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The Royal Family

Babar’s Picnic

by Laurent de Brunhoff
Random House, 39 pp. (1949; out of print)

Babar’s Visit to Bird Island

by Laurent de Brunhoff
Random House, 39 pp. (1952; out of print)

Bonhomme

by Laurent de Brunhoff
Pantheon, 47 pp. (1965; out of print)

Animal Land: The Creatures of Children’s Fiction

by Margaret Blount
Morrow, 336 pp. (1975; out of print)

1.

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.1

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.2 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).3 One sign of his ambiguous position is that, unlike the other adult elephants in the story, he and his wife, Celeste, have very small tusks even after they are married and have become parents. They rule a kingdom, but they also enjoy many childish pleasures, as the British critic Margaret Blount has noted in Animal Land:

Babar does what most small children would like to do—joins in the adult world on a child’s terms, and gets away with it…. He can wear grown-up clothes, ride up and down in the lift, go fishing, drive a car, marry Celeste and become King of the Jungle all because his real self is hidden behind an animal hide and he is neither child nor adult but a bit of both….

Another part of the appeal of the Babar series seems to be that, after the first few books, they are about an ideal happy family in a nearly ideal world. Babar and his family visit distant places and even go to outer space, and sometimes they face trouble or danger; but everything always ends well. Their ideal universe also, very early in the series, becomes timeless. Babar is born, grows up, is educated, marries, becomes king, brings the advantages of civilization to his country, and has three children. After that, time stops. Over fifty years pass, and King Babar and Queen Celeste have a fourth child, but nobody grows any older or dies. Babar’s cousin Arthur remains an adolescent, and the children never reach puberty. As Margaret Blount puts it, Babar exists “in a perpetual, infantile middle age.”

In classic juvenile literature the protagonist is usually a child who leaves home and family, has adventures, and returns home (Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio, Where the Wild Things Are). Sometimes two or more children are featured (Peter Pan, Mary Poppins), and occasionally the hero or heroine ends up with a new and better family (Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter). In most of the Babar books, however, the family itself is the protagonist. It is an extended three-generation family, in which Babar’s early patroness, the Old Lady, and his wise elderly councilor, Cornelius, play the part of grandparents. Arthur is the impulsive adolescent cousin, and Zephir the monkey his mischievous friend.

Babar goes out into the world alone in the first book, but from then on he is almost always accompanied by family members. Together they go to Paris, to America, on vacation to the seashore or the mountains, on hikes in the country, and to another planet. Sometimes one of the children is the center of the story, but the entire family is almost always present and involved, especially at the inevitable happy ending. In this, of course, the books are closer to the real experience of most of their child readers, which may partly account for their popularity.

The environment of Babar is that of the prosperous, well-educated, art-loving French bourgeoisie. Babar and his family go to the theater and hear concerts of both classical and popular music. They favor upper-middle-class sports: they sail, play tennis, swim and ski, practice yoga,4 go to the races, and camp and hike in the mountains. Good manners are important, and so are good clothes. Jean de Brunhoff’s brother was the editor of French Vogue, and his brother-in-law a famous fashion journalist, and the costumes of Celeste and her daughters are consistently chic. The first thing Babar does after he is befriended by the Old Lady is to go to a large, apparently expensive department store, where he buys a bright green suit, a derby hat, and shoes. His first gift to his subjects is two sets of apparel each—one for work and one for play. Before they put them on the elephants walk on all fours; afterward they stand upright. In The Travels of Babar (1932), when Babar and Celeste lose their clothes and are stranded on a reef in the ocean, they also lose their quasi-human identity, and the captain of the ship that rescues them can sell them to a circus.

Babar’s is an ideal world, a kind of upper-middle-class French Utopia whose capital is literally a heavenly city—as its name, Celesteville, indicates. Its inhabitants have various occupations, but they only work in the mornings: the afternoons are devoted to sports and recreation, and to the arts. They live in identical grass-roofed cottages, except for Babar and the Old Lady, who have larger houses at the top of a hill, near public buildings that include a school, a library, a sports complex, and a theater. During the over seventy years since the founding of Celesteville the city has grown considerably: it now includes substantial mansions, skyscrapers, and a large art museum.5

Though no one ages in Celesteville, modern inventions and modern attitudes gradually appear. Styles in fashion and car design change; motorbikes, television, helicopters, and hang gliders become visible, and computers and cell phones are surely on their way. Queen Celeste remains a traditional wife and mother who stays home and devotes herself to her children; her older daughter, Flora, is at first also conventionally feminine, passive, and fearful, but in later books she gradually gains in courage and enterprise. Her sister, Isabelle, is a thoroughly modern little girl, slimmer and more active than Flora. She wears in-line skates, listens to music on a Walkman, and is eager to explore the world. Eventually, in The Rescue of Babar (1993), she journeys to a strange civilization and helps to free her father from captivity.

