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Homer, The Gruffalo, Rupert Bear and me


Of the many old-fashioned qualities and “kinds” that I miss in contemporary poetry – narrative drive, humour, epic sweep and imaginative scope, for instance – some are to be found preserved unselfconsciously in verse for children.  I would argue that Julia Donaldson’s best books – notably The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child, Stick Man, and Room on the Broom –  deserve to be considered as (possibly) contributing more to the future of poetry than scores of slim vols which pour off the  presses (and  take themselves so seriously) every month.   My granddaughters could babble phrases, even whole verses, from Room on the Broom even before they could properly talk.  The Gruffalo, happily illustrated by Axel Sheffler, is Julia Donaldson’s best known creation.  And what an epic story it is.   Set in an archetypal Jungian forest, our mouse hero is surrounded by dangers lurking on all sides.  Absurdly small in this world of big terrors (and I like the way the TV cartoon version emphasises the dangers around every jungly corner) the mouse learns to confront  monsters as frightening as anything encountered by Odysseus – mostly by developing classic trickster qualities.  Most importantly he learns the psychological lesson that bullies can themselves be out-bullied .  The Gruffalo – his eyes are orange, his tongue is black; he has purple prickles down his back – is a construct of all the little mouse’s worst fears but turns out to be the  biggest fool of them all. So Aeneas can trick poor old Cyclops and Brer Rabbit can out-fox the Fox.  A sequel, The Gruffalo’s Child, is almost as successful and perhaps more humorous than the original,  but this time the mouse’s trick  – he  makes his shadow appear more frightening by posing in front a full moon –  seems to me more literal  and therefore less subtle than the mind games he plays in the first story.  It should be noted that all Julia Donaldson’s story poems  employ such old-fashioned narrative devices as repetition with variation,  heavy ballad like rhyme schemes,  skipping non-iambic rhythms, and  formulae such as the Rule of Three –  3 wishes, 3 encounters with monsters, 3 friendly animal guides etc – that are so much a part of the English “vernacular”  tradition, from the anonymous Robin Hood ballads onwards.  Stick Man plumbs our most elemental insecurities  – the loss of family comfort and self-identity – as he ventures further and further away from the family tree. Stick Man too encounters  near-Homeric adventures in his wanderings.  Some might object to the happy Christmassy ending; waiting to be burnt alive on a log fire, Stick Man is able to deliver Santa Claus who is stuck up the chimney and, in return, is himself restored to the bosom of his stick family in time for Christmas morning. But one feels that one is entitled to a happy ending after experiencing such a series of frights; perhaps that is one of the functions of children’s stories – to return us to reassurance after introducing us to the possibility of insecurity, even terrors?.   One of my favourite Julia Donaldson stories, Room on the Broom, does much to rehabilitate the maligned imaged of the witch; her four rescue pets rescue her in turn from a dragon.  Dragons, witches, monsters, forests, caves…where else in poetry can you experience such archetypal landscapes and scenarios?  As Edward Lear’s “nonsense” narrative verse explored buried depths of loneliness and love-longing in his Victorian audience, so these poems for children can, perhaps, serve to recover our forgotten notions of adventure and heroism. Apart from The Book – Bible readings at least twice a day – my own missionary childhood in Northern Nigeria was mostly bookless.   But I do remember the delight of discovering Rupert Bear stories when I was shipped back to England at the age of nine.   At that time everything about the Rupert Bear annuals   – the comic strip pictures, the prose as well as verse commentary – was all the work of Robert Bestall. (The later books, from the 1970s onwards, are inferior, the commercial product  of teams of artists and writers).  Bestall’s brightly coloured squares were like windows into alternative  worlds where Rupert and his “pals” enjoyed adventures  on sub-tropical  islands, in castles floating in the air or within caverns deep underground, always returning to the idyllic environs of Nutwood.. The boy “pals”,  Bill Badger, Edward Trunk etc., all sport huge animal heads  atop their natty English schoolboy attire, while the girl friends are allowed to be prettily themselves…I wonder what a psychologist would make of that?   Bestall himself was the child of missionary parents in China; his depiction of Oriental places and people – most notably the Pekinese dog-headed  Pong Ping, but also Tiger Lily and her conjurer father, alternately frightening and fascinating – must reflect something of his own sense of dislocation.  For me  an important discovery was how the stories could be sped along by reading the captions (in rhyming octosyllabics) beneath each picture; no need to go through all those slow-moving prose paragraphs…no need to impede that headlong rush to adventure.