Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
French authors and illustrators of picture books.
The following entry presents commentary on the de Brunhoffs' "Babar" picture book series (1931–2005) through 2006. For further information on the "Babar" series, see CLR, Volume 4.
One of the most iconic characters in twentieth-century children's literature, Babar the elephant represents the gentle legacy of the de Brunhoff family and remains a strong influence on the continuing evolution of picture book art. The initial brainstorm of Cécile de Brunhoff, who created the ubiquitous pachyderm as an evening's bedtime story for sons Laurent and Mathieu, Babar was introduced to the world by her husband Jean who turned the playful tale into a lasting memorial of fatherly love and familial wisdom over the course of seven picture books. After Jean's premature death at the age of thirty-seven, his eldest son Laurent became the voice of Babar, authoring over sixty books that have permanently fixed the natty elephant into the public consciousness. Unlike other characters in juvenile classics—"children" like Alice, Pippi, Wilbur, and Christopher Robin—Babar is a grown-up whom young readers listen to and identify with; they participate in his saga from birth through childhood and youth, to young manhood, marriage, leadership, and eventually, fatherhood. Filled with rich imagery, both written and pictorial, the Babar series forms the basis of an elephantine universe of wide-ranging adventures, which represent some of the canonical works of the modern picture book genre.
Jean de Brunhoff was born December 9, 1899, in Paris, France. His father, Maurice, was a publisher of art magazines, and Jean's brother, Michel, became editor-in-chief of the French Vogue. De Brunhoff studied painting at L'Ecole Alsacienne until World War I interrupted his studies. After completing his service in the French Army, he returned to Paris to continue his artistic training, apprenticing as a student to noted French painter Othon Friesz. In 1924 he married Cécile Sabourad, a pianist, with whom he had two sons, Laurent and Mathieu. When Mathieu turned four, he came down with a sore throat one evening, and in order to help him sleep, Cécile created the tale of a young elephant—named "Baby Elephant" by Mathieu—and his adventures in the jungle. The boys happily related the story to their father, who saw the glimmerings of a storybook in its basic framework. Initially envisioned as a private book to be shared with his children, de Brunhoff eventually elected to publish the picture book with the assistance of his brother Michel. Released in 1931 as Histoire de Babar, le petit elephant (The Story of Babar, The Little Elephant), the story became a bestseller in France, prompting its wide release throughout Europe and the United States. Inspired by the growing worldwide success of his first picture book, de Brunhoff quickly composed further tales of Babar's adventures, including Le Voyage de Babar (1932; The Travels of Babar) and Le Roi Babar (1933; Babar the King). In 1935 Cécile gave birth to the couple's third son, Thierry, though Jean became seriously ill soon after. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, he was forced to move into a sanitarium in Switzerland to treat his increasingly poor health. Unable to return home, he realigned the nature of his Babar stories, turning Babar into a father himself and filling the text with paternal advice for his own sons. Jean eventually died as a result of the tuberculosis on October 16, 1937.
Though two more of Jean's Babar books were published posthumously, the series would live on under the stewardship of Jean's eldest son Laurent. Born on August 30, 1925, Laurent was only twelve when his father died. An accomplished artist in his own right, he pledged to take up his father's work and, in 1947, he published his first original Babar story, Babar et ce coquin d'Arthur (Babar's Cousin: That Rascal Arthur). Under Laurent's hand, Babar's legacy has grown to include over sixty books, an animated movie, two cartoon series, and an extensive and profitable line of consumer goods. Furthermore, he has released several children's books of his own inspiration that are unrelated to the Babar universe, including Serafina the Giraffe (1961) and Bonhomme (1965). In 1994 de Brunhoff took an extended break from Babar to rededicate himself to his art, a period that culminated with a public showing of his abstract paintings at a New York gallery. He ended his self-imposed vacation from Babar with Babar and the Succotash Bird (2000), a story that infused elements of magic into Babar's kingdom for the first time. Laurent splits his time between his native Paris and New York City, where he emigrated in 1985. Married to Phyllis Rose, an American author, Laurent continues to release new Babar stories, including three new titles in 2005 alone. Cécile de Brunhoff, the mother of Babar, passed away in 2003 at the age of ninety-nine.
The tale of Babar begins with Jean de Brunhoff's origin story, Histoire de Babar, where we meet baby Babar and his doting mother. Sadly, in an unusually tragic scene for the picture book genre, Babar's mother is murdered by a wicked hunter, and Babar is left on his own. The resourceful young elephant travels to the city, where he meets "La Vieille Dame" ("The Old Lady") who becomes both his patron and his substitute mother figure. She buys Babar his signature green suit and melon-colored hat, and he becomes educated both in the world of books and the ways of man. His young cousins, Céleste and Arthur, eventually come to visit Babar, who has transformed himself into a gentleman elephant who walks on two legs. He duplicates the Old Lady's generosity and buys his cousins clothes and offers them an education. Soon Babar leaves the Old Lady to return to his home among the elephants with Arthur and Céleste. Shortly after Babar arrives back in the jungle, the king of the elephants dies from an accidental ingestion of a poisoned mushroom, and the elephants clamor for Babar to become their new king due to his keen intelligence, education, and human mannerisms. As the new king, Babar nurtures a cultural renascence among the elephants, bringing human customs and technology to their lands. He marries his cousin Céleste and makes her queen, naming the new capital Célesteville in her honor. Further books by Jean de Brunhoff expand Babar's circle of friends to include such characters as Cornelius, his wise and aged advisor; Pom, Alexander, Flora, and Isabelle, Babar's children; and Zephir, the prince of the monkeys and a close family friend who lives with the Old Lady. After assuming control of the Babar legacy, Laurent de Brunhoff's stories initially followed the same narrative style, with Laurent seeking to duplicate his father's artistic patterns. However, over the course of his expanding list of titles, Laurent has contemporized Babar for both educational and entertainment purposes. As a result, while the artwork remains faithful to Jean's original pictorial sensibilities, several of the newer stories themselves serve tutorial purposes, teaching aspects of language and natural sciences. Such titles include Babar's Yoga for Elephants (2002), Babar Goes to School (2003), and Babar's Museum of Art (2003). Additionally, while Laurent continues to pen Babar stories with themes reminiscent of his father's books, the plots are generally looser, taking Babar on a wide range of adventures across many foreign countries and, on one occasion, the moon.
Despite their intended audience of young readers, the Babar books often depict a wide range of strongly emotional themes that—while atypical for picture books—are indicative of heroic allegories. Jean de Brunhoff's early stories, meant to serve as the foundational blocks for the continuing Babar saga, evince particularly surprising levels of emotional depth and frank depictions of tragedy. Histoire de Babar originates with a young Babar bonding with his mother in several deliberately tender images, a scene that is suddenly jarred by the depiction of the loss of his mother at the hands of the hunter. Within this same book, further harrowing elements emerge, such as the death of Babar's predecessor from a poisoned mushroom and the threat of war with the neighboring rhinoceroses. And yet, in the gentle hands of de Brunhoff and Babar himself, the reader can feel secure that the resourceful elephant will somehow emerge triumphant. Harry C. Payne has suggested that this willingness to venture into difficult emotional territory is "in part a father's way of talking to his children about the world, its anxieties, and its powers of restoration. It is, no doubt, in part the work of someone who instinctively knew not to hide trouble from children but, in the end, wanted to reassure and amuse them." Many scholars have noted that de Brunhoff's awareness of his impending death unquestionably contributed to the frank paternalistic themes that transformed Babar from a struggling orphan into a mentor figure for his young readers. Famed picture book author Maurice Sendak has argued that Jean's "devotion to family and the circumstances of life that produced Babar must account for the special power and honest sentiment that are the essence of de Brunhoff's work." Some critics, such as Bettina Hürlimann, have even theorized that the more paternalistic books in de Brunhoff's later canon might not have been written had the author been healthier.
Another major theme throughout the Babar series is the elaborate social strata within the animal communities, comparable to the human society of Babar's "Old Lady." Annie Pissard has noted that, "In Babar two worlds interrelate: the town and the jungle." Babar's return to his animal compatriots drives a seeming tidal shift in the world of animals. Bringing home mankind's culture, the elephants advance quickly, leaving their more primitive homes and society behind them to build a shining new city on a hill. Some species are almost on par with the humans, though clearly a step behind culturally and technologically, such as the elephants and the rhinoceroses. Edmund Leach suggests a hierarchy of species exists, with man, monkey, rhino, and elephant situated at the top. Beneath them are what he terms the "servile" classes, a status represented by de Brunhoff's depiction of hippos, kangaroos, and dromedaries working as assistants to the higher classes. Farther down the scale are lesser-humanized animals; wild beasts, such as snakes who seem to lack social intelligence; and finally the "domestic animals" like dogs and cats, the animal pets to the humans in Paris who lack anything other than basic intelligence. Arguably, these classifications invite comparisons to the colonialism and social stratification that were emblematic of the period. Whether these ideals were intentional in de Brunhoff's molding of his elephantine-centered universe remains cause for speculation, although no definitive proof exists. Still critics such as Hildebrand believe "Célesteville is a model for an ideal world based on a real one, many of whose bourgeois values Jean believed in and wanted to perpetuate."
A large presence throughout much of the twentieth century, the de Brunhoffs' Babar stories have been applauded for altering the picture book landscape irrevocably upon their release in the 1930s, with many critics arguing that they represent the origins of the modern picture book. Maurice Sendak has commented that, "Babar is at the very heart of my conception of what turns a picture book into a work of art. The graphics are tightly linked to the 'loose' prose-poetry, remarkable for its ease of expression." The Babar books, particularly the early works by Jean de Brunhoff, have been repeatedly commended for their easy narrative style and strong emotional impact. In her 1933 review of de Brunhoff's first two Babar volumes, Marguerite MacKellar remarked, "Lucky youngsters, to have had their tastes so cleverly considered." However, the somewhat dated belief system evident in the earlier Babar books has given some critics pause. Scholars such as Edmund Leach have suggested that the series is rife with colonialist and social elitist themes, arguing that, for de Brunhoff, it was "important that the comfortable bourgeois adult readers should not have their basic assumptions about social relationships in any way disturbed. Babar has the prejudices of a middle class colon of the 1930s." Those who agree with such readings have further asserted that Babar's period philosophical bent makes the series potentially inappropriate for contemporary audiences. Herbert Kohl has found Histoire de Babar particularly worrisome because it represents the "perfect model of the genre of illustrated children's books meant to be read aloud. And, if offensive, it is a masterpiece of propaganda, since it is easy to accept the whole of it unquestioned and even to internalize some of the attitudes and ideas it presents." Nonetheless, the Babar books have remained internationally popular and, despite charges of Jean de Brunhoff's alleged endorsement of colonialism, his early Babar texts have endured as the most popular works of the series. Laurent de Brunhoff's picture books have never received the same critical praise as Jean's works, although many have credited Laurent for widely expanding and enriching the literary universe created by his father. In attempting to summarize the innate qualities of Babar that have aided his enduring legacy, Annie Pissard has suggested that, "Whatever their individual differences, their particular richness, the pictures of Babar over a history spanning some fifty years are strong and sweet images that imprint themselves in the memory, carrying dreams with them."
Babar Books by Jean de Brunhoff
Histoire de Babar, le petit elephant [The Story of Babar, The Little Elephant; translated by Merle Haas, H. Smith, and R. Haas] (picture book) 1931
Le Voyage de Babar [The Travels of Babar; translated by Merle Haas, H. Smith, and R. Haas] (pic-
ture book) 1932; published in the United Kingdom as Babar's Travels, 1935
Le Roi Babar [Babar the King; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1933
A B C de Babar [A B C of Babar; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1934; published in the United Kingdom as Babar's A B C, 1937
Les Vacances de Zephir [Zephir's Holidays; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1934; published in the United Kingdom as Babar's Friend Zephir, 1937; published as Babar and Zephir, 1942
Babar en famille [Babar and His Children; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1938; published in the United Kingdom as Babar at Home, 1938
Babar et le Père Noël [Babar and Father Christmas; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1940
The Babar Story-Book [retold by Enid Blyton] (picture book) 1941
Les Aventures de Babar [adapted by Laurent de Brunhoff] (textbook) 1959
Babar aux sports d'hîver (picture book) 1976
Babar's Anniversary Album: Six Favorite Stories [with Laurent de Brunhoff] (picture book) 1981
The Art of Babar: Drawings and Watercolors by Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff [with Laurent de Brunhoff] (artwork) 1989
Babar Books by Laurent de Brunhoff
Babar et ce coquin d'Arthur [Babar's Cousin: That Rascal Arthur; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1947
Pique-Nique chez Babar [Babar's Picnic; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1949
Babar dans l'île aux oiseaux [Babar's Visit to Bird Island; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1951
La Fête de Celesteville [Babar's Fair; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1954
Babar et le Professeur Grifaton [Babar and the Professor; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1956
Le Chateau de Babar [Babar's Castle; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1961
Babar's French Lessons (textbook) 1963
Babar Comes to America [translated by Merle Jean Craig] (picture book) 1965
Babar's Spanish Lessons [Spanish text by Roberto Eyzaguirre] (textbook) 1965
Babar fait du ski [Babar Goes Skiing; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1966
Babar jardinier [Babar the Gardener; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1966
Babar a la mer [Babar at the Seashore; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1966
Babar en promenade [Babar Goes on a Picnic; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1966
Babar Loses His Crown (picture book) 1967
Babar's Games (pop-up book) 1968
Babar artist peintre [Babar the Painter] (picture book) 1969
Babar campeur [Babar the Camper; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1969
Babar fait du sport [Babar the Athlete; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1969
Babar et le docteur [Babar and the Doctor; translated by Merle Haas] (picture book) 1969
Babar's Moon Trip (pop-up book) 1969
Babar aviateur [Babar to the Rescue] (picture book) 1970
Babar et l'arbre de Noel [Babar's Christmas Tree] (picture book) 1970
Babar musicien [Babar's Concert] (picture book) 1970
Babar patissier [Babar Bakes a Cake] (picture book) 1970
Babar's Birthday Surprise (picture book) 1970
Babar sur la planete molle [Babar Visits Another Planet] (picture book) 1972
Meet Babar and His Family (picture book) 1973
Babar et le Wouly-Wouly [Babar and the Wully-Wully] (picture book) 1975
Babar Saves the Day (picture book) 1976
Babar Learns to Cook (picture book) 1978
Babar's Mystery (picture book) 1978
About Air (picture book) 1980
About Earth (picture book) 1980
About Fire (picture book) 1980
About Water (picture book) 1980
Babar the Magician (picture book) 1980
Babar and the Ghost (picture book) 1981
Babar's ABC (picture book) 1983
Babar's Book of Color (picture book) 1984
Babar's Counting Book (picture book) 1986
Babar's Little Girl (picture book) 1987
Babar's Little Circus Star (picture book) 1988
Babar's Busy Year: A Book about Seasons (picture book) 1989
Babar's Colors and Shapes (picture book) 1989
Babar's Number Fun (picture book) 1989
Babar's Paint Box Book (picture book) 1989
Babar's Busy Week (picture book) 1990
Isabelle's New Friend (picture book) 1990; republished as Babar's Little Girl Makes a Friend, 2002
Hello, Babar! (picture book) 1991
The Rescue of Babar (picture book) 1991; republished as Babar's Rescue, 2004
Babar's Bath Book (picture book) 1992
Babar's Car (picture book) 1992
La Victoire de Babar [Babar's Battle] (picture book) 1992
Babar's Peekaboo Fair (picture book) 1993
Babar's French and English Word Book (picture book) 1994
Babar and the Succotash Bird (picture book) 2000
Babar's Yoga for Elephants (picture book) 2002
Babar and the Christmas House (picture book) 2003
Babar Goes to School (picture book) 2003
Babar's Museum of Art (picture book) 2003
Babar and the Gift for Mother (picture book) 2004
Babar and the Runaway Egg (picture book) 2004
Babar and the Circus Star (picture book) 2005
Babar's World Tour (picture book) 2005
Marguerite MacKellar Mitchell (review date February 1933)
SOURCE: Mitchell, Marguerite MacKellar. Review of Histoire de Babar, le petit elephant and Le Voyage de Babar, by Jean de Brunhoff. Horn Book Magazine 9, no. 1 (February 1933): 29-30.
[In the following review, Mitchell offers positive assessments of the first two "Babar" picture books—Histoire de Babar, le petit elephant and Le Voyage de Babar—calling the texts "distinguished nonsense."]
This is the time of year when even the bravest of us murmur to ourselves that we need a change. We probably do, and let us all joyfully take it. If we cannot buy a ticket to go adventuring we can perhaps buy a book and travel through its fresh, unexplored pages. For human staleness there is no remedy more magical in its results than a fine dose of foolishness. These two French books [Histoire de Babar, le petit elephant and Le Voyage de Babar ], written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff, are distinguished nonsense. They relate the story of Babar, the little elephant, who wanders by chance into a town and at once longs to be dressed as tastefully as the citizens he sees about him. Fortunately he meets a very rich old lady who likes little elephants and "comme elle aime faire plaisir elle lui donne son porte-monnaie." Babar says: "Merci, Madame," and goes at once into a department store. He is so pleased with the elevator that he rides up and down many times until the boy is obliged to reproach him: "Ce n'est pas un joujou, Monsieur l'Éléphant." Agreeably clad in a bright green suit and "un beau chapeau melon," Babar enchants us with his adaptability to the curious ways of humans. The rich old lady generously shares her home with him. "Le matin, avec elle, il fait de la gymnastique puis il prend son bain." She provides "un savant professeur" for his education, a red roadster for his recreation. However, at the end of two years, a longing to see the great forest of his childhood comes over Babar, and it is with joy that he welcomes his two cousins, Arthur and Céleste, who have come to find him. Although he buys handsome clothes for them (and Céleste in a flowered dress eating chocolate éclairs "chez le pâtissier," is an attractive drawing, indeed) he decides to return to the forest, so "aidé par la vieille dame il fait sa malle." From then on Babar's biography is crowded with incident. The king of the elephants, having eaten a red mushroom, turns green and dies; and Babar becomes king, having invited Céleste to be his bride and queen. There is a wedding, a coronation, a festival, and then, "dans un superbe ballon jaune" we see Babar and Céleste on the cover of the second book, Le Voyage de Babar, which continues his travels and adventures.
It is now time that the reviewer admits, rather reluctantly, that these books are intended, probably, only for children. Lucky youngsters, to have had their tastes so cleverly considered. The books have nice, stiff backbones so that they prop up perfectly if the reader prefers a seat on the nursery floor, and the covers are broad enough to hide behind if a bothering governess is near. The illustrations, done with that dashing simplicity which looks "so easy" to those who have never tried to draw, are clear in color and explicit in theme. The story is related with such directness that even children who do not read French easily will not be too bewildered.
"Babar fait un bon feu
et prépare le déjeuner,"
and somehow we all feel invited.
Margaret Warren Brown (review date February 1962)
SOURCE: Brown, Margaret Warren. Review of Babar's Fair, by Laurent de Brunhoff, translated by Merle Haas. Horn Book Magazine 38, no. 1 (February 1962): 42.
The Babar books excel in brilliance of color, in animation of plot, and above all in abundance of fascinating detail in the active pictures. Babar's Fair comes up to expectation on all these counts. In fact, the fair to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the elephants' city, Celesteville, provides an unusually fine opportunity for color and humorous invention. Pom, Flora, Alexander, and Cousin Arthur explore a wide range of exhibits, from the Kangaroo booth to the Promenade au Fond du Lac, for which they all don diving helmets. Hours will be needed to take in each page and appreciate all that is going on.
Annie Pissard (essay date December 1981)
SOURCE: Pissard, Annie. "Long Live Babar!" Lion and the Unicorn 7-8 (1983–1984): 70-7.
[In the following essay, originally published in French in the December 1981 issue of La Revue des livres pour enfants, Pissard comments on the enduring qualities of Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff's "Babar" series, stating that, "[i]n the abundance of its imagining, Babar speaks to the child's enjoyment of enumeration and detail."]
