmunks remain unhappy. Their discord is symbolised by the bird who swoops down, poked at angrily by the wife with that battered and broken umbrella, to symbolise the battered and broken relationship.

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Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea by Michaela Muntean

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea is a Little Golden Book first published 1983. The illustrations are by Lucinda McQueen. There is a series of stories about Theodore the Mouse.

I find this particular picture book an unremarkable read, and since I took a close look at The Sailor Dog earlier in the week, it’s worth examining what makes the ‘animal goes to sea’ story by Margaret Wise Brown so much more effective.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THEODORE MOUSE GOES TO SEA

SHORTCOMING

Like a lot of children’s stories, Theodore Mouse starts from a place of boredom. He goes to sea because he wakes up and every day is the same. The only thing that changes is the sea. We infer from that, as does the mouse, that the sea holds great adventure.

The symbolism of altitude is utilised here, with Theodore sitting in a high place (on the roof), gazing as far as his eyes can see, contemplating his adventure. Windows are used in the same way.

Mice as child stand-ins are common throughout children’s literature.

DESIRE

Theodore Mouse wants something to happen. So, like a superhero who sets out to save the world, his desire for something comes from within. Boredom.

This is the narrative used by advocates of screen-free childhoods, based on the theory that if children are deprived of stimulation they will make their own fun.

OPPONENT

Unlike Wise Brown’s story, Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea  is a more classically mythic structure, in which both the environment (the storm) and the ‘human’ pirates form joint opposition. Wise Brown’s story is a parody of the Robinsonnade; this is a straight sea adventure for the preschool set. I’m sure the preschool set doesn’t know that Wise Brown’s book is a parody, which probably makes these two Little Golden Books equal in their eyes. The difference is that the adult co-reader gets more out of Wise Brown’s book.

PLAN

First, Theodore uses his bed and sheets to make a bed and go out to sea.

The bed as ship trope is fairly common in children’s literature (I’ve used it myself, in The Artifacts). Perhaps most famously, it’s used by Margaret Wild and Jane Tanner in There’s A Sea In My Bedroom.

When he comes up against the pirates his plan is to beat the baddies with his pillows.

BIG STRUGGLE

The unintended consequence of beating the pirates with pillows is that the burst open and the baddies become covered in feathers, which humiliates them by making them look like chickens. (Whoever decided ‘chicken’ meant ‘coward’ didn’t once meet a live chicken, methinks. Chickens are the bolshiest animal I know.)

The ‘feather as weapon’ has been utilised since by Australian children’s band The Wiggles. Captain Feathersword has a sword made of feathers. This is acceptable to any gatekeeper of children’s media because no one could possibly be hurt with a feather. The feather as weapon is therefore at the extreme ‘benign’ end of the Chekhov’s Toy Gun continuum.

ANAGNORISIS

The anagnorisis is of the proxy, pathetic fallacy variety.

The sky cleared. The sun shone.

We’re never told what that revelation is, because I don’t think there is one. This is more of a carnivalesque adventure, in which a child character goes off on an unlikely, fantasy adventure away from authority figures, overcomes adversity, then returns to safety. The entire point of such stories is to have fun.

NEW SITUATION

One of the main human desires/needs is to be taken seriously by our peers. Theodores is richly rewarded in this regard. He sits on the roof with all his mousy peers, who listen wrapt as he tells his tales of adventures at sea.

The mythic structure of this tale, as well as this particular ending, make this a typically masculine story, though the mice friends do help him to put his bed back in his bedroom, which lends a co-operative (traditionally feminine) vibe. Wise Brown’s book is masculine in some ways — Sailor Dog is a ‘real’ sailor only once he’s wearing the masculine sailor uniform. But Wise Brown hasn’t used a masculine story structure — her big struggle scene is not the point.

The illustrations in Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea are very functional but otherwise unremarkable. There is an unnamed little friend who accompanies Theodore — the bird — a common illustrator trick to add extra narrative to the story. Apart from that, these illustrations are completely hygge, which is probably why they were chosen — a scary illustrator would turn the pirate rampage into something terrifying.

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