As Ann Hildebrand, who has written the most recent study of Babar, points out, the ambiance of the books is generally Gallic. The illustrations show berets, Citroëns, Peugeots, crêperies, and croissants, and the signs on the buildings are in French. Babar and his family visit Paris, a seaside resort that suggests Normandy or Brittany, and a château in the Dordogne. Ariel Dorfman, in The Empire’s Old Clothes (1983), has suggested that the attitude toward childhood in the early Babar books is also typically French. “Universal bliss is assured by grown-up figures who never make mistakes, and are unsusceptible to criticism.” For Americans, he believes, childhood is an age for fun and adventures, an end in itself, whereas for the Frenchit is a period of probation. This may be so in the early Babar books, but as time passes (or rather stops) the implied message changes, and in the later books Babar’s children and his cousin Arthur enjoy a perpetual happy and adventurous youth.

2.

In the Babar books, the kingdom of the elephants is not the only possible society. Besides the human world, containing recognizable places like Paris, New York, Chicago, and North Africa, there are separate civilizations of birds and monkeys and a planet in outer space whose inhabitants look a little like elephants. All these places have much in common with Celesteville. Their citizens are friendly to strangers; they live in comfortable and attractive dwellings under the care of a benevolent ruler, and they enjoy public events.

In Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar and Zephir (1936), the Republic of the Monkeys is ruled by a president, General Huc. He wears a Napoleonic hat and has a fairly large but not very efficient army, whose uniforms suggest those of nineteenth-century France or Italy: his soldiers wear red pants, white jackets, and plumed kepis. The principal city, Monkeyville, is on the sea and in a temperate climate. The monkeys wear fashionable clothes and live in small but comfortable houses hung from trees: they have a railway station, cars, a restaurant, and a hairdresser. On a nearby island there is a collection of strange-looking but essentially harmless “monsters,” whose greatest fear is boredom. Zephir manages to entertain them brilliantly, telling stories, dressing as a clown and doing tricks, and playing waltzes and polkas on his violin. The overall impression is of a Mediterranean seaside resort with an offshore island populated by eccentric and demanding tourists.

Laurent de Brunhoff’s Babar’s Visit to Bird Island (1951) portrays a simpler and more rural world. It is a strikingly beautiful and colorful book, and one of the author’s favorites: according to him, it was inspired by childhood visits to Cap Ferret, south of Bordeaux. The island is roughly bird-shaped and ruled by a king and queen who resemble crested cockatoos. As in Babar the King (1933), the inhabitants all have different and appropriate trades: the pelican, with his large beak, is a postman; the pheasants are tailors; the long-legged flamingo and stork are dancers; the parrot and the peacock are actors; the vulture is a butcher; and chickens manage the dairy. There are no monsters, though at one point Babar’s daughter Flora is threatened by an enormous fish. It is a freer and less organized society than that of the monkeys: entertainment and the enjoyment of life are foremost, and only Babar and his family wear clothes. The suggestion is of a small semitropical island, with colorful, pleasure-loving inhabitants of many races, where one can enjoy deep-sea fishing and outdoor banquets.

  1. 1

    Friends of Laurent de Brunhoff, as well as some readers, have felt that there was a personal connection between Bonhomme and his creator, and de Brunhoff admits that he has a special feeling for him.

  2. 2

    In this he resembles the elephant-headed Indian god Ganesh, who is the patron of writers and a favorite with children.

  3. 3

    Babar was the name of a sixteenth-century Indian king; but Laurent de Brunhoff says his father was probably not aware of this when he began the series. Currently, BaBar is also the name given to an electronic testing program used in laboratories.

  4. 4

    See Laurent de Brunhoff, Babar’s Yoga for Elephants (Abrams, 2002), a guidebook that has proved extremely popular for beginners. As one fan put it to me, “If an elephant can do it, so can I.”

  5. 5

    See Laurent de Brunhoff, Babar’s Museum of Art (Abrams, 2003). This museum contains famous paintings from all over the world, but all the figures in them are elephants.

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