The Centre Culturel du Marais exhibit has allowed us to discover the work of the illustrators Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff which—more particularly in the case of Laurent—has been rather ill-treated in the published versions by changes in format, disregard for the original colors, and lack of care in the printing.
The exhibition (which is due to tour internationally)1 set out to restore with care the graphic richness of the original drawings. The intention of those who mounted the exhibition was clear: to transport visitors back to their childhood by ushering them forcibly into a softly lit "memory box" to provide them with a fresh view, and perhaps to stir a certain feeling before the pencil scribblings on torn-out note-book pages (which still show their ragged edges, but where we recognize from the very first sketch the famous silhouette created by Jean de Brunhoff). The sketch is a watercolor of tender pale gray and washed emerald green, the famous costume "of a becoming shade of green." Babar has no eyes yet. They appear on the first dummy of the cover, but it isn't yet him: the eyes are too far apart, the left eye is too high. On the second dummy, he is there. There had been—measuring tape in hand—3 millimeters too many between the eyes on the earlier dummy.
It is striking to see that the text appears very early, that no distinction is made between writing and drawing. The line becomes writing or drawing according to the artist's will. Babar's roundness rejoins that of the letters. The writing is an element of the setting and recalls its use by Cocteau in several decorative works: a hand, the modern character and elegance of which are fashioned out of an advertised, somewhat insolent simplicity. Here is no laborious work of assembling text and drawings: the lay-out of the page is conceived in terms of the relation of volumes, of empty and filled spaces. The details are still all fuzzy; Babar's feet scarcely rest on the ground. But the positioning, as in a mock-up for a stage set, has been established. A character is born, a creation has taken place before our very eyes.
In a picture book it is always interesting to linger over the representation of the animal or human character's gaze. Babar has only two dots for eyes. That is to say, Jean de Brunhoff does not give his character a critical way of looking at the world—a way that he would thereby impose on the reader. In contrast, the glance of the animals drawn by the turn-of-the-century French artist Benjamin Rabier consists of a wink, a foxy look, an adult expression which passes judgment and says to the reader: so this is what we've come to. Rabier works in the realm of caricature. Babar's elephants are situated elsewhere. The "innocence" of their gaze, which protects them from all vulgarity, the round suppleness of their shapes, locate them with certainty in the realm of childhood. Babar is no more an elephant than Sendak's Little Bear is a bear; they are both figures of childhood.
Not many illustrators of children's books have succeeded in representing a child (a real child or a child-animal). Many drawings in fact show miniature adults, dwarfs, or fashion sketch silhouettes, all very cold, lifeless. The children's pictures that are alive borrow traits from animals: Max of Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are has a human face, but the body of an animal thanks to the clever device of his wolf costume. These characters, which children identify with so well, are man and animal, their traits confused through a certain deliberate lack of precision about shapes as if to allow the reader to slip in and out of the character more easily; the costume (body) of Max has nothing of the wolf about it. It is an animal costume (only in the text is it actually specified as wolf). The human babies drawn by Sendak (as in Outside Over There) are rather ugly, while a little boy learning to walk—on two or four feet—plump, lumpish, and dragging his fat behind, finds a droll representation in the guise of Babar. Even his sex is in evidence—not, it is true, in the usual place. Jean de Brunhoff's talent consists precisely in having found a feasible representation of the child in the guise of a little elephant.
The Babar exhibit has also made it possible to give Laurent de Brunhoff his due, for the current produc-tion of his books (with the exception of Babar's Little Library ) in no way gives a true accounting of the painter's and colorist's excellent work. His sketches show him working directly in color. And what colors! In the drawings for Babar's Birthday Surprise and Babar and That Rascal Arthur, underscored in the exhibit by a choice selection, the blues, the oranges, and reds burst forth. Furthermore, the drawing of the characters has taken on great flexibility. The elephants are in motion, funnier, less rooted to the ground (see the charge of the C. R. S. rhinoceroses in Babar and the Wully-Wully ), and assume all possible positions; on this count the drawings of the Little Library are remarkable. Undertaken at the prompting of the Swiss publisher Diogenes (who had already published the Sendak Nutshell Library), the Little Library is perfectly successful. Very small in format, as fully realized in their diminutive size as the larger books are in their contrasting dimensions, the four little books boxed together are printed on very smooth paper that is soft to the touch. They present no new adventures, but rather variations on four themes—water, air, earth, fire, each well enough evoked to let the child build his or her own stories while handling the toy-book; the pictures are full of winks to readers of the other Babars. Laurent de Brunhoff abandoned a classic conception of the picture book, that of the "Christmas gift book" adhered to by his father, in which each page, forming a whole, followed in the wake of the preceding page, bearer of a new source of astonishment (a ski station, one's parents on a sofa, Zephir dreaming in front of the open window …).
Laurent de Brunhoff's characters no longer pose for portraits. They are caught as they evolve, are multiple-like figures in strip cartoons. "Babar comes out at the end of my pencil," says Laurent de Brunhoff in the folding catalogue of the exhibition. What-ever their individual differences, their particular richness, the pictures of Babar over a history spanning some fifty years are strong and sweet images that imprint themselves in the memory, carrying dreams with them.
The homage given Babar this year has not given rise to any new analysis of the books' contents. The newspaper articles devoted to the exhibit briefly alluded to the question: "Babar a rad[ical] soc[ialist] king (Nouvel Observateur), "Babar cool" [sic] (Libération), "gentle utopian" (Nouvelles Littéraires), but in their headlines only.
In their own original manner the Babar books, especially the early ones, present children with a clearly defined, complete model of society. Opinions about the model set forth have often diverged, but the only serious work available on the subject is a long article by the Chilean sociologist Ariel Dorfman.2 In the seventies, a series of animated cartoons based on the books was shown on Latin American television. It became the occasion for Ariel Dorfman, author with Armand Mattelart of How to Read Donald Duck, to analyze their message. Dorfman saw in Babar an antiprogressive influence bringing white imperialism to Latin America.
In capitalist countries, says Dorfman, children's literature fulfills one function: (by offering up models of behavior to be imitated), it presents to children the ideological responses their parents have already internalized, and a view of history that the establishment can draw comfort from. From this point of view, the story of Babar is transparent. The little elephant Babar is a little barbarian (Dorfman finds a pun in Babar-Barbare). He comes from a "state of nature," that is, an ageless Africa devoid of history. Thanks to human civilization he becomes King of the Elephants, saving his land and transforming it into a "modern" country. Babar was naked: he will wear clothes (dressing the "savage" is always the first act of the colonist). From walking on all fours, he walks on two legs, transforms himself into a human being (without losing his animal appearance): he uses a napkin, bathes in a tub…. He studies; his instinct is changed into knowledge. Babar serves his child's apprenticeship in adult living: one must be obedient, intelligent, well-mannered….
But this apprenticeship takes place on two levels. The child reading Babar also learns history. In Babar two worlds interrelate: the town and the jungle. In the jungle, in place of a Black or Indian, there is an elephant, in place of a church there is an old Lady, in place of a triumphant bourgeoisie there is Babar, in place of Africa there is the land of the elephants. The town will replace the jungle, and the child Babar, like the underdeveloped countries, will have to make progress. Sure, there will be violence, captivity, an evil huntsman, but these negatives will always be corrected by positive elements. For Ariel Dorfman, Babar thus realizes the dream of the bourgeoisie: to bring progress to the jungle, to create the "golden age" without upsetting the natural equilibrium. Within the context of those years in Latin America, Babar is the bearer of a message to the sons of the bourgeoisie, thus prepared to receive the benefits of the system, but also to the children of the proletariat who, thanks to television, will internalize these same values. The design thus brought to light permeates all of children's literature; children's books will change when the revolution occurs, and Babar, to break his bonds, will have to kill the old Lady.
This "reading" of Babar, which gives rise to an extended development of some fifty-odd pages, is not done without stretching a point here and there. Thus, in connection with The Story of Babar, on the page where Babar goes up in the elevator of a department store, Dorfman sees a desire to rise in society. The text, however, like the accompanying pictures, under-scores the pleasure Babar experiences in riding down as much as in riding up (the verbs to go up and to go down appear the same number of times).
Dorfman's analysis is always morally very much to the point, as apt in its denunciation of the colonialist aspects of Babar in the books of Jean de Brunhoff as in Babar and Professor Grifaton, but one can see its limitations in his desire to provide a global and uniform analysis of Babar which does not take into account the modifications brought to bear by Laurent de Brunhoff over the years—for instance in the positive evolution of the feminine characters. He forgets the publication date of the first book: 1931, the year of a large International Colonial Exposition in Paris, and the fact that every society, whatever it may be, encapsulates in its productions for children the morality and socialization process that it defends as its own. Dorfman would like to write into the picture books a different kind of apprenticeship: the one that suits him. His analysis makes a stage in the criticism of the picture book, but it gives us no key for an analysis of its artistic merits.
As a masterful realization in the realm of the picture book, Babar must be reread and looked at anew today. "Babar is at the very heart of my conception of what turns a picture book into a work of art,"3 says Maurice Sendak. When compared with others published before the war by Hachette, its originality is obvious. Thus the character of the old Lady, so unbearable to Dorfman, is altogether astonishing. It is quite rare to find in a picture book images of tenderness and friendship with someone not-of-the-family. What's more, from the point of view of graphics, the absolutely thin old Lady forms an amusing counter-point to the fat elephants. Embodying at times, it is true, wisdom and knowledge, she comes and goes in the later volumes at the illustrator's whim, without any weighty pedagogic intent. With this same casualness—which worries Sendak somewhat!—Jean de Brunhoff makes Babar's mother disappear; all he keeps of her is the splendid picture where, with her trunk, she rocks a baby elephant asleep in its hammock. It is an image of pure tenderness without hidden motives, which is altogether rare in picture books. The mother's disappearance may indeed be seen as a supremely skillful stroke: the removal of a character who, in the end, is rather cumbersome and who, in most books, intervenes only to restrain the child in his or her adventures. Maurice Sendak did exactly the same thing in Where the Wild Things Are, where motherly tenderness—if present at all—is not signaled by a representation of the mother, but by a symbolic image.
One aspect of Babar's richness of illustration is seen in the rendering of characters' costumes. They always wear the clothes appropriate to the situation with natural ease; whereas in the books illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff's British contemporary G. H. Thompson and published in France by Hachette, one sees a family of elephants heavily rigged out in getups and sundry accessories, overlain on their animal nature in what might pass for an illustration of the meaning of kitsch. The clothes of the Babar family are part and parcel of their bodies; they are "born dressers." Whether Babar wears gaiters, armor, overalls, or a spotted dressing gown, his appearance is never ridiculous, but always natural, as in an illustration of the theories of an avant-gardist haute-couture about comfort and simplicity, features which we know were considered important at the time of Babar's birth.
In the abundance of its imagining, Babar speaks to the child's enjoyment of enumeration and detail. Luggage, suitcases, packages are always drawn with great precision and concern for detail. We know the contents of Zephir's knapsack: "a flask, provisions, a violin, and a clown suit," i.e. a dream outfit. Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff know well that without rules there is no game; that, to a child, to play at wearing a crown is not to praise monarchy, but to express symbolically—King of the Wild Things or King of the Elephants—the wish to assert oneself and to grow, to gain mastery over one's personal demons. All childhood mythologies can discover the wherewithal to be satisfied in the pictures of Babar.
What must be underscored when speaking of Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff's books—without ignoring the contents—is the characteristic artistic form in which, as Sendak has observed, "the pictures, rather than merely echoing the text, enrich and expand Babar's world."4 We cannot be interested in today's picture books without "interrogating" Babar.
This article, a review of the exhibition "Fifty Years of Babar," was originally published in French in La Revue des livres pour enfants (December 1981), pp. 26-30, and has been newly translated for this issue of The Lion and the Unicorn.
1. "Fifty Years of Babar," an exhibition which began its tour in France, traveled in November, 1983 to the United States, where, at the time of printing, it had been seen in Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., San Diego, San Jose, and Evanston. The exhibition will run at the Baltimore Museum of Art from December 11 of this year to January 27, 1985, and will make its final American stop at the Toledo Museum of Art from March 1 to April 15, 1985.
2. Since this article originally appeared, Dorfman's article has been published in the United States in revised form, as part of his book The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds (New York: Pantheon, 1983), especially pp. 17-27.
3. Maurice Sendak, "Homage to Babar on His 50th Anniversary," Babar's Anniversary Album (New York: Random House, 1981), p. 11.
4. Sendak, p. 11.
Ann M. Hildebrand (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: Hildebrand, Ann M. "Jean de Brunhoff's Advice to Youth: The Babar Books as Books of Courtesy." Children's Literature 11 (1983): 76-95.
[In the following essay, Hildebrand suggests that Jean de Brunhoff's "Babar" books are evocative of the juvenile literary genre known as "books of courtesy," in which gentle lessons of parental wisdom are presented to young readers.]
The Babar books by Jean de Brunhoff have been enjoyed by children and acclaimed and purchased by adults for fifty years. They have been translated into many languages, changed in size and typeface, and reprinted in varying editions.1 They have inspired clothes, dolls, games, television shows, ballets, and musical compositions of distinction. And on both sides of the Atlantic, they have been commended for their "fine dose of foolishness," "distinguished nonsense," "le charm naïf" and examined for their sophistication and wit, Freudian overtones, political didacticism, and subtle satire on human life.2
The books may indeed possess all these qualities, but that fact alone does not account for the permanent claim they have as superior children's literature. Underlying their pure delight, adventurous plots, lively characters, evocative settings, and whimsical style is their essentially serious theme: the earnest concern of a father for how his young family should be brought up, a concern for their morals and their manners. Failure to perceive this concern and the traditional mode in which it is expressed has led one critic to suggest that the books lack "a narrative proposition to guide or offer power" and to imply that they have no unifying principle, "the task not being to get somewhere in particular."3 In fact, their "narrative proposition," their structure—and so their power—becomes evident only when their kinship with that old genre, the book of courtesy, is recognized.
At the end of Babar and His Children, the elephant-king sighs, "Truly it is not easy to bring up a family." As if acknowledging this, Jean de Brunhoff has written books of parental advice, the oldest type of courtesy literature, in which the clear task is to guide his own sons into honorable manhood, providing at the same time a courtesy ideal for other children, and all the while captivating an ageless audience.
I do not imply that Brunhoff set out deliberately to modernize the traditional book of parental advice and so merely adapted that genre, point by point, to his purposes. But the similarities between the Babars and the old courtesies are more than passing or occasional. The systematic attention to morals and manners that structures the early books also shapes Brunhoff's series. His style is not didactic like that of the traditional courtesies nor his purpose only to instill worth-while behavior, yet his narrative and form, words and pictures, are balanced to delight and shape young personalities. The books' critical worth, the series' unity, and perhaps the universal and lasting appeal of the Babars are illuminated if seen as the thoughtful, solicitous wisdom of a father speaking to his own children.
The ideals reflect Brunhoff's own Gallic tradition, central to which is the family group (le foyer), the ambience of "familyness" (en famille), and the inter-relation of distinct roles. Mother-father interaction is crucially influential on children and must be loving and constant; mother-child relationships are different from father-child bonds; sibling relationships are equally delineated. Children are taught to behave within a controlled structure of expectations and not to question parents' authority or discipline within the foyer. This insistence on control at the earliest age leads the child to exercise self-control when his world expands beyond the foyer. That world also has special behavioral expectations, and so French children learn to model the rules of correct social conduct. Freedom and true individuality, say French parents, are but the development of new variations on culturally accepted designs. They still love and indulge their children and understand childhood's unique charms, but they insist that
childhood [be] a long apprenticeship in becoming a person. Through training, the child gradually is transformed from a small being into an individual, an adult with an awakened spirit, a developed imagination, and a critical intelligence, who knows the behavior appropriate to a man and a woman, and who has acquired the skills and control necessary for well-being…. The experiences of childhood are conceived as necessary preparations to achieve bonheur.4
This regimen implies continuing support from the entire foyer, but Jean de Brunhoff was often not physically present to fulfill his parental role. Born in 1899, he grew up in Paris, graduated from the lycée, went to war, and became a professional artist when he returned. In 1924, he married Cécile Sabourand, a Parisian physician's daughter and a pianist; shortly after, the Brunhoff foyer expanded to include sons Laurent and Matthieu. The family moved in cultured, courteous circles with, no doubt, the customary loving expectations of French parents for their children. Babar first appeared in bedtime stories told by mama; the boys retold the tales to papa, who caught their delight and began to draw the huge, gentle hero. But as Bettina Hürlimann points out, "the young father had soon to leave his family, compelled by a disease of the lungs to spend much of the rest of his life in a mountain resort in distant Switzerland" (p. 197). Hürlimann stresses Brunhoff's long stay at the sanitarium from which he wrote Histoire de Babar, le petit elephant, implying that if there had been no illness, no absence, no heavy time, and no need to write to his sons rather than be with them, there would have been no Babar books. Certainly the enforced fresh-air therapy kept him away from an active, day-to-day paternal role. But the books, begun in happier times when the family was together, provide more than an absent father's daily link with his sons; they present a vision of civilized life, an ideal of loving, courteous maturity. And the determined urgency of a man who knew he might not live long marks their regular production—almost one a year from 1931 to 1937—and comprehensive subject matter: all that could happen to a family, from birth to death, does happen. In 1937, before his third son, Thierry, was two, Jean de Brunhoff died of tuberculosis, leaving his wife with three small sons—and seven books filled with objects and events dear to the Brunhoff family as the background for a father's affectionate counsel.5
The counsel was clear and thorough: Brunhoff wanted his children to acquire the experiences and develop the control necessary for bonheur. He could not be an enduring model, but he could make one from his own fatherly dreams and hopes. And so, the elegantly gallant Babar is the loving, guiding, ideal French father; he is also the gallant et honnête homme, the Parfit Knight, the Compleat Gentleman of courtesy literature—the ultimate courtier in elephant's skin.
It was toward the making of these ideal types that all traditional courtesy literature was directed. The book of courtesy, la civilité, was more than a volume on etiquette. In his exhaustive study of the genre, John E. Mason defines courtesy broadly as "a code of ethics, esthetics, or peculiar information for any class-conscious group, and a courtesy book is a book which sets down such a code."6 Generally, courtesy implied a moral philosophy and an appreciation of refinement; specifically, it indicated how to achieve noblesse within a particular social structure. At its ideal best—and an ideal it was, for real life usually lagged far behind—courtesy rested on regard for and service to others before self. But "consideration for others is not inborn. It is instilled,"7 that is, "introduce[d] little by little into the mind, soul, heart,… infuse[d] slowly or gradually."8 For centuries courtesy books persevered in this task.
They were regarded as necessary adjuncts to education, whatever the kind (though most were not actually schoolbooks, the earliest predating the custom of formal schooling). They were studied, practiced, and memorized, and their frequent admonition, "Lerne or be lewde,"9 was taken seriously by people with aspirations to gentility. They touched on every facet of behavior: religion and morality, the origin of true nobility, principles of leadership and diplomacy, domestic management, sexual ethics and the treatment of women, the nurture and education of children, travel, personal behavior, bodily care and dress, conversation, and the diversions appropriate for gentlefolk.10 In short, they were comprehensive manuals for living in the upper classes of society and set the standards for the ideal, cultivated gentleman in both inward and outward demeanor, according to the lights of each period.
