Babar’s Visit to Bird Island
Animal Land: The Creatures of Children’s Fiction
For over seventy years, Babar has been the most famous elephant in the world—and the most controversial. He has been praised as a benevolent monarch, an ideal parent, and a model of family affection, loyalty, justice, good manners, and civilized living. He has also been damned as a sexist, an elitist, a colonialist, and a racist. It has even been proposed that he deserves to be burned alive: see Should We Burn Babar? by Herbert Kohl (1995). Clearly, a figure who arouses such intense and conflicting opinions must be more than the ordinary hero of a children’s picture book: he must represent important and sometimes contradictory views of both childhood and society.
The complexity of King Babar’s world, and some of its contradictions, are partly the result of the fact that his long life has been chronicled by two different biographers. Babar’s history began in Paris in 1931, when the pianist Cecile de Brunhoff invented a bedtime story about a baby elephant for her sons, who were then five and six years old. The next day the boys repeated the tale to their father, the artist Jean de Brunhoff, who was inspired to write it down, expand it, illustrate it, and publish it in 1931 as The Story of Babar. Over the next eight years he wrote six more Babar books which, like the first, became immensely popular. When he died in 1937, at thirty-seven, the series lapsed. But seven years later his elder son, Laurent, then only twenty but already becoming known as an abstract painter, took up the story. Since then Laurent de Brunhoff has produced over thirty books about Babar and his family and friends, and six with other protagonists, of whom the most famous is a gentle and elusive little man called Bonhomme who lives at the top of a pink mountain.
Babar, of course, both is and is not an elephant. Or rather, he is an elephant only in the sense that the characters in Aesop’s and Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables are animals. Essentially, all of them stand for human types and have the traits that humans, sometimes arbitrarily, have assigned to them. (La Fontaine’s crow, for example, is vain and easily deceived, though real crows are neither conceited nor foolish.) As an elephant, Babar is traditionally strong and wise and has a remarkable memory. He is also naturally large and powerful, unlike many animal heroes of children’s picture books, who tend to be smaller than humans. From the start, most original editions of the Babar books have appropriately been elephant-sized, just as Beatrix Potter’s tales of rabbits and mice are very small.
Babar is not only both animal and human, he is both a child and an adult. His name makes this clear: it combines the French terms for father (papa) and infant (bébé). One sign of his ambiguous position is that, unlike the other adult elephants in the story, he …