The roots of European courtesy probably lie in chivalry, which, blended with medieval Christianity and Renaissance humanism, produced the ideal gentleman of courtesy literature. Whether the French of Provence or the Italians and Spanish of the early Renaissance initiated the genre is not certain; nevertheless it moved northwards, and courtesy treatises translated from earlier European sources began to appear in England around 1430, proliferating after Caxton. Those extant have been gathered into The Babees Book, a curious but fascinating compendium of types and periods, reflecting feudal structure and the reciprocity between French and English culture; many early English courtesies were direct translations from the "Frenssche" of books like Avis aus Rois (c. 1360) and Contenance de Table (fifteenth century).11 The mutual influence continued until the seventeenth century, when the roads to chivalry began to diverge. The French continued to stress the gallant homme and "courtliness, refinement, elegance, careful consideration of conduct in the light of social authority," which peaked in the reign of Louis XIV. The English, on the other hand, emphasized the honnête homme and "frankness, sweetness, kindliness, subordination of self in deference to … principle."12
The audience of the early courtesies, as for most medieval writing, was well-born and homogeneous, ranging from "pueritia" to "senies," as Philippe Ariès documents.13 The books, monotonously similar, were addressed to sons, daughters, wives, and high-born "henchmen" or "enfaunts"; many volumes gave advice on how to develop specific skills such as hawking, carving at table, or managing a house and servants. Later, when childhood emerged as distinct from adulthood, the courtesy audience was differentiated, and separate books contained advice ostensibly for children. But even then, "Most preceptual … [writers] were content to write as if they were ad-dressing adults. And very often they would in effect be writing for adults."14 Perhaps the very intent of traditional courtesies was antithetical to our modern conception of childhood, for writers "seldom considered the nature of the child as a child. Treated as a small adult, the child was to be trained out of his childish ways into the moral and rational perfection of regulated manhood."15
The style and tone of the old courtesy books was unrelievedly didactic; they did not aim to delight but to instruct. However, their form did vary. Some courtesy writers used an allegorical framework, others a dialogue or epistolary one. Some merely presented lists of flat dos and don'ts; others couched rules in solemn similes. Some courtesies were in prose; some were in verse designed to make memorization easier (not more pleasant!). The earliest, in manuscript, variously profited or suffered from a formal change when they were set in print. Continental courtesy literature was in Italian, Spanish, French, or Latin; when it was translated into English, form and style were often altered again at the pleasure of the translator. All this really didn't matter, though, for medieval editors agreed that their literary value was negligible. With later writers like Erasmus and eventually Chesterfield, personal wit and charm alleviated the didactic tone. But traditional courtesy writers operated on no educational theory of luring the child into correct behavior by masking moral and social advice in sprightly style or story.
All courtesy literature reflected its social milieu and attitudes toward youth. The earliest books resound with the status of medieval children, who were harshly treated and bartered like commodities for lucrative marriages.16 The Renaissance was not much gentler toward the young, but humanist courtesies did at least stress individuality and education. Courtesy books of the seventeenth century, in proliferating number and variety, began to acknowledge childhood's unique characteristics and needs. And when Locke distinguished separate child and adult natures, recommending that children's "blank slates" be imprinted in the best way for their limited mental resources and experience, courtesies reflected his insistence on instruction with pleasure. Rousseau, less bent on imprinting than on freeing children's minds, fully "exposed" childhood as innately good, curious, open to experiential learning—and significantly different from miniature adulthood. His thinking hastened the demise of traditional courtesy books, which were supplanted by the "moral stories" of his didactic literary disciples; and it also stimulated the increased sensitivity toward children that marks social, educational, scientific, and artistic advances in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Whatever their form or period, the books which spurred or goaded young folk to genteel behavior were barometers of childhood's place in society.
In form and style, the Babars bear the imprint of the twentieth century with their delightful blend of pictures and words, fancy and seriousness. But in theme they echo an ideal of behavior that is structured traditionally. Of the four main types of courtesy books, the Babars are most like the practical, informal-intimate books of parental advice, directed by a particular father toward, usually, his own children and exemplified by Lord Chesterfield's famous letters to his son. But they are also books of polite conduct, for their theory of behavior is coherent, drawn from traditional authority, and intended for a much less personal audience, like Erasmus's De Civilitate de Morum Puerilium. They are books of policy as well, for King Babar is careful to equip his royal children with principles for governing, much like James I in Basilikon Doron and Elyot in The Governor. And they are definitely books of civility like della Casa's Il Galateo, guides to personal behavior in society, reflecting not only the personal values and cultural ideals of their French creator but also the best virtues of all courtly traditions—tolerance, gentleness, fairness, respectfulness, and consideration—that lead to both self-control and self-expression. In short, they are traditional and modern, personal and universal, instructive and pleasurable, for children and adults alike.
And in this they are unique. Children's stories concerned with morals and manners appeared in the eighteenth century, as the unitary function of traditional courtesies gave way to the separate genres of moral story and etiquette book. The French Berquin and de Genlis and the relentless English moralists such as Hannah More and Mrs. Barbauld dressed moralsocial preachments in story—but thinly. Maria Edgeworth, probably the best writer of the lady didactics, often shows a wry wit, though a scorn for Society and etiquette, in stories like "Forester," who "was frank, brave, and generous, but he had been taught to dislike politeness";17 even her narratives had the inevitable lesson. Tales bursting forth in the nineteenth century contained varying doses of morals and manners. Some writers were whimsically ironic, like Lear and Kipling, but not clearly systematic; others, such as MacDonald, Alcott, and the school story writers, were seriously concerned with morals, manners, story, and even pleasure, but their focus was not a system for behavior either. Social effectiveness was addressed in etiquette books but usually not morality; even picture book behavior models like the Goops (or today's wry What Do You Do, Dear?) only imply the importance of consideration, stressing mainly politeness. Systematic but negative attention is given manners in books like Struwwelpater and others of the Grobianus tradition; even Tom Sawyer teaches morals and manners by reverse precept. But there are no stories that wed the systematic content and instructive intent of traditional courtesy books with the narrative and visual organization and delight of modern children's books—until the Babars accomplish the task so naturally.
Though all six storybooks contain Jean de Brunhoff's prescriptions for upbringing, the highest concentration of advice occurs in those which develop Babar's foyer: The Story of Babar, The Travels of Babar, Babar the King, and Babar and His Children. 18 In these stories, Babar is Brunhoff's chief persona, the foyer includes close friends and relatives, and the situations encountered are those of the real world. In Babar and Zephir, both the personae and the world change; it is Zephir the monkey's foyer and, though the book begins in the "real world" of Monkeyville, it soon moves into a fairyland of mermaids, monsters, and mythic-heroic rescues. The ideals implicit in the other books remain but added is a note of romance, a dose of fancy, and a distinct affirmation of love and imagination. Babar and Father Christmas, drafted in 1936 but unpublished until four years after Brunhoff's death, lacks both the sweet magic of Zephir and the serious wisdom of the other books; the author understandably seems to have run out of important advice, fresh dimensions to his characters, and indeed, energy for his art or his life. Still, taken as a whole, Père Brunhoff's stories address the same concerns that fill centuries of courtesy writings: inward grace, outward grace, work, recreation, personal relations, and the nurture of children.
The achievement of inward grace was a major focus of the earliest courtesy writings, such as Ramon Lull's Le Libre del Ordre de Cavayleria (c. 1200). Religious piety and virtue were the cornerstones of that grace: "Thenne yf thou wylt fynde noblesse of courage / demaunde it of faythe / hope Charyte / Iustyce / strengthe / attemperaunce loyalte / & of other noble vertues / For in them is noblesse of courage."19 In his courtesy books, Jean de Brunhoff makes no reference in either words or pictures to a specific religion; there are no churches, priests, or nuns in the panoramas; Babar makes no provision for formal religion in his ideal city, Celesteville. But though not religion-based, Babar's philosophy of morality-in-optimism is clear: "Do you see how in this life one must never be discouraged?… Let's work hard and cheerfully and we'll continue to be happy" (3, p. 47). Brunhoff illustrates and further underlines his philosophy at one of the high points of the series: the elephant angels of love, health, happiness, hope, work, learning, joy, goodness, intelligence, patience, perseverance, and courage drive away the demons of fear, despair, indolence, ignorance, laziness, cowardice, misfortune, sickness, discouragement, stupidity, and anger (3, pp. 44-45). And Babar's insistence that virtue is accessible to all permeates the series. For, unlike the traditional courteous gentleman's Babar's ancestry is not noble; his wealth is no greater than anyone else's; his education is exceptional only because it is rare. But his nobility is undeniable, and it is by innate worth that he gains esteem. Right from birth, "he is a very good little elephant" (1, p. 4) and is chosen as ruler because of the personal attributes which inform his experience in the city: "He has learned so much living among men, let us crown him King" (1, p. 38). Brunhoff's gospel of optimism and his model of intrinsic, virtue-based morality offer a modern counterpart to Lull's noble goals and undeniable moral direction to youth's behavior.
Outward grace as a manifestation of the inward quality became central to the Renaissance concept of gentility. The new code is elaborated in Baldassarre Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (1528) and further codified in Giovanni della Casa's Il Galateo (1558) which, in its French translation, La Galatée, guided genteel French behavior for centuries. Essential to Castiglione's urbane, graceful courtier was an appropriate sense of dress: clothing should fit one's station and not be foppish or ostentatious. Brunhoff delights in dressing his elephant-king; for Babar, clothes literally make the man, and the little elephant can hardly wait: "I would like to have some fine clothes, too! I wonder how I can get them?" (1, p. 10). From the first matched outfit he buys through costumes for each occasion, suitable dress vividly separates Babar the civilized from the unclothed masses. And so Babar's greatest gift to those he loves—Celeste, Arthur, Cornelius, and his own subjects—is identity-giving clothes. Sometimes they are both splendid and appropriate, such as "beautiful rich clothes for holidays" (3, p. 14), but often just comfortably utilitarian, "serviceable clothes suitable for work-days" (3, p. 14). The most important item of clothing, though, is the hat, for it confers job identity and thus adulthood. When Babar loses his hat of office, the crown, he forfeits identity both as king and person: "No one will believe that they are actually King and Queen of the elephants," and "We are fed hay, as though we were donkeys!" (2, pp. 22-23), says Babar. There are many examples of hats as badges of maturity and position, all drawn with delicious inventiveness befitting the important item of clothing that traditionally makes a man hold his head high.
Conversation as a grace, an art with its own guidelines, was cultivated by Castiglione's courtier; yet even the earliest courtesy literature stressed decorum and tact in speech for overall gentility. In the Babar books, polished conversation is often wondrously civilized. The picture of Babar, casually graceful at the Old Lady's mantel, captures perfectly the poised elegance of a gentleman at his conversational best: "In the evening, after dinner, he tells the Old Lady's friends all about his life in the great forest" (1, p. 23). And Babar is scrupulously polite: "Babar says to her politely: 'Thank you, Madam'" (1, p. 11); "You must be tired, gentlemen. Won't you rest under the shade of the palm trees?" (3, p. 6). His introductions are impeccable: "Good morning, Mrs. Whale, I am Babar, King of the elephants, and here is my wife Celeste" (2, p. 14). Brunhoff's other characters are equally civil and the children pattern their conversation after these excellent examples, absorbing the etiquette and spirit of conversational art.
Correct behavior in all social situations was important to courtesy writers even though standards of correctness varied with the times. And Babar learned well his Galatée; excellent manners seem to come naturally to him. He never puts his elbows on the table; he removes his hat when appropriate; he walks on the outside of the street when escorting ladies; he keeps himself limber by exercising and clean by bathing; he gets proper rest. In addition to manners and hygiene, courtesy writers were concerned with graceful carriage, as the outer evidence of inner poise. Babar is a king and never slumps, slouches, or appears unconfident. He is able to remain composed in the face of others' bad manners and does not lose his equanimity when cannibals try to eat him, the ultimate faux pas, or when a giddy whale leaves him stranded (2). Brunhoff shows children that gracious social behavior is indeed the outward mark of inward gentility and that it helps one handle most situations with élan.
Honorable, ennobling work, serving fellowman rather than self, is an important theme to Lull, Castiglione, and succeeding courtesy writers. In the Basilikon Doron (1599), James I of England speaks in considerable detail to his son Henry on the nobility and necessity of work and service. Traditionally, the worthiest job was that of advisor to the king, and most courtesy literature contained advice on statesmanship and administering a kingdom. Babar is king, but he still adheres to sound principles on choosing advisors, observing ceremonies, waging war, and making peace. He announces, "I am going to try to rule my kingdom wisely" (2, p. 48). He chooses his advisors prudently: Cornelius, his chief aide, is the oldest of the elephants and has the wisdom and stability of age and "good ideas" (1, p. 40), and the Old Lady is a proven ally, experienced in life, and faithful. Babar loves and executes with great style all the ceremonies of statecraft: coronation-weddings (1); anniversary parades (3); cannonades announcing royal births (4). But he uses his military powers reluctantly, preferring to settle disputes with intelligence rather than force. Babar knows that "real war is not a joke" (2, p. 41) and rejoices unabashedly when peace is made, riding on an elephant's back and joining the cry, "Victory! Victory! The war is over! How perfectly splendid!" (2, p. 46).20
In early courtesy literature, law, medicine, philosophy, and other clearly established professions were also honorable outlets for gentlemen's capabilities. In Babar's thoroughly structured but classless monarchy, he is the king and of course very important; Cornelius his chief statesman, the Old Lady the teacher, Capoulosse the doctor, and Fandago the learned man are important. But so are Olur the mechanic, Tapitor the cobbler, and Hatchibombotar the street cleaner. Obviously, in Babar's kingdom, there is no hierarchy of occupations but rather a mutual recognition of each job's potential value to all: "If Capoulosse has holes in his shoes, he brings them to Tapitor, and, if Tapitor is sick, Capoulosse takes care of him" (3, p. 24). Celesteville is founded on the interdependence of honorable work of any kind, and the only disgrace is not working, because this leads to boredom, mischief, and unhappy consequences; the Gogottes, after all, "are not savage. But they are bored" (5, p. 25). In his courtesy books, Brunhoff extends the forms of honorable work but retains the ideal of service to one's fellowman that is implicit in traditional courtesy writing.21
Recreations suitable for a gentleman were catalogued unfailingly by courtesy writers. Among the many diversions of the eighteenth century, for example, the famous Letters of Lord Chesterfield to His Son (1774) suggest travel, sports, dancing, and theater. Babar embraces all of these—and more. His whole life is laced with travel, with its joys and hazards: frequent journeys between the great forest and the city, a honeymoon trip, work with a traveling circus, holiday excursions. And he travels by every means imaginable: on foot, by red motorcar, balloon, boat, bicycle, train, helicopter, and even on skis. He visits foreign ports, sees deserts and mountains; Hürlimann says that he is "mad for civilization" (p. 195) and embraces it eagerly in as many places as possible.
Babar's enthusiastic endorsement of recreation is a founding principle of Celesteville, where "the Bureau of Industry is next door to the Amusement Hall which will be very practical and convenient" (3, p. 13); in this imposing, ornate building are separate facilities for "musique, circus, theatre, movies, danse" and an amusement park behind. Babar himself does sports such as tennis, skiing, bicycling, and fishing, and dances at his own wedding. "From time to time Babar plays on his trumpet; he is fond of music" (3, p. 9), as are all residents of Celesteville. They are also avid theatregoers; one of the most fascinating drawings of the series shows the elephant citizens, dressed—of course—appropriately, spellbound by French classical theatre. And just pure play is an essential recreation: digging with shells in the sand (1, pp. 2-3), swinging, bouncing, watching parades, daydreaming (3). But there are clear limits to play, too, for when Babar "rides all the way up ten times and all the way down ten times," the elevator boy must admonish him, "This is not a toy" (1, p. 12). Babar makes sure that life is balanced. "At Celesteville, all the elephants work in the morning, and in the afternoon they can do as they please. They play, go for walks, read and dream …" (3, p. 26), that highest and most essential form of recreation. So too, Brunhoff's delighted readers participate in play as they absorb his quiet insistence on it.
Personal relationships, the day-to-day arenas for practicing virtuous, courteous behavior, were a major concern of traditional writers. The caritas that always motivated a true gentleman was manifested in all his dealings with people. He did not, either in public or in private, antagonize, gossip, or offend, but rather conducted himself with gracious civility. Writers like Sir Francis Osborn in Advice to a Son (1656) speak urgently to the need for personal diplomacy and friendship, even though in Osborn's case overtones of crass expediency creep in occasionally. But Babar's public demeanor is always commendable, motivated by a genuine love of his fellowman. He is careful to resolve quarrels; after winning the war, he signs a treaty with the rhinoceroses (3, p. 1); he forgives the troublesome dwarfs, holds no grudge (6, p. 27), and is always tactful. He exemplifies the prudent moderation in financial matters advised by many courtesy writers, avoiding both stinginess and extravagance. Babar is fair to his subjects, dispensing equally not only his honeymoon gifts—"He gives a gift to each elephant" (3, p. 14)—but also making sure that their homes, pictured in orderly tiers around Lake Celeste, are modestly equal: "Each elephant had his own house" (3, p. 12).
In his private, foyer life, friendship is important to Babar. As a baby, he plays with his peer-friends; as a youth, he treasures the friendship of the Old Lady, "who has always been fond of little elephants" and "gives him whatever he wants" (1, pp. 11 and 21); before marriage, he is Celeste's friend; and when he knows Cornelius better, Babar loves him enough to include him in the foyer, saying fondly, "Old Friend, you who have been my constant companion through good times and bad" (4, p. 1). Babar is courteous and agreeable to all but, like traditional gentlemen, chooses his closest friends from his social equals, in this case Celesteville's professionals. And so, although Celesteville is a classless Utopia, "Babar and Celeste like to play tennis with Mr. and Mrs. Philophage" (3, p. 26), the officer and his wife. One should note that Brunhoff is not perpetuating class distinctions based on snobbishness here but rather, as Mead notes, the French tendency to choose friends from a circle close to the foyer (pp. 31-33).
A traditional viewpoint, exemplified both in courtesy literature and in French social mores of the time, is seen in Brunhoff's depiction of women. Like the ideal courtesy gentleman, Babar was always gracious to ladies, as a sign of respect for their own gentle sakes and for their potential as mothers. And so he names his city after Queen Celeste and rules equally with her; he rewards the Old Lady, his first friend and patroness, for her brave war service and entrusts the children to her teaching. But the roles women play in the Babar books remain traditional ones: wife, mother, teacher, nurse, helper, quiet daughter, or lost princess. The potentially dynamic Crustadele, sibyl of the grotto, and Eléonore the mermaid seem passive compared to "that daredevil, Zephir" (5) and the other boys who do adventurous mischief. Care in choosing a wife, usually prominent in most courtesy books, is also implicit in the Babars: Celeste is an equal, Babar's childhood friend who has all the potential for becoming a good mother. Though Brun-hoff's perspective on women may be neither current nor popular, his perceptions are entirely consistent with his age, cultural background, and personal ideals. His attitudes should not be airily dismissed as chauvinistic but should be viewed, rather, as traditional; it is a subtle but valid distinction that must be made even for children today. And belief in abstract ideologies never causes Babar to be cruel or insensitive in his concrete relationships with people.
Nurturing children was a concern that engaged all courtesy writers. Erasmus devoted an entire Latin primer for schoolboys, Dde Civilitate de Morum Puerilium (1531), to the subject of the moral, educational, physical, and social upbringing of nonaristocratic youth. And in De Pueris Statim ac Liberaliter Instituendis (1529), he urged parents to "bestow especial pains upon [the child's] tenderest years."22 Brunhoff "bestows pains" from page 1 of The Story of Babar throughout the series. Baby Babar himself is loved, rocked, sung to, and played with; Babar's own children are longed for—"Oh, how hard it is to wait for one's heart's desire!" (4)—and adoringly nurtured by their own parents. In fact, Babar and His Children becomes almost a manual on how to hold, feed, cradle, and dress babies, and on how to keep them from choking, catching cold, or falling out of trees. The environment is full of gentility, love, and warmth, as Erasmus advises; the parents are openly affectionate—Babar "embraces his wife tenderly" (4)—and provide unfailing models of behavior. Yet discipline is administered, not harshly as most courtesy writers advised but firmly and consistently, with explanations. Arthur and Celeste's mothers "are very happy to have them back but they scold them just the same because they ran away" (1, p. 30).
Education is an important aspect of nurture; what, where, how, and from whom children learned were matters of concern to courtesy writers. Babar's own schooling is private, quite traditional in method and subject: "A learned professor gives him lessons. Babar pays attention and does well in his work. He is a good pupil and makes rapid progress" (1, p. 22). His children have more progressive schooling under the ideal tutelage of the Old Lady: "Lessons are never tiresome when she teaches" (3, p. 22). Although they learn in a progressive classroom with plenty of "discovery" experiences available, they still master traditional sums and letters, "for, that's what we study for," says Zephir (3, p. 23). A school is just part of the Bureau of Industry, one of Celesteville's two main public buildings; the rest is devoted to the library and the workshops. For Brunhoff, as for Erasmus and most other courtesy writers, the physical and educational nurture of children merits careful concern.
Jean de Brunhoff's parental advice echoes that of earlier courtesy writers with two major exceptions: his empathy for childhood and his regard for emotions.23 More than the distanced awareness of childhood found in other courtesy writers, his is the participatory zest of one who is still part child himself. As if recalling the spirit of his own boy-hood, he relives the motor sprinkler incident: "When Arthur and Zephir meet him, they quickly take off their shoes, and run after the car, barefoot. 'Oh, what a fine shower!' they say laughingly" (3, p. 30). When sweet-toothed Zephir falls into the vanilla creme, Brunhoff dwells with childlike delight on the moment (3, p. 18). Babar punishes both excesses but understands that "Arthur and Zephir are mischievous, as are all little boys" (3, p. 31). And when Arthur, distracted by a passing parade, forgets his babysitting responsibilities, Brunhoff lives Arthur's point of view: "Arthur is very glad to be trusted," but "Arthur is frightened and runs after them," and finally, when all is safe again, "Arthur is ever so pleased" (4). Brunhoff's obvious empathy with children's prankishness and thoughtlessness, but also with their curiosity and bravery, gives his fatherly advice the weight of still-fresh experience.
Courtesy books almost uniformly urge restraint of emotions—do not laugh too much or too loudly; do not cry; do not show fear—making the gentlemanly ideal seem impossibly far from a child's realization. But Babar displays all the honest emotions that arise from life. He often shows or speaks words of affection, a tender instance being when he bids farewell to the Old Lady and envelops her frailness in his great bulk: "He will never forget her" (1, p. 32). He is anxious before the birth of the children: "Babar is trying to read but finds it difficult to concentrate; his thoughts are elsewhere. He tries to write, but again his thoughts wander." But when the babies arrive, "he dashes headlong up the stairs, joyfully rushes into Celeste's bedchamber," and "embraces his wife tenderly" (4). Babar cries, too, not only when he is young and loses his mother but when he is older and sad. "He often stands at the window, thinking sadly of his childhood, and cries when he remembers his mother" (1, p. 24). And he acknowledges anguish and near-despair when he is a mature king: "What a dreadful day…. It began so well. Why did it have to end so badly?… We had forgotten that misfortune existed!… Oh! How long this night seems, and how worried I am!" (3). Through Babar's heart-felt, natural displays of emotion, Brunhoff tells children that feelings are a part of living and of dying.
Bettina Hürlimann calls Babar "something of an anachronism in our world-weary time," and yet at the same time "a wonderfully inspiring example," seeing him as "an enterprising elephant" partaking "in the evolution of an ideal society" (p. 195). Babar is, undeniably, enterprising, which according to our zeitgeist is good; he is also anachronistic and, according to the same zeitgeist, that is not so good. Yet it is Babar's sturdy out-of-timeness that makes him impervious to superficial values and thus inspiring to children. Jean de Brunhoff knew, just as the old courtesy writers did, that the beau ideal was backward-looking in attempting to recapture the best values of a time gone by; he also knew that it was future-oriented in its possible attainment. But above all, he realized that it had to be introduced in the present, for his own foyer a present fraught with absence, illness, and threats of impending war. The best ideal that Brunhoff could offer his own children had to blend anachronistic tradition and Utopian dream in a modern continuum of advice and enchantment. And so, just as early courtesy writers had done by their letters of parental advice, Jean de Brunhoff, through the delightful adventures of a noble, gallant, and courteous elephant-king, systematically instilled his ideals of manhood in his own three sons—and in whatever other children care to draw from his precepts.
1. The first three were published by Le Jardin des Modes: Histoire de Babar (1931), Le Voyage de Babar (1932), and Le Roi Babar (1933); Hachette published the last four: A B C de Babar (1936), Les Vacances de Zéphir (1936), Babar en famille (1938), and Babar et le père Noël (1940). The English-language editions were published by Random House (Methuen in England) and translated by Merle Haas. Most editions did not retain the original, expensively large size (app. 11″ × 15″), and many changed from the original, more aesthetic script typeface to a standard font, a dubious improvement perpetuated in Babar's Anniversary Album (Random House, 1981).
2. The first two phrases are from Mary Margaret Mitchell, "Histoire de Babar and Le Voyage de Babar," Horn Book Magazine, 9 (1933), 29-30; in order, the others are from: Jean de Trigon, Histoire de la Littérature Enfantine (Paris: Hachette, 1950), p. 203; Margery Fisher, Who's Who in Children's Books (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1975), pp. 34-35; Marc Sorian, Guide de Littérature pour la Jeunesse (Paris: Flammarion, 1975), p. 90; Bettina Hürlimann, Three Centuries of Children's Books in Europe (Cleveland and New York: World, 1968), p. 195; Ann S. Haskell, "Babar at 50," The New York Times Book Review, November 15, 1981, pp. 49-50.
4. Rhoda Metraux and Margaret Mead, Themes in French Culture: A Preface to the Study of the French Community, Hoover Institute Studies; Series D: Communities, no. 1 (Stanford University Press, 1954), pp. 36 and 27.
5. "Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff," News from Random House (New York: Random House, 1980), p. 1. This publisher's bio-sheet notes some personal touches: "Babar wears the Norwegian cap of Jean," and "Celeste is wearing Cécile de Brunhoff's bonnet"; Maurice Sendak notes more in his introduction to Babar's Anniversary Album, pp. 7-14.
6. Gentlefolk in the Making (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1935), p. 4. Certainly not the most recent look at the meanings and substance of courtesy, this work is still the most encyclopedic, spanning all centuries and varieties of the genre.
7. Esther B. Aresty, The Best Behavior (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970), p. 295.
8. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. "instil." This definition, the second listed, is substantiated with quotes from six sources ranging from Thomas More's Answer to Frith (1533) to F. Hall's Two Trifles (1895).
9. The phrase was the title of an alliterative ABC courtesy poem and was found in the text of many other early courtesy works as an admonition to teachers and students. Stratman's Middle English Dictionary defines lerne (laeren) as both "teach" and "learn"; lewde (laewed) is simply "unlearned" or ignorant.
10. Mason, pp. 392-98.
11. The Babees Book, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall (1868; rpt. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969).
12. William Schofeld, Chivalry in English Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1912), pp. 267-68.
13. Philippe Ariès, in Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962), pp. 15-133.
14. William Sloane, Children's Books in England and America in the Seventeenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), pp. 39-40.
15. Peter Coveney, Poor Monkey (London: Rockliff, 1957), p. 4. Robert Pattison, The Child Figure in English Literature (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978), gives a theological point of view.
16. For a close look at medieval "childhood," see H. S. Bennett, The Pastons and Their England (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1968), pp. 71-86; despite the interesting studies of the Jambecks (Children's Literature, 3), McMunn (Children's Literature, 4), and Talbot (Children's Literature, 6), I find the Ariès thesis more persuasive. Sloane's book (cf. note 14 above) well documents the range of seventeenth-century books. Samuel F. Pickering, Jr.'s John Locke and Children's Books in Eighteenth-Century England (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1981) provides a comprehensive sampling of both Locke's and Rousseau's influence on courtesy writing. Lloyd deMause's The History of Childhood (New York: The Psychohistory Press, 1974) offers a perspective different from Ariès's.
17. Gina Luria, ed., Moral Tales for Young People, I (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1974), 5.
18. The books are cited in order of their family development: Babar, 1; Travels, 2; King, 3; Children, 4; Zephir, 5; Father Christmas, 6. I do not include the nonnarrative A B C of Babar, or, like Babar's Anniversary Album, any stories of Laurent de Brunhoff, as the latter add nothing fresh to the courtesy structure.
19. The Book of the Ordre of Chyvalry, translated and printed by William Caxton, from a French version of Ramon Lull's Le Libre Del Orde de Cavayleria (London: The Early English Text Society, Oxford University Press, 1926), pp. 55-56.
20. Brunhoff's most powerful antiwar statement is the picture of utter devastation that evokes newsreels of ravaged fields in France, and the heartbreaking words under it: "A few broken trees! Is that all that is left of the great forest? There are no more flowers, no more birds" (2, p. 39).
21. Both Harry C. Payne, in "The Reign of King Babar," Children's Literature, 11, 96-109, and Patrick Richardson, in "Teach Your Baby to Rule," in Suitable for Children?: Controversies in Children's Literature, ed. Nicholas Tucker (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), pp. 179-83, address from different perspectives the matter of Babar's (and others') work and its modern implications.
22. In W. H. Woodward, Desiderius Erasmus concerning the Aim and Method of Education (1904; rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, 1971), p. 187. Like Babar and His Children, this is more advice to parents (or prospective ones) than to children.
23. Whereas Ann Haskell calls this empathy "a literary pact, based on integrity between author and audience" and supports my notions of the Babars' order and universal appeal ("this is literature from which no age group is excluded"), she does not recognize the link between the series and courtesy writings.
Harry C. Payne (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: Payne, Harry C. "The Reign of King Babar." Children's Literature 11 (1983): 96-108.
[In the following essay, Payne examines how Babar, as a benevolent king, constructs the safe and happy realm in which his elephant subjects reside, a nation-state which is reminiscent of the French sociopolitical concept of "solidarism."]
The reign of King Babar is one of the most successful political ventures of the twentieth century. Created by Jean de Brunhoff in seven books in the 1930s,1 his world is fictional, but his hold on the minds of children and adults—and the market they command—is quite real. The success of the Babar books has been enormous, both in France and in the English-speaking world. Brunhoff clearly concocted a world of both immediate and enduring appeal. What then is the nature of that appeal? Surely it is in part psychological in the narrow sense. Contained in the simple yet suggestive pictures and the cool, clear narrative, one finds a world designed to please and absorb the child. Trouble is not at all absent from the kingdom of Babar. There are scenes calculated to induce anxiety: the shooting of Babar's mother; the accidental poisoning by mushroom of Babar's royal predecessor; abandonment on a tropical island and the subsequent attack of cannibals; war with the rhi-noceroses; the snake that bites the Old Lady; the fire that injures Cornelius; the rattle that almost chokes Flora; and so on. But these troubles always seem to dissolve. The Old Lady replaces Babar's mother; Babar routs the cannibals; the war is won with elephants' derrières painted in monstrous fashion; the Old Lady and Cornelius survive; the monkey Zephir extracts the rattle. Moreover, as Roger Sale has pointed out, the incidents are brief and narrated with a peculiarly adult, reassuring, cool tone.2 The pleasures of the land of the elephants are, though, much more ample than the troubles overcome. Many are the gratifications for the child to see: ample opportunity for play; the companionship of mischievous monkeys; the pleasures of a school that is never dull; and the authority of adults who sometimes scold but always forgive in pleasant ways.
This is probably enough. Still, Babar is about more than children's fears and wishes. It is adult in more than tone. The central character is not a child but a young adult elephant who goes to the city, gets married, has children, and, quite simply, works very hard. Babar is the happy lord of the numerous fètes which populate the pages of the books, but he also is the exhausted parent at the end of Babar en famille, the energetic master-builder of Celesteville in Le Roi Babar, and the weary traveler trudging through the snow to bring Christmas to the land of the elephants in Babar et le Père Noël. The Babar books are as much about adult responsibility as about childlike gratification.
The view of adult life offered in the books is, therefore, reassuring but complicated. It is also quite social and political. Unlike the central characters of many children's books, Babar himself creates much of the world in which he works and loves. In most classic children's books, the central character stumbles into a world ready-made for adventure, anxiety, gratification, and triumph: the river of Rat and Mole; the barn of Charlotte and Fern; the wonderland of Alice; the Oz of Dorothy; the Boston Common pond of Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack; and so on. The world of these books exists before the story starts, inviting and shaping the fantasy that follows.
But Babar builds and nurtures a world before our eyes, especially in the central book, Le Roi Babar, which gives us the style of his reign. Paradoxically, he seems to create an adult world out of a more childish one. Our glimpse into the world of the elephants before Babar is brief. We know that they had a king. We know that they had a distant history and a folklore, since Cornelius teaches a song to the children that dated back to the time of the mammoths. We also know that Babar brings many innovations. Indeed, his major qualification for kingship is his experience in the city of humans and the knowledge he brings back. In the course of his reign, therefore, he introduces many of the ways of the cities: tools, houses, games, fêtes, libraries, schools, crafts and professions, clothes, theater, balloons, automobiles, sailboats, grand theater, formal gardens, and much more. Here again, the world of Babar seems to move against the grain of the logic of fantasy of most children's literature. Not only does he create a world instead of stumbling on one, he also creates a sophisticated, somewhat urban world where once there had reigned apparent rural simplicity. The assumption seems to be that the primitive stage of the elephants was a naive urdummheit, a pleasant stage not to be regretted but to be overcome by the work of a be-nevolent legislator. Babar is a gentle Lycurgus, though he does not disappear once his work is done.3
What, then, are the elements that make up the social and political world of Babar? First, hierarchy and deference. The king functions benevolently in a world that respects his authority and trusts his wisdom. Age is venerated. Honor goes to General Cornelius—the oldest and wisest of elephants—and to the Old Lady—nurse, governess, teacher, and storyteller. The children are occasionally mischievous, but they know their place and respond to authority.
The family is also central. The pleasures and duties of family life work through the various stories. Babar en famille depicts this side of life most fully, but the value of family prevails throughout. For in spite of newfound royalty, Babar is actually the perfect bourgeois, a citizen-king in a derby hat and green suit. Like his kingdom, his family is created before our eyes. We begin with radical desolation, the shooting of Babar's mother by the hunter, but the family is then gradually reconstructed. Babar finds an almost perfect substitute for his mother in the Old Lady, who, though she cannot replace his mother, brings with her the wisdom and resources of the city. Courtship and marriage to cousin Celeste culminate the first book. Cornelius rapidly becomes a wise and aged grandfather who, though not related by blood, is always present on family occasions. Then comes the birth of the triplets—Pom, Flora, and Alexander. With these children Babar does everything the ideal father should do: he plays in the nursery, goes on picnics, celebrates Christmas, rescues Alexander from trouble.
"'Truly it is not easy to bring up a family,' sighs Babar…. 'But how nice the babies are! I would not know how to get along without them anymore.'"4
Turning from the family to Celesteville as a whole, one is struck by the balance of work, play, and festivity. Our first view of the new city, the symbol of Babar's civilization, shows a world of play beneath a hill on which are perched four buildings. On the far right is Babar's house, larger than the rest but still modest, symbol of the nature of his rule. On the far left is that of the Old Lady, symbol of age, continuity, urbanity. At center-right is the palais du travail, the Bureau of Industry, exactly counterpoised at center-left by the palais des fêtes, the Amusement Hall. The world of play is not new; indeed our first view of Babar among other elephants in Histoire de Babar shows children at play much as they are in the world of Celesteville. But Babar adds more structured play, work, and fêtes to this world.
The "work" of Babar's world is real enough but, as one would expect, quite pleasant. The palais du travail, dominated by school and library, has at one end the ateliers, the workshops.5 We are, in fact, present at the creation of civilized work in Babar's society. It begins with the tools brought by the camels laden with goods from Babar's honeymoon. The tools are first used in an enterprise of cooperative building, as the elephants build Celesteville to the accompaniment of the Old Lady's phonograph and Babar's trumpet. With the opening of the city come the various crafts. Children naturally go to school, but their elders each choose a méatier: shoemaker, soldier, painter, clown, street-washer, farmer, and so on. Babar creates a nicely harmonious craft society. The elephants serve one another in a serene world of mutual service, a Panglossian republic of work: "When Capoulosse had holes in his shoes, he took them to Tapitor, and when Tapitor was ill, Capoulosse attended him. If Barbacol wanted to put a statuette on his mantelpiece, he told Podular, and when Podular's jacket was worn out, Barbacol measured him for a new one."6 This world of mutuality is further circumscribed by those who serve all: Hatchibombatar washes the streets, Olur fixes cars, and Doulamur plays music. All the elephants eat Fandago's fruit and laugh at Coco's clownish antics. We soon learn that elephants work only in the mornings; in the afternoons "they play, go for walks, read, dream."7 We have then a world of perfect leisure that balances a world of ideal work.
Celesteville has many occasions to celebrate the values of the kingdom. Babar orchestrates numerous public fêtes, and he single-handedly imports the modern Christmas—replete with trees and presents—into his kingdom.8 Whether it is at Babar's wedding feast or at Christmas in the family or just at a Sunday party, the land of elephants comes to enjoy civilized festivity. King Babar may not have had some of the perverse motives of his royal predecessor Louis XIV (whose gardens and theater he imitated),9 but he surely saw the value to social solidarity of keeping people dancing and parading in each other's company. Most splendid, perhaps, is the grand fête near the end of Le Roi Babar. Babar reviews the great parade perched atop a wooden horse, which was, appropriately, shaped by Podular the sculptor, painted by Justinian, and mechanized by Olur. Beneath the reviewing stand are Celeste and the Old Lady. Lining the streets are the crowd, the king's guards, and young elephants dutifully aligned in scout uniforms (another of Babar's imports). The parade is colorful and resembles nothing so much as an old-fashioned parade of guilds, grouped according to trades: soldiers, farmers, bakers, sculptors and painters, sailors and fishermen, mechanics and drivers, and so on down the line. Dapper musketeers march in the middle, with their motto (and surely that of Celesteville), "One for all, all for one." We have, in other words, a perfect fête of solidarity. To be sure, near-tragedy strikes soon after: a snake bites the Old Lady and fire ravages the home of Cornelius. The two symbols of age and experience are endangered. The skill of firemen and doctors save them, but behind that skill are very old-fashioned values. After the two mishaps, and before he knows all will be well, Babar dreams. Unlike Pharaoh's dreams, his is transparent in meaning, as the forces of misfortune (fear, despair, indolence, ignorance, cowardice, laziness, sickness, misfortune, anger, stupidity) are routed by the forces of happiness (love, health, joy, hope, work, learning, patience, perseverance, courage, intelligence, goodness).
Such then is Brunhoff's world that he creates for his king. Even when he drew his Babar characters in a situation outside the land of the elephants—as he did in his A B C de Babar —the tone and values remain the same. Here he paints elephants in places and situations unrelated to Babar's land of elephants, in order to squeeze in as many objects that begin with the relevant letter. The signals, though, are all the same: scenes of idyllic bourgeois domesticity (G, L, T); social rites that emphasize deference and solidarity (D, E, M); easy coexistence of old things such as carriages, farms, and monasteries with new-fangled factories, steamboats, and cars (U, V). There is still trouble even in the land of the alphabet. We see an elephant with a wooden leg in I-J; quarreling bowlers in Q; an injured skier in S. But here, as in the land of Babar proper, troubles seem to melt away in a world that is curiously realistic, yet always caring and ultimately benign.10
So inviting, so real in its way, it is hard and perhaps disconcerting to remember that Celesteville was ultimately created not by Babar but by Jean de Brunhoff, not a mythical elephant but a French artist of the 1930s. Brunhoff created Babar during a period of long and ultimately terminal illness, largely absent from his family and his native France while he tried to recuperate in Switzerland.11 The tales, then, are in part a father's way of talking to his children about the world, its anxieties, and its powers of restoration. It is, no doubt, in part the work of someone who instinctively knew not to hide trouble from children but, in the end, wanted to reassure and amuse them. Hence the Babar stories are childish fantasies for children and those adults who become like children again as they read. They are in part personal fantasies of a separated father. Hence the knowing tales of fatherhood and domesticity and the concern for the domestic side of life grew in the later books. But they are also social tales, very adult fantasies for other adults.
For the Babar tales are also about personal and social integration. The period of the late 1920s and 1930s was especially trying for French society and politics. Depression came slower to France than to England or America, because it was a less-advanced economy, more embedded in the residues of the economic old régime. But depression did come, and with it the inevitable social disruption, violence, and political volatility. France oscillated among a variety of unstable Third-Republic options, and most notably plunged from an experiment in left-wing socialism (1936–38) to right-wing fascism (1940–44) in short order. Those economic and political troubles only aggravated longer-standing difficulties associated with the transition to modernity: rebellious youth; the transition from craft to factory labor; the growth of cities and abandonment of the countryside; the disappearance of old traditions and the failure of new ones to command affection and loyalty, and so on.12 A world like Babar's would appeal to the adult buyer and reader, therefore, in an adult way. It is a sort of French Utopia. It has much specific reference to France—the gardens and theater of Versailles; the enemy rhinoceroses who look suspiciously like German soldiers of World War I; the guild parades that resemble those processions of craft groups (compagnonnages) that still endured into the twentieth century; bicycles, balloons, and sports popular since the 1890s; the scout troops; and the domestic Christmas scenes, among others. Though Babar's kingdom is nowhere in particular—a dreamworld—Brunhoff keeps in close symbolic touch with the realities and anxieties of his own France.
Indeed Babar's kingdom seems, in many ways, an incarnation of a popular French social concept of that time—solidarism. "Solidarism" had become an official creed of French politics in the 1890s under the leadership of the radical politician Léon Bourgeois.13 As a style of politics, though, it infiltrated much political thinking before and after. The yearning for solidarity was essentially a petit-bourgeois ideal, a way to have the fruits of modernity but some of the imagined comforts of an older régime. Solidarist thinkers looked for a world in which individual initiative would be rewarded and the fruits of modern technology might be harvested, but also where individuals and groups recognized the need for organic interdependence. Hierarchy would remain, but it would be a hierarchy suffused with a sense of social responsibility and mutual care. In other words, solidarists wanted to overcome a world of competition and class conflict with a world of voluntary interdependence. Such a vision of society was not the exclusive property of either right or left. It could inform the radical politics of a Georges Clemenceau as well as the Vichyite politics of Philippe Pétain. The 1930s, the age of Babar, gave these dreams a special poignancy.
Babar's solidarism is itself just one incarnation of the worries about modernity in a more general sense. The first volume of Brunhoff's utopia appeared not long after that modern anti-utopia, Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). They are both, in very different ways, about the same thing—the pressures of modernity and the barriers to personal and social satisfaction in a modernizing world. Freud's work is concerned with why that dream must remain largely only a dream; Brunhoff's with how we might still at least dream it with our children. Freud's successors in the world of ego-psychology, of whom Erik Erikson is the most prominent, have continued to worry through this difficulty. A world of class conflict, loose parental and social authority, and rapidly changing conditions is a difficult one in which to construct an identity. While social dislocation may not cause personal anxiety, a disordered world is a difficult one in which to work out the problems inherited from childhood. Babar's kingdom is a good place to be a child and, unlike the world of most chil-dren"s books, a good place to be an adult. With its deferential politics, clear patterns of work, ample provision for play, and substantial doses of care and love, the problem of identity and adaptation are easily resolved.14 Babar grows up in this world, and when he brings some modernity to it, he does so in ways that are both personally and socially satisfying.
Insofar as we burden children's books with interpretation—and we do so gingerly and perhaps at some risk—we tend to look for hidden agendas. The most popular and easy to find are the folkloric roots of tales in earlier times, the didactic attempts to socialize children, and the psychological appeal of tales to the most atavistic of childhood fantasies.15 The uniqueness and depth of the appeal of the Babar tales rests, though, in this other agenda, immersed creatively in adult concerns of personal integrity and social harmony. But the division between the child's fantasies and the adult's is only one of convenience. Brunhoff offers a vision of an elephant-child who grows up, in spite of obstacles, with ease, trust, and initiative, and who nurtures a society that makes it easy for others to do the same. In that sense the delight of children and the affection of adults are not so much different "levels" of reading as two versions of what has become a perennial modern dream.
1. Histoire de Babar (1931); Le Voyage de Babar (1932); Le Roi Babar (1933); Les Vacances de Zéphir (1936); A B C de Babar (1936); Babar en famille (1938); Babar et le père Noël (1940). Quotations will be from paginated English editions; French editions are unpaginated.
2. Roger Sale, Fairy Tales and After (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), pp. 12-13. The Babar tales are briefly mentioned in several works on children's literature but, curiously, never really dwelled upon. Sale's brief remarks, scattered through his book, are the shrewdest we have. The essay by Ann Hildebrand in this volume adds, like this essay, a perspective on the place of the Babar books in wider French social traditions.
3. In this sense, he resembles (albeit in a childish way) the Legislator envisaged by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Du Contrat social (1762), Book II, chapter 7, who enters a crude, uncultured world and sets it going. The Babar tales, in their concern for personal identity and social integrity, are, as we will show below, Rousseauian in a larger sense.
4. Babar and His Family (New York: Random House, 1966), p. 40.
5. Atelier implies the craft "workshop," as opposed to usine, or "factory."
6. King Babar (London: Methuen, 1976), p. 24.
7. Ibid., p. 26.
8. Here, as elsewhere, Babar's values are largely of the modern bourgeois. See François Isambert, "Du Religieux au merveilleux dans la fête de Noël," Archives de sociologie de religion, 15 (Jan.-June 1963), 63-70.
9. On the power of music and fête in Louis XIV's scheme of life and monarchy, see Robert Isherwood, Music in Service of the King (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973).
10. In another community created by Brunhoff in Les Vacances de Zéphir, values of playfulness and simple home life prevail, set off against the picaresque world which Zephir must traverse in his rescue of Isabelle.
11. Bettina Hürlimann, Three Centuries of Children's Books in Europe (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 195-200.
12. The literature on decadence in modern life in France is quite wide. See especially K. W. Swart, The Sense of Decadence in Nineteenth-Century France (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1964). On the crisis in festivals see Rosemonde Sanson, Les 14 juillet; Féte et conscience nationale, 1789–1975 (Paris: Flammarion, 1976) and Roger Caillois, L'homme et le sacré (Paris, 1939), chapter 4. On the problem of youth, see Eugen Weber, "Pierre de Coubertin and the Introduction of Organized Sport in France," Journal of Contemporary History, 5, no. 2 (1970), 3-26. Scouting—of which Brunhoff seems to have been fond—was also a response to the problem of discipline for youth. Baden-Powell's invention found much support on the continent.
13. See J. E. S. Hayward, "Solidarity: The Social History of an Idea in Nineteenth-Century France," International Review of Social History, 4 (1959), 261-84. On its continuation in various forms in the twentieth century, see Robert Paxton, Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order 1940–1944 (New York: Norton, 1975), pp. 211 and 232.
14. Babar's society seems to contain in itself an almost perfect depiction of the social world envisaged by Erik Erikson as ideal for human growth and identity, providing amply for stages of trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, intimacy, and solidarity, generativity, and integrity. See Erik Erikson, Identity and the Life Cycle (New York: Norton, 1979), pp. 108-76.
15. For examples of the last two, see Isaac Kramnick, "Children's Literature and Bourgeois Ideology: Observations on Culture and Industrial Capitalism in the Later Nineteenth Century," in Perez Zagonin, ed., Culture and Politics from Puritanism to the Enlightenment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), pp. 203-40 and Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Knopf, 1976).
Lee Bock (review date September 1987)
SOURCE: Bock, Lee. Review of Babar's Little Girl, by Laurent de Brunhoff. School Library Journal 34, no. 1 (September 1987): 162.
PreS-K—In recognizable de Brunhoff style, the story of Celeste and Babar's new baby "girl" [in Babar's Little Girl ] is told in a leisurely and understated manner, typical of tales spun for sleepy children in the nursery. The plot develops slowly, winding through Isabelle's birth, first steps, birthday party, and moves, finally, into an adventure. Isabelle wanders away and ends up in the home of eccentric characters Boover and Picardee for an afternoon of yoga, poker, jazz, and a delightful return flight via hang glider. Children may identify with the exasperation Isabelle's brothers and sister feel in dealing with a new and daring sibling, and may learn something about not wandering off, but there is little else to excite children who aren't already fans of Babar and his family.
Maurice Sendak (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: Sendak, Maurice. "Jean de Brunhoff." In Caldecott & Co.: Notes on Books and Pictures, pp. 95-105. New York, N.Y.: The Noonday Press, 1988.
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Ann Meinzen Hildebrand (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: Hildebrand, Ann Meinzen. "The Creation of Babar's World: Jean de Brunhoff's Stories, 1931–1933." In Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff: The Legacy of Babar, pp. 23-43. New York, N.Y.: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
[In the following essay, Hildebrand presents critical readings of Jean de Brunhoff's first three "Babar" picture books—The Story of Babar, The Little Elephant, The Travels of Babar, and Babar the King—noting that the three works "establish Babar's character, his physical world, and the themes both de Brunhoffs will sound."]
When Jean de Brunhoff transformed his wife's story into a picture book, he was 30 years old, a mature painter, a husband and a father. He could not have known that his homemade book would become an international children's classic or that creating six more would be so artistically satisfying it would occupy the rest of his life. Even within a life so short as his, however, the stories fall into two clear groups: the early stories in which Babar's world is created and the later ones in which it is confirmed and generated.
The first flush of Jean's genius vitalizes the three stories that establish Babar's character, his physical world, and the themes both de Brunhoffs will sound. In fact, these stories are the heart of the Babars, the most interesting to thoughtful readers and students of the elephant utopia, and basic to an appreciation of the saga.
The Story of Babar, the Littie Elephant
In the beginning, a mother and father created a picture book story for their young sons, the eldest of whom now calls it "a masterpiece." The Story of Babar ([Histoire de Babar, le petit elephant], 1931), Jean de Brunhoff's first Babar story, is indeed an extraordinary work of art. It introduces themes, settings, and characters that will endure for three generations; its unerring economy and beauty of word and picture will be the model for two painters' best art; its story about the beginning of a family will enchant sons, daughters, and parents far beyond the summer world of Chessy.
"In the great forest a little elephant is born. His name is Babar. His mother loves him very much."1 From these opening lines, the human child establishes identity with the tiny elephant baby in the hammock and participates in an ideal world where a caring parent "rocks him to sleep … while singing softly to him" (3); 31 bumptious elephant cousins and two monkeys play creatively with him in the sand; and green palm trees, solicitous birds, and sun-pink mountains protect their innocent pastimes.
But all too soon, after only three pages in fact, the idyll ends. "Babar is riding happily on his mother's back, when a wicked hunter" with an elephant gun "has killed Babar's mother!" (6, 7). The lovely ride and Babar's safe babyhood are ended; the tranquility of his life is shattered. "Babar cries" (7) and "runs away because he is afraid of the hunter" (8). The shocking suddenness of the mother's death upsets some, particularly adult, readers. Plausibly, Laurent de Brunhoff sees the event as a natural means of getting into the main story, of "making way for Babar." It is worth noting additionally that the scene was part of Cécile de Brunhoff's original nursery version perhaps because, only a year earlier, her own beloved mother, Amé, had died.
Whatever the motivation, Babar's abrupt transition from the forest womb, motherless, into a potentially lonely, alien world is not gentle. Nor is it unique, for fictional children from Snow White to Bambi and Charlotte's babies have found themselves bereaved and forced, like sad little Babar, to face the future alone, frightened, uncertain.
Fortunately, the world is not as hostile as he fears. "So many things are new to him!" (10). And, like the children who wholeheartedly mourned The Dead Bird2 and then went on with life, Babar is soon distracted from his unhappiness by "[t]he broad streets! The automobiles and buses!" (Story, 10), and the fine clothing of gentlemen he sees near the Opera. Most happily surprising of all, he finds a new mother, "a very rich Old Lady … [who] gives him her purse" (11) and thus the independence to try out this new world of the city. No longer adrift, Babar embarks on an adventure of discovery and maturation, supported by a new caring parent whose obviously bourgeois Parisian environment allows him to grow with safety and style.
Because of what Eleanor Graham calls Jean's child-directed "inventiveness,"3 children can identify strongly with the particulars of Babar's life. Thus, the little elephant's routines of eating, sleeping, exercising, and bathing echo a real child's daily regimens in humorously incongruous ways; at the same time, they offer subtle models of how to do these activities well, for Babar, though bulky, is always mannerly, graceful, and fastidious. But he loves fun, too, and when he rides the elevator "all the way up ten times and all the way down ten times" (12), children know the thrill and understand the reprimand. With youthful relish he chooses the "grown-up" clothes that will be his trademark—"a shirt with a collar and tie, a suit of a becoming shade of green, then a handsome derby hat, and also shoes with spats" (14, 15). Then he sits with adult solemnity to have his picture taken in them. When he must learn his lessons like all children, he "is a good pupil and makes rapid progress" (22).
But soon the little elephant does things children only dream about doing. When Babar very capably drives the Old Lady's snappy red roadster through the countryside; when he leans debonairly against the mantel and regales her attentive if slightly incredulous friends with stories "all about his life in the great forest" (23);4 and when he reminisces nostalgically about his departed childhood, "misses playing in the great forest … and cries when he remembers his Mother" (24), he is clearly a young man at the dawn of adulthood.
The Old Lady has always given him both structure and freedom, and so when cousins Céleste and Arthur, rambunctious living links to his forest babyhood, appear two years later, they are greeted by a self-possessed, confident Babar, a fully grown-up tutor who sets about civilizing them. First, he buys them "some fine clothes" (26) and then "takes them to a pastry shop to eat some good cakes" (27), all the while modeling correct behavior in the world of humans. The child reader's relationship with Babar has subtly changed. From now on, Babar will be an adult not a peer, a father not a brother, capable enough to guide elephants and readers into a world of grown-up adventures and achievements.
His first major adult decision is to leave his city home and return with Céleste and Arthur, whose worried mothers have come to fetch them, "to see the great forest again" (31). In a touching farewell scene, Babar lovingly embraces his dear second mother. "He promises to come back some day. He will never forget her" (32). The slim, still old lady looks sadly down on the tree-lined boulevard from her balcony and, as she watches the red car diminish in the distance, wonders, "When shall I see my little Babar again?" (33), leaving readers a little unsure that it will be soon.
Meanwhile, the old "King of the elephants had eaten a bad mushroom" (34). His death from lack of self-control is not so affecting as the senseless shooting of Babar's mother; in fact, the bilious king looks almost foolish as he crumples. And so, when the returning local hero is able to answer the elephants' call for a new ruler, the only emotion is joy. "[Babar] has just returned from the big city, he has learned so much living among men, let us crown him King" (38). Babar is honored but announces that en route Cousin Céleste and he have become engaged; if he becomes king, she will be at his side. Resoundingly the elephants accept their new royalty: "Long live Queen Céleste! Long live King Babar!!!… And thus it was that Babar became King" (39).
Céleste, who has grown up too, is a fitting partner for the city-educated monarch, one of his own kind who knows him well. Her gentle strength will complement rather than compete with his forceful, emotional nature. As a traditional nurturing, sensitive female, she will mirror admirably one aspect of Cécile de Brunhoff's character. Neither deferential nor passive in Jean's stories, Céleste is valued for her indispensable role in both kingdom and marriage, which are suitably launched at a spectacular coronation-wedding ceremony and dance, exceeded only by its finale. As the newlyweds face the starry night sky, obviously in love, they "are indeed very happy" (46) and "will long remember this great celebration" (47).
If the Babar books are, as I suggest, delightful universal primers on how a family should be nurtured,5 the nurturing agents must have credibility or they will be boring didacts not to be taken seriously. In this first story, Babar is permanently legitimized by his own childhood, brief though it is, for he becomes a man the child reader has known from birth, a kind of future self who merits trust and confidence. Babar the adult is worth listening to because he has successfully accomplished his own maturity before our very eyes.
Babar "is a very good little elephant" (4), and he becomes a very good big elephant. He is an exemplary husband (and later father), friend, and king—disciplined yet spontaneous, courteous, resourceful, responsible, optimistic, considerate, imaginative, vigorous, intelligent, and above all, emotional. E. H. Gombrich applauds Jean's genius at showing Babar's variety: "With a few hooks and dots de Brunhoff could impart whatever expression he desired even to the face of an elephant."6 Equally well, Jean draws body postures that telegraph the full range of Babar's feelings with unerring economy: rigid shock as his baby tears spill onto his dead mother; startled fear as his projectile body flees the hunter and wrinkled-skin weariness "after several days, very tired indeed" (8); sartorial pride as he sits "very elegant" before the photographic artiste (16); sybaritic delight as he sponges in a hot tub; self-satisfaction as he adroitly maneuvers the borrowed car; dejection as he weeps over remembrance of times past; gastronomic satisfaction as he savors "some good cakes," a pastime he will enjoy whenever he can; and tenderness as he embraces the Old Lady who has mothered him. His capacity for human emotional behavior is broadened in future books, where he expresses anger, worry, even despair. Never an overtly emotional man him-self, Jean de Brunhoff has nevertheless not shied from endowing Babar, in both words and pictures, with feelings that make him credible to children.
Other characters who play onetime or ongoing roles establish themes and personalities important to the saga. In her short story life, Babar's natural mother creates an environment of love, music, play, and family community that will permeate the series and forecasts how Céleste and Babar will rear their own children. The rich Old Lady, a cross between tender, guiding mother and indulgent grandmother, will have influence beyond the family as musician, teacher, nurse, and partner-in-ruling; she is based on and resembles in figure Cécile de Brunhoff, whose completeness her husband needed two characters to convey! (Unfortunately, both Dorfman [37, 38] and Weber  wrench her out of shape.) Arthur and Céleste's mothers "are very worried" (Story, 29) when their children run off without telling them, anticipating other grown-ups who teach responsibility and self-control with loving discipline. Though his appearance is brief, the king-maker Cornelius, wrinkled, bespectacled, and "the oldest of all the elephants" (38), demonstrates the authority and sagacity that Babar and his family will rely on throughout his reign, until Laurent inexplicably changes him. Arthur, Céleste's spirited little brother who never gets much older, will always be there for children to smile at and empathize with.
Jean connects fantasy and reality at another level, placing his humanized elephants in a town-and-country world that is actually distorted very little. Babar quickly becomes civilized, but he is just a little elephant at the beginning, living in an elephant's natural home, part of a matriarchal elephant family that plays, shares food and waterholes, and cares for one another just as elephants do in the African wild.7 The "great Forest" looks like any large desert oasis in colonial French North Africa, as open to ivory hunters and exploitative sportsmen then as now. Laurent recalls that his parents did not express strong antipoaching sentiments, and for himself, "it was Babar I loved, not elephants" (though he worries about the species' survival today). Thus, the shooting of Babar's mother was less propaganda than a candid depiction of likely elephant reality; the old elephant king, a natural vegetarian, also dies from a plausible cause—eating the wrong mushroom. Though highly stylized, de Brunhoff's proboscidians have authentically "lipped" trunks that serve as hands, nose, and even arms when they trumpet upward in greeting and long tusks and wrinkled skins that show age, as they do in real elephants. Like Beatrix Potter, whose books his children read before Babar was born, Jean de Brunhoff acknowledges the animal nature of his humanized characters and tries not to violate what children see when they visit the zoo. Similarly, his environments are authentic and plausible, resting, like the best fantasy, on the logic of the real world.
The dramatic shape of future stories is established here, too. This book begins with images of a home and family—le foyer—here a mother and child surrounded by elephant relatives. Babar is forced from that security into the world of apprehension, adventure, and discovery. At book's end, he has begun his own foyer and provided a perfect culmination to growing up. In future stories, the exact form of home will change: it may be a garden, the living room, a resort, the seashore; the constant will be that home is where there is family, immediate or extended. The adventure will vary in intensity: it may be an eventful honeymoon, a trip to Africa, America, or another planet; or it may be, on the calmer side, the birth of children, a fair, exploring a castle. And the happily-for-now ending may be in the nursery, around the billiard table, or going home. Whatever the specifics, however, the circular home-adventure-home pattern will organize all of the Babars; like traditional fairy tales whose shape they follow, the Babars also deliver the satisfactory ending that children expect, though happiness is realistically, not magically, achieved.
Jean de Brunhoff sets scene, tone, and character with both words and pictures, creating a balanced literary-pictorial dependence that informs the best of later Babars. Though a painter, Jean had a surprising facility with story; he transformed his wife's bedtime tale into a full-blown elephant saga, not only naming Babar (8) but eventually developing his character and adventures far beyond the expectations of this first story. His skill with words is best seen in the melodies of the original French text, where "un chapeau melon" (Histoire, 15) is not quite captured in the English "handsome derby hat" (15). But Merle Haas's translations are spirited and, if a little wordy, generally accurate to the concrete vocabulary, directness, and balanced pace of the original. She is wisely faithful to de Brunhoff's present tense, common in French but not in English children's stories; "Babar is" lends immediacy to the action and encourages children to participate in the adventure. When this story was adapted for Babar's Anniversary Album (1981), it was recast into past tense, one of several unfortunate editorial decisions that seriously affected the overall quality of the volume.
Literary excellence is perhaps even exceeded by the quality of de Brunhoff's pictures. Recent facsimiles of the original, crawl-into edition, bracketed by Jean's graceful elephant-chain endpapers, reveal his skill and intent best, but even smaller, post-1960s reprints fascinate the eye. His line is simple and clean, allowing for details that might clutter a less pristine style or sure design. When Babar drives through the countryside in his natty tweed traveling suit, fully in command of his vehicle, he is clearly the center of eyes. Yet at the periphery, contributing detail without distraction, are doves, a snail, a bee, a grasshopper, a beetle, dragonflies, dogs, a goat, butterflies, cows, chickens, fish, a tugboat, a barge, fishing boats, a balloon, an airplane, a farmhouse, an orchard, a marina, a distant village, a thoughtful, pigtailed little girl, a farmer's wife, a fisherman, and a barge family! What de Brunhoff has packed into his Marne valley memory is incredible and only typical of the detail he offers in the big double pages that have no borders to limit Babar's world or the reader's imagination. The colors reproduce well: the greens, reds, and yellows are clear and uncomplicated, punctuated only occasionally by softer pink; for the quintessential starry darkness at the end, only black, gray, and silvery white are needed. Elephant-round script, which Jean did himself for this first book, is part of the artistry; when it was forfeited in the 1960s so that American children could read the text more easily, overall design suffered.
On the last page of this seminal book, picture and words unite perfectly as Babar and Céleste wave from their "gorgeous yellow" honeymoon balloon, "both eager for further adventures" (48). Then as now, readers sampled Jean de Brunhoff's sweet recipe for irresistible story and wanted more. Fortunately, even before he was sure that Babar would succeed, he gave himself the perfect transition to another adventure, a second book that many readers, including Maurice Sendak, consider his most visually stunning.
The Travels of Babar
With Babar and Céleste's honeymoon balloon freshly launched from the home pad, Arthur waves a fare-well beret to the newlyweds, and Cornelius, who will rule in Babar's absence, foreshadows excitement in The Travels of Babar ([Le Voyage de Babar], 1932), Jean's most adventurous story: "I do hope they won't have any accidents!"9 little knowing that he will soon have reason to sigh at his own dilemmas.
In a spectacular double-spread panorama, one of Jean's best, the honeymoon couple's yellow balloon hovers over "the big blue ocean" (5) and sandy shore of an idyllic Mediterranean village. Babar's binoculars focus on a scene bursting with detail, potential individual stories, and fascinating activity. "What a beautiful journey! The air is balmy, the wind is gentle" (5). But suddenly the idyll is broken and "the balloon is … caught by a violent storm. Babar and Céleste tremble with fear" (6) as it flounders in a turbulent sky over unfriendly waves.
Fortunately, the balloon is blown onto an island where Babar's first concern is for Céleste's safety—"you aren't hurt, Céleste, are you?" (7)—and comfort, as he builds a fire and prepares breakfast while his bride stretches a clothesline between two amazing trees. Together they pitch the tent and enjoy "an excellent rice broth well-sweetened and cooked to perfection" (9). The reader first glimpses here the kind of marriage the Babars will have: affectionate and solicitous toward one another, cooperative in their mutually satisfactory roles, an altogether complementary team with similar tastes in food (sweet!) and pastimes.
Tranquility ends, though, when napping Céleste is tied up by "fierce and savage cannibals" (10) who inhabit the island; luckily, Babar returns from reconnoitering the island just in time, and together they "hurl themselves on the cannibals" (12), who quickly decide that elephant meat must not be very tender after all. De Brunhoff's original French reads "féroces sauvages cannibales" (Voyage, 10), with no verbal mention of their color. But he portrays the "savages" as kinky-haired, thick-lipped, spear-wielding, half-naked black men, justifiably offending modern readers. Even though there are "a few courageous ones who fight bravely" (13), natives—and by implication blacks in general—are shown as an ignorant, primitive lot. Jean's feather-tutued stereotype probably derives from the exotic theatrical and colonial imagery that was fascinating au courant Paris at the time10 rather than from conscious racial prejudice. In Babar's Anniversary Album, Laurent edited the offensive scenes out completely, but not before he had unthinkingly perpetuated the offense in Babar's Picnic.
Adventure resumes calmly when a whale obligingly responds to Babar's polite request, "Could you help us to get away?" (14). They sail through smooth waters on her back until the skittish creature hungrily follows "a school of little fish" (16) and uncourteously leaves the honeymooners stranded. "'What will become of us now?' weeps poor Céleste" (17), sitting on a tiny knob in the midst of a big sea. But Babar comforts her and after some hours, the elephants on the lonely knoll attract a passing liner, which looks very much like the three-funneled Normandie. A life-boat rescues them while excited passengers watch, and "a week later, the huge ship steams slowly into a big harbor" (20, 21) filled with tantalizing, double-spread prospects for adventures on shore.
But not for the Babars, for "they have lost their crowns during the storm, so no one will believe that they are actually King and Queen of the elephants" (22). With no crowns and no clothing, their identity as legitimate citizens in the world of humans has vanished. And so, instead of debarking into a tourist's paradise like the other wittily individuated passengers, Babar and Céleste are "locked up in the ship's stables," to suffer the ultimate indignity: "'They give us straw to sleep on!' cries Babar angrily. 'We are fed hay, as though we were donkeys! The door is locked!'" (23). They are only elephants!
In his first display of any but gentlemanly behavior, a furious Babar stomps his foot, furrows his usually benign brow, and explodes, "I've had enough of this, I'm going to smash everything" (23). This time, however, Céleste is strong and controlled, wisely knowing that it is not time to cry. She calms Babar and urges patience: "Be quiet, I beg you…. Let's be good so [the Captain will] let us out" (23). And when the royal pair is leashed and led away by the animal trainer Fernando, Céleste again whispers, "Be patient, Babar," and is determinedly optimistic. "We will not remain long with the circus. We will get back to our native land again somehow" (25). Brunhoff is as eloquent in drawing Babar's new emotion, anger, as he was in showing the adolescent elephant's tearful nostalgia. Though the Babars never lose dignity, their demeanors are subdued, their backs turned, trunks dejectedly down, and shamed faces hidden.
But true royalty that they are, they carry bravely on and do their best in new identities that Fernando gives them along with new clothes. "Babar is … playing the trumpet while Céleste dances in Fernando's circus" (28, 29), and they captivate a diverse audience with their talent. In a double spread that Laurent calls the "quintessential circus masterpiece," Jean again fills the periphery with fascinating detail—an artist (himself?) who sights proportion with his thumb, enthralled families from different social classes, respectful fellow performers—but centers the picture on delicately pirouetting, tutued Céleste and impressively long-winded Babar, equal partners in survival. For at least one reader, however, this is the low point of the saga, as the noble Africans are reduced to a vaudeville act.
Though not yet free to return as monarchs of their forest arcadia, Babar and Céleste do have a homecoming of sorts when the circus visits the town in which the Old Lady, Babar's dear, remembered friend, lives. They quietly escape and make their way easily through the starry night to the house where Babar had spent his youth. "The Old Lady is overjoyed" (32), and though she cannot immediately restore their crowns, she does give them appropriate clothing, the best guest bedroom, and a civilized breakfast of coffee and croissants—no hay! If not the great forest kingdom they left, the honeymooners have returned to a home where they are known and valued. And fresh from a trip that would test any marriage, their partnership is strong.
"Babar and Céleste will not be caught again" (35) and head in the opposite direction for a change of scene before returning home. Their honeymoon travels in a balloon, on a whale, and aboard an ocean liner now continue in a red motor cab bound for the mountains where they will "enjoy the fresh air and try a little skiing" (35). And what an excursion it is, shown in what is probably the most famous Babar double spread (whose whereabouts is, unfortunately, unknown since its sale after Jean died)—a breathtaking scene of Swiss alps, chalet, hamlet, skaters, skiers, and movement that must replicate the de Brunhoffs' own ski winters. There is humor (Jean's own children pretended that the overturned skier was their inept governess), family authenticity (Babar's ski cap is like Jean's own), and historical veracity (the ski poles and body position of Babar and the Old Lady are typical of the times). The slopes' fresh chilliness have a restorative effect, and the trio is ready to return home, especially Babar, who "is anxious to show [the Old Lady] his beautiful country and the great forest where one always hears the birds singing" (38).
But the Babarian idyll is shattered once more, and when they alight from the plane, alas, "there are no more flowers, no more birds" (39), no more great forest. For while Babar and Céleste are having "accidents" (3), Cornelius and his charge Arthur, "the scamp" (26), have been embroiled in trouble of their own. In a fit of mischief, Arthur has tied a firecracker to the tail of a sleeping rhinoceros, Rataxes. At the resulting explosion, "Rataxes leaps up into the air. Arthur … laughs until he nearly chokes" (26). The uneasy civility between elephants and rhinos has been strained too far, and war is declared by a "furious … revengeful and mean" (27) Rataxes, who will be a continuing threat to all that Babar holds dear until Laurent tames him. Cornelius has reason to "feel very uneasy" and to wish, "Ah! If only Babar were here!" (27).
The war devastation that greets Babar, Céleste, and the Old Lady after their holiday is in blighted contrast to the flourishing Alpine beauty of the previous pages. Shattered sticks that had been lushly green trees and yellow, arid earth evoke news photos of Somme battlefields during World War I. As he had when Babar and Céleste were penned like chattel in their ignominious stall, Jean shows only the trio's backs, static with dismay as if the intensity of their emotion was beyond showing. And in words of powerful restraint, he underlines their grief: "Babar and Céleste are very sad and weep as they see their ruined country" (Travels, 39).
But characteristically, after the moment of emotion has peaked, Babar assumes leadership again: "What is going on here?" Cornelius's explanation "is indeed bad news … but let's not give up" (40). Knowing well that "real war is not a joke, and many of the elephants have been wounded" (41), the monarchs carry on again, Céleste and the Old Lady as expert nurses and Babar as the elephants' leader and chief strategist. Once more grimly reminiscent of real war is the Red Cross field hospital where white-veiled nurses tend badly wounded soldiers, knowing that another "big battle will soon begin!" (41).
However, unlike malicious Rataxes, who is confident that "we will once again defeat the elephants … and punish that rascal Arthur" (42) by force of arms, Babar gives his soldiers fresh courage and ultimately the victory by force of mind. De Brunhoff describes the strategy: "He disguises his biggest soldiers, painting their tails bright red, and near their tails on either side he paints large, frightening eyes" (43). Eager to be forgiven, even Arthur, considerably subdued, pitches in. But it is the double-spread picture of elephant rumps painted like faces routing the rhinoceros horde (44, 45) that best conveys Babar's ingenuity and Jean's sense of the slapstick. "The rhinoceroses think they are monsters and, terrified, they retreat in great disorder" (45).
"Babar is a mighty fine general" (45) who deserves being carried victoriously on his soldiers' backs, the enemy vanquished and caged at his feet, to shouts of "Bravo Babar—Bravo! Victory! Victory! The war is over!" (46). War, the ultimate loss of self-control, is averted by imaginative intelligence. Babar and Céleste, magnificent in scarlet, miniver, and new crowns, honor the Old Lady for her extraordinary help by giving her gifts "and a cunning little monkey" (47).
Back home again, the monarchs "sit and chat under the palm trees" (48) with the Old Lady and her monkey who will be named Zephir. The only reminders of turmoil are broken trees in the distance; Jean de Brunhoff never overdraws an important message. But the honeymoon adventures will reverberate in one way or another throughout the Babars' reign. They have weathered adversity together in Jean's most excitingly plotted story, which touches on more serious subjects like loyalty, loss of freedom, and war—themes made palatable by his genius for transforming personal ideals and reality into nondidactic stories that provoke even children to thought. Their marriage and kingdom tested and secure, the royal couple will surely succeed at Babar's chosen work—"to try to rule my kingdom wisely … [and] make my subjects happy" (48).
Babar the King
No absentee monarchs, in Babar the King ([Le Roi Babar], 1933). Babar and Céleste begin their wise rule at home. The story's vitality, then, derives less from adventurous plot, despite some homey excitement and a stunning climax, than from richly developed theme and setting. Babar the King is Jean's most profound, resonant story and the philosophical center of the Babar saga.
The method of reproduction changed in this book, and for the next 30 years, de Brunhoff water color originals would be reduced to line drawings to be recolored for printing. The illustrations were not so spontaneous as in the first two books, where Jean's art was directly reproduced. But his detailed style lent itself well enough to the new technique to give this story some of his most memorable, minutely interesting double spreads.
After "a treaty of peace with the rhinoceros,"11 home is once again a safe place for untroubled pastimes like storytelling under palm trees by the Old Lady, whose talents and importance peak in this apogee of the creation stories. But the great forest, still beautiful, is not quite complete for citybred Babar, whose adventures in the world of men have prepared him for a more complex idea of home. And so, "home" becomes further defined as Babar uses his experience of civilization to build a city, shape a kingdom, and articulate principles for informed, benevolent governance.
"This countryside is so beautiful…. We must build our city here … on the shore of the lake" (4, 5), Babar tells wise old Cornelius as they view the rush-lined water, home to flamingos, pelicans, ducks, hippos, and lush vegetation. Within moments, a dromedary caravan deposits neatly on the grass everything that Babar has brought back from his honeymoon trip—boxes of hats, records, trumpets, tools and clothes—gifts to his subjects that hint at a lifestyle that will indeed be new to them. Babar announces first to his inner circle—Céleste, the Old Lady, and Cornelius—"Now we will be able to build our city" (King, 7) and then tells the rest of the elephants his intentions. "This city—the city of the elephants—I would like to suggest that we name Célesteville, in honor of your Queen" (10). Fueled by the prospect of their own fittingly named heaven-on-earth, the willing subjects begin their task eagerly, under the leadership of Babar and the musical direction of the Old Lady. "All the elephants are as happy as he is. They drive nails, draw logs, pull and push, dig, fetch and carry, opening their big ears wide as they work" (9).
The small-eared Indian elephant is well known as a beast of burden. But these proud, big-eared African pachyderms are, far from servants, partners in a common goal—to build a city that they will own equally. Célesteville elephants always work hard at active, creative jobs, proud of individual contributions to the welfare of all. That Jean makes work necessary, uniformly valuable, and interesting is more to create a model of ideal but plausible society than to replicate a real political system, even one consistent with his own egalitarian sentiments. Unlike Kenneth Graham's rural utopia of leisure, The Wind in the Willows, de Brunhoff's is a practical place where work and play, country and city are equally desirable.
The work bears excellent fruits, and curious fish and birds are finally won over: "Come and see Célesteville, the most beautiful of all cities!" (11). Indeed spectacular, Célesteville is dominated by two symmetrically imposing buildings on a balustrade-framed hill, the Bureau of Industry and the Versailles-like Amusement Hall, (12) and two houses, one the Old Lady's and the other the Babars'; below are three tiers of smaller, identical red-shuttered, thatched huts, for "each elephant has his own house" (12, 13). The buildings all overlook the rush-fringed green lake that originally inspired Babar, now filled with elephants happily swimming, diving, playing, and boating. Order, equality, and contentment infuse the new community, which promises never to be dull because it offers a balance of stimulating activity for its residents. Only one kingly task remains for Babar to realize his dream of a civilized city: the promised gift giving.
"Babar keeps his promise. He gives a gift to each elephant and also serviceable clothes suitable for workdays and beautiful rich clothes for holidays" (14). His uniqueness as a civilized elephant had begun when he bought his green suit; Céleste and Arthur's first priority for city living had been appropriate clothing. Now Babar's subjects become urbanized and, even more important, individualized by apparel that suits perfectly each one's particular work role. (That there is an interesting mix of professionals, artisans, and manual laborers but no bankers, scientists, or clergy is perhaps a wry comment on Jean's concept of beneficial work.)
Podular sculpts in a smock and beret like the one Laurent often saw on Grandpère Sabouraud's head, and well-suited Dr. Capoulosse wears pince-nez, also part of Dr. Sabouraud's apparel. Pilophage, a military man, poses in a gold-braided dress uniform for Justinien in his painter's shirt; Olur the mechanic and Hachibombotar the street cleaner are in practical dress for their manual-labor jobs; Barbacol's tape measure and pincushion identify him as a tailor; and Coco's place in society is clearly defined by his commedia del l'arte clown dress, by which "he keeps them all laughing and gay" (24). Children wear sensible clothes to their work, which is, of course, school; the chefs' badge of office is a tall hat and white apron; firemen do their jobs in protective hats. And after the nearly disastrous honeymoon experience, Babar and Céleste are seldom without their crowns!
Indeed, hats are important to each elephant's identity and are always worn in public, often in private, and even by children. Hats confer dignity by requiring that wearers hold up their heads and walk on two legs; only elephants who have not been civilized go hatless. When Cornelius sits on the derby of status that Babar had bequeathed him at the coronation, he "was aghast, and sadly … [wondered,] [W]hat would he wear on the next formal occasion?" (33). Fortunately, the ever-resourceful Old Lady refurbishes this important badge of authority and Cornelius can proudly lead the big celebration of Célesteville's founding. His plumed hat is, however, no more impressive than those of the gardeners and farmers, soldiers and boy scouts, sailors and fishermen in the Workers' Parade (36, 37), whose chapeaux are a potpourri of histrionic headgear worthy of a Busby Berkeley.
That Jean de Brunhoff loved to dress in costume, perhaps natural for one of his social class and artistic inclinations, is clear from the inventiveness of his elephants' leisure wear. When they play, which is every afternoon and all day Sunday, the elephants take on new roles and "saunter about dressed magnificently" (20) in apparel that ranges from mandarins' to rajahs' outfits, from Renaissance ball gowns to Edwardian afternoon dress, from admiralty uniforms to hunting habits. At the theater, a rapt elephant audience dominated by the Royals in box seats, is resplendent with tiaras, jewels, evening gowns, and tuxedos (28, 29) in one of Jean's most famous and humorously detailed double spreads. De Brunhoff's well-dressed elephants illustrate his bourgeois conviction and experience that suitable clothes are important adjuncts to gentility but also his egalitarian insistence that everyone has a right to wear them. Undeniably, his outfits delight as they subtly teach; what readers after all, young or old, do not enjoy exploring roles by dressing up?
And what child does not also love anticipation, preparation, celebration—and dessert? In a story that centers mostly on adult activities, children empathize especially when Zephir, seduced into the kitchen to help make "cakes and dainties of all kinds" (18), falls into the vanilla cream, gets "all yellow and sticky" (19), and has to endure an expected but worth-it-all scolding and cleaning up from Céleste.
Music enriches both work and play in Célesteville. The city is built to the sounds of phonograph and trumpet; Cornelius teaches the children an ancient elephant song, perhaps not unaware of its Sanskrit origins.13 And like Cécile de Brunhoff at her piano, the Old Lady accompanies Arthur and Zephir's Mozart duet as Céleste and Babar listen attentively on a sofa that could have belonged in Chessy. The Babars encourage musical accomplishment, as the de Brunhoffs did, and celebrate it without favoritism: "First prize for music: a tie between Arthur and Zephir" (32).
Even school is pleasant in Célesteville where the beloved teacher, the Old Lady, is "never tiresome when she teaches" (22). Her classroom is Deweyan—open, bright, interesting; individual needs and learning styles are addressed, multiplication tables are fun. Children respond ideally—by behaving well and gaining knowledge in a group environment that contrasts with Babar's pleasant but more traditional solitary tutelage in The Story of Babar. Schooling in the Babar books always echoes, in one way or another, though, the happy, uncompetitive mood of Laurent and Mathieu's early home tutoring.
Célesteville may be egalitarian but it is not entirely classless; de Brunhoff subtly sanctions distinctions based on upbringing, education, and interest. Babar marries a cousin, not just any elephant and certainly not a (lower-class) hippo, maintaining the social animal hierarchy suggested by Leach.14 He and Céleste play tennis, not with the street cleaner or farmer, but with "an officer," Mr. Pilophage, and his wife; the statesman Cornelius bowls with fellow professionals Dr. Capoulosse, Fandago the scholar, and Podular the sculptor. Jean de Brunhoff was ungracious or condescending to no one, but like Babar's, his close friends were social equals. And Célesteville is a model for an ideal world based on a real one, many of whose bourgeois values Jean believed in and wanted to perpetuate.
Through his elephants, de Brunhoff implies that public virtues are but a reflection of private ones: that Babar's admirable kingdom is but a macrocosm of his household, well managed according to virtuous precepts. Jean finally articulates these guiding principles when, after the joyous anniversary parade, tragedy strikes and Babar must test the thus-far-only-implied philosophy of the saga. The Old Lady is bitten by a snake and is near death; by her hospital bed faithful "Zephir sadly remains near his mistress. She is very ill" (39). Simultaneously Cornelius, the other trusted Old One, is trapped in a house fire that he has carelessly started "and a burning beam has injured him" (41).
With images of the death-white Old Lady and bloody-browed Cornelius still in his mind, Babar goes exhausted, alone, to bed. "He shuts his eyes but cannot sleep. 'What a dreadful day!… Why did it have to end so badly?… We were all so happy and peace-ful at Célesteville. We had forgotten that misfortune existed!… [H]ow worried I am!'" (42, 43). The euphoria following creation suddenly becomes dejection, and Babar's sleep is invaded. This time Céleste is not there to calm him.
The nightmare that follows shows just what Misfortune is: a "frightful old woman surrounded by flabby ugly beasts" (43) of fear, despair, indolence, sickness, anger, stupidity, discouragement, ignorance, cowardice, and laziness. In his dream, Babar "opens his mouth to shout: 'Ugh! Faugh! Go away quickly!' But he stops to listen to a very faint noise: Frr! Frr! Frr! as of birds" (43). And winging toward him, he sees the benevolent elephant angels of goodness, intelligence, work, patience, courage, perseverance, learning, joy, happiness, health, love and hope, armed with symbols of their virtues, "who chase Misfortune away from Célesteville and bring back Happiness" (43, 44). De Brunhoff depicts the climax of the story and, indeed, the philosophy of the saga in a memorable double spread that shows Misfortune's monsters of anxiety on the run, cowering in darkness at the bottom of the page while the more powerful angels of positive thinking soar gracefully at the top through benign pink-peach clouds.
This climactic episode has interesting if unintentional religious overtones and imagery: Babar's wise old spiritual parents are threatened by a snake in the garden and by fiery flames; Babar's solitary anxiety is akin to Kierkegaardian dread; the beasts that terrorize his dream define some of the seven deadly sins, and the angels give form to transcendentalist, mind-over-matter doctrines not unlike Mary Baker Eddy's, whose work Jean may have known. Not religious despite a Protestant education, Jean has nevertheless created for his earthly utopia a secular hell of random adversity and a heaven of self-controlled ethical behavior that I am developing in another essay.
Evil is defined and destroyed in the same picture and the same dream. It is fully vanquished when Babar greets his two old friends the next day: "Oh joy! What does he see? His two patients walking in the garden. 'We are all well again,' says Cornelius" (46). And the dream's meaning is reinforced by the Old Lady, as the extended family sits cozily in Babar's drawing room: "Do you see how in this life we must never be discouraged?… Let's work hard and cheerfully and we'll continue to be happy" (47). The buoyant message of Babar is no longer oblique.
The outdoor home of the opening page is now a cultivated, carpeted domicile, where Babar is so domesticated that he is smoking a pipe, like Jean de Brunhoff. And, as if to drive the central philosophy home once more, the reader is assured on the last page that "since that day, over in the elephants' country, everyone has been happy and contented" (48), as Zephir, carrying a "Long Live Happiness" flag, leads a parade of pachyderms dressed for work and play.
This scene of self-determining and therefore contented, civilized elephants satisfactorily completes the creation trilogy, synchronizing the books's themes, characters, and settings—and predicting events to come as two crowned children (Laurent and Mathieu? Flora and Pom?) and a baby in a pram (Thierry? Alexander?) march optimistically, if anachronistically, with the adults toward the future.
1. Jean de Brunhoff, The Story of Babar the Little Elephant, trans. Merle S. Haas (New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1933) 3; hereafter cited as Story. A note by A. A. Milne introduced Methuen's edition of The Story of Babar, 1934, and was reprinted on the back dust-jacket of Random House's 1984 facsimile volume.
2. Margaret Wise Brown, The Dead Bird, illus. Remy Charlip (New York: Young Scott Books, 1938); there is no evidence, however, that Brown was influenced by The Story of Babar.
3. Eleanor Graham, "The Genius of de Brunhoff: the Creator of the Babar Books," Junior Bookshelf 5, no. 2 (January 1941): 49-55.
4. André Francois's Les larmes de crocodile (Crocodile Tears) (Paris: Robert Delpire, 1967) has an almost identical scene in which a champagne-drinking croc lounges against a mantel, telling "les jolies histoires" to adoring, fez-clad listeners. Francois even puts his hero in a bathtub and populates the book with later Babarian types—dromedaries, pelicans, and "beaux oiseaux," surely a nod to his countryman's work.
5. Ann M. Hildebrand, "Jean de Brunhoff's Advice to Youth: The Babar Books as Books of Courtesy," Children's Literature 11 (1983): 76-96.
6. E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960), 334.
7. For the family habits of African elephants see Cynthia Moss, Elephant Memories: Thirteen Years in the Life of an Elephant Family (New York: William Morrow, 1988), and Sallie Tisdale, "The Only Harmless Great Thing," New Yorker, 23 January 1989, 38-88.
8. Jean's first drawings called Cécile's invention only "Bébé." Whether he finally chose "Babar" for its sound or to stir memories of the sixteenth-century Indian ruler Babur or Babar even Laurent does not know.
9. Jean de Brunhoff, The Travels of Babar, trans. Merle S. Haas (New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1934); hereafter cited as Travels.
10. Josephine Baker's black stereotype and its impact on Paris is chronicled in Lynn Haney, Naked at the Feast: A Biography of Josephine Baker (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1981), 49ff. See also Phyllis Rose, Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in Her Time (New York: Doubleday, 1989).
11. Jean de Brunhoff, Babar the King, trans. Merle S. Haas (New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1935) 3; hereafter cited as King.
12. For the reality behind the elephant Versailles see Versailles: A Garden in Four Seasons, photographs by Jacques Dubois (New York: Vendome Press, 1983).
13. See August A. Imholtz, Jr., "Sanskrit Verses in a Babar Book," Children's Literature in Education 12 (1981): 207-8, for an informed, probably tongue-in-cheek, reading of the mammoth's song. Jean did not, however, know Sanskrit.
14. Edmund Leach, "Babar's Civilization Analyzed," New Society, 20 December 1962, 16.
Ann Meinzen Hildebrand (essay date fall 1993)
SOURCE: Hildebrand, Ann Meinzen. "Jean de Brunhoff's Psychmachia and the Doctrine of Happiness." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 18, no. 3 (fall 1993): 131-36.
[In the following essay, Hildebrand studies how Jean de Brunhoff manifests the natures of bonheur and malheur (happiness and unhappiness) in the "Babar" series.]
Babar the elephant-king is entering the seventh decade of his benevolent reign. In the sixty years since his birth in 1931, King Babar's sturdy character and Utopian milieu have remained essentially as de Brunhoff père developed them before he died in 1937. Most importantly, the authors' primary message to young readers is still "Vive le bonheur" ("Long live happiness"). But though many routes to Babarian happiness have been explored—among them the socio-political, literary, anthropological, architectural, and visual—the ethical and religious implications of Jean de Brunhoff's doctrine of happiness remain unexamined. That doctrine is most fully articulated in the dream sequence in his third book, Babar the King (Le Roi Babar, 1933). Babar's climactic dream is de Brunhoff's personal adaptation of the Psychomachias, the apocalyptic early-Christian allegories of spiritual struggle in the form of a battle between the virtues and vices.
But first, what exactly is bonheur to a non-religious, bourgeois, family-centered French artist born in 1899? And how is it achieved? Outside of the dream sequence, Jean de Brunhoff uses bonheur sparingly; in fact in three of his seven books the word appears only once and in three not at all. After the coronation-marriage feast in the The Story of Babar Histoire de Babar, le petit elephant, 1931), "Le roi Babar et la reine Céleste, heureux, rêvent à leur bonheur" ("King Babar and Queen Céleste are indeed very happy" 46). This bonheur, full of tranquillity, is a fitting culmination to Babar's pluck after his mother's death and his determination fully to embrace life, love, and responsibility. At the end of the bloodless war with the rhinoceroses in the second story, The Travels of Babar (Le voyage de Babar, 1932), the elephant army is jubilant that "La guerre est finie! Ah! Quel bonheur!" ("The war is over! How perfectly splendid!" 46). Again, bonheur is a fitting end to Babar's (and Céleste's) courage, patience, and intelligence in the face of challenging adventures. At the beginning of the fifth book, Zephir's Holidays (Les vacances de Zephir, 1936), the little monkey thinks, "Quel bonheur d'aller revoir sa famille!" ("What fun to go and see his family again!" 3). He has worked hard at school in Célesteville and longs for the complete happiness of his Monkeyville home and well-earned holiday. All three are brief moments of different but complete—even sublime—happiness and well being, the culmination or expectation of experiences that, like many in life, are the result of making choices and decisions.
American editions of Jean de Brunhoff's Babar stories were translated from the French by Merle S. Haas, whose generally sensitive and spirited translations I use here unless noted. But translation is more than a matter of finding linguistic synonyms; dictionaries provide a starting point, but not all definitions apply equally to every verbal situation, and one-word "equivalents" can be misleading unless they are considered in context. Where meaning is conveyed additionally in pictures, the full range of lexical usage must be considered in rendering faithfully the author's message. As defined in dictionaries contemporary with Jean de Brunhoff's work, bonheur is "état de parfaite satisfaction intérieure"; its synonyms include "béatitude," "félicité," "plaisir," and "prosperité," for "bonheur est le terme le plus general, et il est compatible avec toutes les situations"; among its antonyms is malheur (Larousse 1930, 768). Emile Littrédefines bonheur as "état heureux, état de pleine satisfaction et de jouissance" (1108–09). Invariably, French-English dictionaries of the period give "happiness" as bonheur's first meaning.1
There is no doubt that every time Jean de Brunhoff uses bonheur, he means "happiness," whether at the beginning of a marriage, the end of a war, or the prospect of going home. But in Babar the King, he defines "happiness" even further by picturing its parts. And so, Babar dreams that the bonheur angel is the sum of (and rear guard for) eleven other "winged elephants" who "raminent avec eux le Bonheur" ("bring back Happiness" 44). Leading the airborne throng is Courage, followed by Persévérance, Patience, Savoir (learning), Travail (work), Intelligence, Bonté (kindness [Haas, "goodness"]), Espoir (hope), Amour, Santé (health), and Joi (44-45). It is obvious that nine of these components of happiness are functions of individual choice or will; even intelligence ("in all senses" International French/English) can imply shrewdness, prudence, and thus, effort; and santé, for Babar and those who emulate him, includes proper rest, exercise, and diet.
After his dream, Babar's adoptive mother, the Old Lady, underlines the role of the will in achieving happiness when she says: "Travaillons avec gaieté et nous continuerons d'être heureux" ("Let's work hard and cheerfully and we'll continue to be happy" 47). Authenticating the message with parental authority, Babar's "father," Jean de Brunhoff and his "mother," the Old Lady (who was modeled on Babar's "real" mother, Cécile de Brunhoff, the bedtime-story creator of the little elephant in 1930), declare that bonheur/happiness is an earned state which not even Babar can achieve without an enlightened exercise of the will. Happiness is not a matter of chance, fate, or luck; rather it is the result of self-controlled behavior.
Equally important in the dream's credo is the assertion, both visual and verbal, that bonheur's counter-part is malheur. Besides its appearance in the dream, de Brunhoff uses malheur only twice in his seven books. When the old king chooses a "bad mushroom" (mistaking russula emetica for, perhaps, pine flammula) and dies in The Story of Babar, "C'est un grand malheur!" (35), a bad choice indeed. Malheur's last appearance is in Babar and His Children (Babar en famille, 1938), when Babar, nervous at his impending fatherhood, chooses to be by himself rather than at the birth of his triplets: "Quel malheur, j'ai manqué l'arrivée!" ("What a shame that I wasn't at home!" 9). Interestingly, when Babar's mother is killed, by "un vilain chasseur" ("a wicked hunter" Story 6)—a vile act that spawns misfortune for others—the word is not used at all. Nor does it describe Babar and Celeste's ignominious captivity after the skittish whale abandons them in The Travels of Babar ; or Princess Isabelle's kidnapping by Polomoche in Zephir's Holidays ; or Alexander's accident when Arthur forgets about him in Babar and His Children. Rather, de Brunhoff is careful to connect each character's malheur to his own willed act, not chance, fortune, or the acts of another.
Although both Larousse and Littré give "mauvaise destinée" as malheur's first definition, other usages include "faire un malheur" (Larousse 1930); "une extrïme faiblesse d'esprit," "quand les malheurs nous ouvrent les yeux, nous repassons avec amertume sur tous nos faux pas," and "faire le malheur de, rendre malheureux. Cet homme a fait le malheur de sa famille" (Littré), all of which modify or even negate the sense of "misfortune" and suggest some intentionality ("weak spirit," "mistakes," "cause family unhappiness"). Furthermore, as many French-English dictionaries cite "unhappiness" as malheur's first meaning as specify "misfortune" or "ill luck." And "malheur" is the first French word for "unhappiness" in most English-French dictionaries. Thus, though Merle Haas renders malheur as "calamity" (Story 35), "misfortune" (King 43,44), or "What a shame!" (Children 9), the word has other connotations.
In Babar's dream, malheur obviously means more than mischance or misfortune. Like its bonheur counterpart, it has eleven components, each one characterized by a demon-beast that contrasts sharply with the benign elephant angels. The leader of this malignant troupe is "une vieille affreuse" ("a frightful old woman" 43) who announces herself at the beginning of the dream with "C'est moi le Malheur," (malheur is masculine). As the personification of malheur, she is the counterpart of that other elderly female, La Vielle Dame, who, by her always-virtuous actions and optimistic words, is a personification of bonheur. The "vielle affreuse" brings with her the "bétes molles et laides" ("flabby ugly beasts" 43) that fully define the picture of malheur (44-45): Paresse (lazi-ness), Lacheté (cowardice), Ignorance, Découragement (discouragement), Maladie (sickness), Bêtise (stupidity), Colère (anger), Mollesse (indolence), Peur (fear), and Désespoir (despair). Carrying the hag Malheur is the eleventh beast, also named Malheur. In the illustration, de Brunhoff does not label the two Malheurs separately, but the hag and her mount are two distinctly different species, not the same malheur at all. Thus, in the picture, the two Malheurs indicate two meanings. In the text Jean clearly implies that Malheur, the sum of eleven different beasts, and Bonheur, the sum of eleven different angels, are counterparts, leaders of their respective packs: "de gracieux éléphants ailés qui chassent le Malheur loin de Célesteville et raminent avec eux le Bonheur" ("graceful [also "courteous, gracious"] winged elephants who chase Unhappiness [Haas, "Misfortune"] away from Célesteville and bring back Happiness" 44). From the context of illustrations and words, it is clear that malheur as "misfortune" brought on by acts beyond one's power is only an eleventh-part of Malheur's sum total—and that de Brunhoff's malheur must be translated as "unhappiness," the result more of ill choice than ill fate.
Even maladie, like santé, implies at least some individual responsibility. When, after the Old Lady's and Cornelius's "accidents," a troubled Babar anguishes, "Nous avions oublie que le malheur existe!" ("We had forgotten that [unhappiness] exist[s])" 43), readers recognize that their malheur is not accidental at all, that Cornelius's own bêtise causes his injury and that the Old Lady's brush with death results from Zephir's unthinking behavior. Indeed, de Brunhoff is here showing how foolish personal acts can bring, not only pain to the doer, but ever-widening ripples of malheur to others. The Old Lady validates the angels of Patience, Courage, and Hope in the treatment of at least some illnesses when, well again, she declares, "Voyez-vous dans la vie, il ne faut jamais se décourager. Le vilain serpent ne m'a pas tuée et Cornélius est complètement guéri" ("Do you see how in this life one must never be discouraged? The vicious snake didn't kill me, and Cornelius is completely recovered" 47).2 Zephir's green "VIVE LE BONHEUR" flag, then, is indeed fraught with meaning and promise, for "since that day, over in the elephants' country, everyone has been happy and contented" (48). The prescription continues to inform the rest of Jean's books, as Babar and other adults model responsible choices for children.
Unlike his father, Laurent de Brunhoff does not use the terms bonheur or malheur in his stories, admitting that his purposes are not as serious. But, though he "would never [have drawn] the dream," he admires its precepts enough to make his father's recipe for happiness the implied cornerstone of his own stories.3 In spite of having written one of the great religious passages of children's literature, however, Jean de Brunhoff was not an overtly religious adult. Like many bourgeois of his day, he attended private school; the de Brunhoffs, who were Lutherans, chose the Protestant L'École Alsacienne in Paris, a now-secular school for affluent Parisians who still value its traditional curriculum and educational rigor. French Protestants of the late nineteenth century had succeeded in laicizing public (previously Catholic-controlled) education; thus, by Jean's day, most non-Catholic schools had adopted the Protestant-approved morale laïque curriculum that aimed at producing honnêtes hommes (honorable men) through religion-free moral lessons.4 But even children of non-churchgoing parents normally had rudimentary religious training that qualified them for church rituals—usually Bible stories and catechism, which for Jean de Brunhoff would probably have been Le petit catéchisme de Martin Luther. For those few who went beyond elementary school, the typical upper-class secondary education included philosophy and classical learning. Laurent de Brunhoff does not know the details of his father's schooling, but he refers to Jean's "Protestant ethic," presumably meaning the whole cast of his father's character and morality. Babar's dream, then, may in part reflect early religious values and images imbibed through home and school.
Jean and his wife, Cécile, a Catholic, were married in a Catholic church after the obligatory civil ceremony; all three of their sons were baptized as Catholics, and when Jean died, he received the Catholic last rites. But beyond these customary rituals, which were observed by most bourgeois French, Jean apparently had no deep religious inclinations. In fact, Laurent recalls that "in our lives, in our family, it [religion] had absolutely no place. So my father didn't have the need, the impulse, of having that appear somehow in his stories."
Certainly in Célesteville, the practical city built by Babar the King, there are buildings for work (Bureau of Industry), play (Amusement Hall), and comfortable living ("each elephant has his own house"; King 12,13). There are concerts, feasts, parades—all equally accessible to the residents of the city—and a wide range of honorable jobs. But, despite its "heavenly" name and de Brunhoff's artistic transformation of French landscapes (particularly the church-dotted environs of Paris and the Marne Valley), Babar's kingdom has no churches, no clergy, no religious icons; even when Babar brings Christmas in Jean's last story (Babar and Father Christmas, 1940) there are no crïches, no stars, no nativity angels.
And yet angels are central to Babar's dream—or is it Babar's vision? Babar the King does not even need the dream sequence; the story is complete with the anniversary parade (36-37), where indeed some truncated European versions end. But for Jean de Brunhoff, it is not thematically complete; he seems compelled to authenticate his fully formed utopian system for ideal family life with a philosophical statement, which he does in the postscript of the dream. It is significant, then, that this author of a studiously secular picturebook saga, who "never spoke of religion in [his] house" or showed any adult inclination towards religion that his son remembers, not only makes angels the "heroines" of his dream but builds the entire dream sequence on religious metaphors. Far from "not having the … impulse of having [religion] appear in his stories," Jean de Brunhoff empowers his most important message by adapting the potent forms and images of allegorical Christian virtue/vice literature and art to his own purposes. Babar's unusual dream is a secular allegory in which Good (the angels of Bonheur) overcomes Evil (the beasts of Malheur) in a "battle" of apocalyptic intensity.
The problem of good and evil has always challenged thinkers, ancient and modern. Early Christians often allegorized the dilemma using secular and classical metaphors like the Tower and the Battle, and later on the Wheel, the Tree, and the Ladder to represent the opposing forces of virtues and vices. One of the earliest such works—and by far the most influential on later virtue/vice literature and art—is the Psychomachia of Prudentius, a late fourth-century Roman civil servant and a Christian. In both epic poetry and vigorous illustrations, the Psychomachia introduces the metaphor of battle between the personified virtues and vices, a battle which became one of the early Middle Ages' primary concretizations of the conflict between Good and Evil. Jennifer O'Reilly notes that the illustrations in extant manuscripts of this early"picture book" "preserve a good deal of the character of the original [fifth century] illustrations" (16) and using both classical and Judaeo-Christian images, convey the vigor and uniqueness of Prudentius' nine virtues and seven major vices.
Prudentius's battle metaphor became the prototype for centuries of illustrated manuscripts, tapestries, and religious artifacts that reflected evolving church doctrines. The stonework of early medieval Gothic cathedrals often portrayed Psychomachian themes and a notable example is provided by the bas relief of the virtue and vice cycle ornamenting the facade of Notre Dame in Paris (c. 1210). De Brunhoff was a lifelong Parisian and a painter trained in the traditional manner, learning classical and church art (as well as other styles) from the Louvre and Paris's other great medieval "museums," the Gothic cathedrals; he must have been well-acquainted with the facade of Notre Dame. No longer in combat, an expanded group of twelve virtues sit below the twelve Apostles. Though not trampling upon or killing their counterpart vices, the virtues are above them in a clearly victorious position. Each virtue holds a symbolic medallion that defines individual character while maintaining unity of form: for example, Spes (Hope) has a banner (like Zephir in the final bonheur parade); Fortitudo, wearing armor and a sword, holds a lion shield; and Perseverantia carries a crown. As if to underline the disintegrating effect of vicious be havior, each vice is engaged in a different destructive activity: Superbia (Pride) is falling off a horse; Desperatio (Despair) is committing suicide; the failed knight Ignavia (Cowardice) is fleeing from a hare. Similar facades adorned cathedrals in Europe—at Amiens and Chartres, Strasburg and Salisbury, to name but a few. And "for many succeeding decades all artists of note, in whatever medium they tried to treat the theme of virtues and vices, stood under the spell of the Paris master" (Katzenellenbogen 82)—as Jean de Brunhoff seems to have in the twentieth century.
Indeed, Jean de Brunhoff's version of the battle of the virtues and vices draws from the whole, varied Psychomachia tradition. As in the Notre Dame cycle, he uses twelve figures for each polarity. De Brunhoff's virtues wear flowing robes that suggest, like many post-Prudentian Psychomachias, female rather than male combatants; though the other vices have no apparent gender, Malheur is—albeit "frightful" and "old"—a woman, and she is riding a horned mount, a convention associated with Pride, the chief sin in many manuscripts. Her companions, if not the standard medieval animal counterparts of the vices that Bloomfield charts (245-49), are obviously related to the bestial foes of so many battle allegories. Angels—the "winged cherubim" (O'Reilly 106) of one twelfth-century illustrated tract—are readily recognized scriptural and medieval symbols for virtue.
But unlike the battles in many Christian Psychomachias, de Brunhoff's is not bloody; rather, echoing the Notre Dame tradition—and Babar's war with the rhinoceroses—it is a battle averted. But a show of armed power it definitely is, the charge led by well-armed Courage, who, like Fortitude in so many representations, brandishes a sword and shield; Perseverance follows, also carrying a symbolic shield but a handsaw as well. Other virtues bear their distinguishing "medallions": Patience carries a timepiece, which is Temperance's hallmark in some later church texts; Learning, a candle; Work, a hammer; Health, a horn; Hope, a bouquet; and Happiness, a crown of flowers. The sturdiness, power, and position of the twelve angel "warriors" gives them great importance, descending as they are from the upper-right-hand corner of the picture, hard on the heels of the retreating vices—good above evil, as in so many Psychomachias. And like the colorists of early allegory, de Brunhoff contrasts light with darkness, as the angels of virtue bear down from a sun-pink sky upon the beasts of vice, who rush into a land of murky shadow.
Although de Brunhoff's vices carry no symbols, their individual ugliness reinforces their natures: Laziness, Discouragement, and Indolence have closed eyes and flaccid bodies; the hair of bat-like Fear stands electrically on end; ironically, Cowardice is well but uselessly armed with a sword-like horn and spiny back; Stupidity stares vacantly and Despair gloomily; the snake Ignorance (the only real animal in the dozen) crawls ignominiously on its belly; blind Anger has a forked tongue; fuming Sickness is spavined; and Misfortune is horned and vicious. The hag Unhappiness is pallid, enervated, thin-haired; but like Pride, she sits tall on her mount. As in the Notre Dame cycle, the very disparity of figures, unlike the form-unified angels, seems to emphasize the disorder of unhappiness. The bulky virtues are, somehow, not outlandish; the vices are devoid of any mitigating benignity (of the kind that makes Maurice Sendak's Things less than Wild). The moment has, in fact, a disturbing visionary power.
Jean de Brunhoff follows no single system of classification, and most of the virtues and vices he finds important enough for his "battle" exist regularly in early Christian renderings, if not all in the same one. The reward, however, for diligently observing de Brunhoff's virtues is temporal, not eternal—earthly, not heavenly, happiness. For as traditionally religious as de Brunhoff's artistic sources may be, his intent, however serious, is different from that of centuries of Christian artists. Their battlefield was the soul, and their categories of good and evil stimulated believers to model Christ, fight sin, and ultimately gain salvation. Though religious form electrifies de Brunhoff's message, his battlefield is clearly the mind of the child reader, whom he hopes will model Babar, fight unhappiness, and ultimately gain well-earned but secular bonheur.
Those who have studied the milieu out of which Jean de Brunhoff wrote acknowledge that childhood for the French—to a greater degree than for Americans—was an obligatory period of initiation into traditional, self-controlled, responsible Gallic adulthood. Laurence Wylie notes that authority, discipline, structure, and high expectation were the cornerstones of upbringing, with "each segment of existence call[ing] for behavior appropriate to it" (Youth 244).5 Like most French fathers of his day, de Brunhoff realized that social conduct was important: good manners, appropriate dress, suitable friends, conversational skills, and other "courtesy behaviors" that he addresses at one time or another in his stories.6 But in Babar's dream he goes beyond social skills to what he considers the heart of happiness—the development of good character. For that, he urges children to cultivate deeper virtues, resist insidious vices, and counter even misfortune with optimism; all of Jean's "warriors" are general and universal enough for children to apply to their own lives. By clothing his "ethical" message in powerful "theological" dress, the ultimate peré de famille, Jean de Brunhoff, intensifies and universalizes his "doctrine" for all children.
Christian writers traditionally held that the virtues (though not the vices) were gifts from God. Faith was the basic spiritual grace, a powerful weapon that permitted all other virtues to function. But de Brunhoff acknowledges no metaphysical principle beyond human (or elephant)—neither faith nor fate. In Babar's dream even Misfortune, the eleventh beast, runs from the angels of enlightened choice. And in Babar's kingdom, good and bad events happen because of conscious, usually rational, behavior—not supernatural grace or vengeance. In fact, like Watty Piper in The Little Engine That Could, Jean de Brunhoff implies that children can make happiness-yielding choices with faith in themselves alone.
Edward Moore demonstrates that in early religious art pride was generally considered the greatest vice and humility its necessary counterpart (208a). Today, especially in secular circles, pride can be a virtue (as pride in self or pride in country); even Christian apologist Gabriel Marcel, de Brunhoff's contemporary and fellow Frenchman, distinguishes between pride as relating to self-worth—"a constructive senti-ment, helping to give me inner foundations on which to establish my conduct"—and pride as vanity, which is "essentially sterile … disintegrating" (76). But whether in the old, God-defying theological sense or the contemporary, dualistic one, de Brunhoff names neither pride nor humility as bonheur angels (except for Malheur's possible visual parallels with Superbia and the implication of mansuetude in Bonté). Pride in self (different from faith in self) was not a behavior that French parents encouraged in children who, after all, had miles to go before they earned mature bonheur.
Hope and perseverance are the cornerstones of de Brunhoff's doctrine ("never be discouraged") and are familiar antidotes to despair and discouragement in the medieval pantheon of virtues. But though de Brunhoff's words evoke Christian art, his tune is again secular. In making a religious distinction between hope and optimism, Gabriel Marcel writes: "Hope is a mystery" (35) and is "inseparable from a faith which is … absolute" (46). For Marcel and the Christian virtue/vice artists, then, true hope is inseparable from faith in God. Since faith is not a bonheur angel, de Brunhoff's Espoir must really be hope's ethical sister, optimism; again, as the Old Lady puts it: "Let's work hard and cheerfully and we'll continue to be happy" (47). Persévérance is undeniably basic to travail (de Brunhoff's Perseverance angel holds a work tool) and joie may inform Hope, Love, Kindness, and especially mental Health. But Work and Joy do not appear in virtue/vice art. Rather, their inclusion seems personal (perhaps cultural) as Jean de Brunhoff, like any pragmatic parent, teaches the virtue of both work and joy. Indeed, a major hallmark of Babar's utopia is the perfect balance of work and play.
Though it dates him as a traditionalist, de Brunhoff avoids the "adult" subject of sexuality altogether; whether rightly or not, he considers castitas (chastity) and luxuria (over-indulgence) irrelevant to children. Similarly, important Psychomachian "sets" relating to property and money—operatio (generosity), avaritia (avarice), or invidia (envy)—are missing. Oddly enough, lying, a favorite childhood "sin" and a generally unacceptable pastime, is omitted as one of de Brunhoff's beasts, even though fraud is considered a serious vice. What is perhaps most surprising in a cosmos so apparently egalitarian as Babar's is the absence of justice. Ariel Dorfman argues that de Brunhoff's fictional world is colonialist and thus classist, a utopia for only the few; as such, he says, it lacks justice altogether. True, like Sweden's Elsa Beskow (1874–1953), who was criticized for her "upperclass" stories, Jean de Brunhoff reveals his bourgeois mindset in subtle as well as obvious ways; Babar may be the public parent, but de Brunhoff is the private parent who believes in socializing children into a system that he understands and endorses. Yet critics like Dorfman, for all their insights, lose sight of de Brunhoff's essentially domestic agenda: Babar's utopia—and the milieu, people, and values that shape it—is the model for family, not political, life. Family structure is usually hierarchic and often autocratic rather than democratic, but that does not necessarily imply injustice. As a benevolent roi de famille, Babar always tempers his authority with intelligence, love, patience, and all the other virtues that, when diligently practiced, override injustice to class, race, and gender—and are worth passing on to children.
Clearly, Jean de Brunhoff has designed his own Psychomachia. But like early virtue/vice artists, he sometimes goes beyond the allegorical symbolism of the battle directly to scriptural exempla. In the events preceding the dream, de Brunhoff makes unmistakable biblical allusions. For the milieu of the Old Lady's near-death he uses elements from Genesis: a garden, a snake, an act of evil prompted by the yen for knowledge (Zephir's childish curiosity), physical and mental suffering, worried contrition, and a future filled with uncertainty. Cornelius, Babar's other spiritual parent, "is half suffocated" (41) amid hellish, self-started flames that evoke the burning houses and cities of apocalyptic prophecy; indeed, Psychomachia iconography often used graphic fiery passages from Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Revelation to dramatize the wages of sin. With Cornelius's recovery in doubt, the Eden of Célesteville, so reassuring in the anniversary parade, is suddenly lost; life is fragmented and security is replaced by uncertainty.
Babar's mental state after these events has all the markings of a religious crisis. The creator of civic and domestic peace and order, he chides himself for forgetting "que le malheur existe!" (King 43). Babar has faced trouble before, but he has always overcome his problems with fortitude and intelligence. Now, in thrall to existential anxiety and having forgotten what to do, he has become discouraged, indeed despairing, and has forfeited control over either bonheur or malheur. At this low point Babar feels uncustomarily helpless: "How long this night seems to me, and how worried I am!" (43). His dejection, eloquently wordless, is conveyed only by a line of dots in the text, marking the void of thought and feeling as Babar faces, if only temporarily, the ontological abyss. "Babar finally drops off to sleep, but his sleep is restless, and soon he dreams." The King of the Elephants, only recently at the apex of personal achievement, is now at his spiritual nadir. Only after "he hears a knocking on his door, Tap! Tap! Tap!" and sees the appalling "vielle affreuse" and her fearsome crew, does he "stop to listen to a very faint noise: Frr! Frr! Frr! as of birds flying in flock, and … sees coming toward him" the angels that will rout his despair.
The morning after his dream, "Babar dresses and runs to the hospital. Oh joy! What does he see? His two patients walking in the [no longer dangerous] garden," ready to "get some breakfast, and … rebuild [Cornelius's] house" (46). Babar "can scarcely believe his eyes." But the reader knows that the values expressed in the dream, now just a memory, have been validated and that Babar's happiness has been restored. The brief religious moment has passed, but the doctrine of optimism lingers powerfully as the parade of happy workers marches into the future.
In a longer study I have explored other factors that may have shaped Jean de Brunhoff's prescription for happiness—his own optimistic nature, his secure, genteel upbringing, and the bourgeois Gallic milieu. Indeed, Theodore Zeldin notes that in the first half of the twentieth century, the pursuit of "happiness" absorbed the French, who read and tried widely varying prescriptions for attaining it; if statistics of the times are to be believed, "happiness" remained elusive (2: 648-724). Yet in Jean de Brunhoff's utopia, happiness is neither undefined nor unattainable.
Contrary to Laurent de Brunhoff's perception, then, religion does appear in his father's stories—in the form of borrowed archetypes and images. But the morality he articulates is secular: "heaven" (bonheur/happiness) and "hell" (malheur/unhappiness) are within children's power, the result of the choices they learn to make in order to "earn" happy adulthood. Whether the simplistic prescription voiced by the Old Lady to work hard and happiness will follow mirrors his deepest adult beliefs or is just a fatherly agenda, in the dream sequence of Babar the King —his personal Psychomachia—Jean de Brunhoff gives children of all classes, races, and ages clear ethical ideals for living in a morally relativistic age. Who can seriously quarrel with a parent's best advice conveyed by a painter's best art?
1. Among the contemporary dictionaries consulted are those edited by Abel and Maria Chevalley, E. Decahors, W. James and A. Neale, Paul Passy and George Hemple, Paul Ange, Marguerite-Marie de Bois, and E. Clifton and A. Grimaux.
2. Such faith in mind over matter seems ironic when de Brunhoff died of tuberculosis only four years later. But never exceptionally robust, he had perhaps at other times tested and found useful this doctrine of physical (as well as psychological and spiritual) well-being.
3. My personal contact with Laurent de Brunhoff includes many letters and telephone conversations from May 1989 to the present, as well as a personal interview in Middletown, Connecticut, in October 1989. His words in this essay come from written or taped sources in my possession.
4. For a full discussion and samples of the "Morals Curriculum," see Phyllis Stock-Morton. See also Theodore Zeldin vol. 2, especially "Education and Hope" (139-204) and "Religion and Anticlericalism" (993-1039).
5. For other studies of French cultural traditions contemporary with Jean de Brunhoff's work, see Rhoda Metraux and Margaret Mead; Martha Wolfstein; Françoise Dolto; Laurence Wylie (Village); James McMillan; and Zeldin.
6. For a full discussion of Jean de Brunhoff's fatherly attention to these behaviors, see my essay "Jean de Brunhoff's Advice to Youth."
Bloomfield, Morton W. The Seven Deadly Sins. Ypsilanti, MI: Michigan State UP, 1952; rpt 1967.
Concise Oxford French Dictionary. Ed. Abel and Maria Chevalley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1934.
De Brunhoff, Jean. Babar and Father Christmas. New York: Random House, 1940.
―――――――. Babar and His Children. New York: Random House, 1938.
―――――――. Babar the King. New York: H. Smith & R. Haas, 1935.
―――――――. The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant. New York: H. Smith & R. Haas, 1933.
―――――――. The Travels of Babar. New York: H. Smith & R. Haas, 1934.
―――――――. Zephir's Holidays New York: Random House, 1937. Babar and Zephir in subsequent American editions.
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Dictionnaire Langues Anglais et Français. Ed. W. James & A. Neale. Chicago: Regan, 1924.
Dolto, Françoise. "French and American Children as Seen by a French Child Analyst." Childhood in Contemporary Cultures. Ed. Margaret Mead and Martha Wolfstein. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1955; rpt. 1969. 408-423.
Dorfman, Ariel. The Empire's Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds. New York: Pantheon, 1983.
Hildebrand, Ann Meinzen. "Jean de Brunhoff's Advice to Youth: The Babar Books as Books of Courtesy." Children's Literature 11 (1983): 76-95.
Hildebrand, Ann Meinzen. Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff: The Legacy of Babar. New York: Twayne, 1992.
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Luther, Martin. Le petit catéchisme de Martin Luther. Strasbourg: L'Église Évangélique, Lutheran Synod de France et Belgique, 1900.
Marcel, Gabriel. Homo Viator. Tr. Emma Craufurd. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
McMillan, James F. Dreyfus to De Gaulle: Politics and Society in France, 1898–1969. London: Edward Arnold, 1985.
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Moore, Edward. Studies in Dante. Oxford, 1899; rpt New York: Haskell House, 1968.
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O'Reilly, Jennifer. Studies in the Iconography of the Virtues and Vices in the Middle Ages. New York: Garland, 1988.
Piper, Watty. The Little Engine That Could. Ill. George & Doris Hauman. New York: Platt & Munk, 1930.
Stock-Morton, Phyllis. Moral Education for a Secular Society: The Development of Morale Laïque in Nineteenth-Century France. Albany: U of New York P, 1977.
Wolfstein, Martha. "French Parents Take Their Children to the Park." Childhood in Contemporary Cultures. Ed. Margaret Mead and Martha Wolfstein. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1955; rpt. 1969. 100-116.
Wylie, Laurence. "Youth in France and the United States," in Youth: Change and Challenge. Ed. Erik H. Erikson. New York: Basic Books, 1963.
Wylie, Laurence. A Village in the Vaucluse. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1957, 1974.
Zeldin, Theodore. France: 1848–1945, 2 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977.
Herbert Kohl (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Kohl, Herbert. "Should We Burn Babar?: Questioning Power in Children's Literature." In Should We Burn Babar?: Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories, pp. 3-29. New York, N.Y.: The New Press, 1995.
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Lisa Gangemi Krupp (review date April 2003)
SOURCE: Krupp, Lisa Gangemi. Review of Babar's Yoga for Elephants, by Laurent de Brunhoff. School Library Journal 49, no. 4 (April 2003): 148-49.
Gr. 2-4—[In Babar's Yoga for Elephants, ] Babar confides that even elephants experience stress in their day-to-day living, and a little yoga, it seems, goes a long way in providing comfort and relaxation. In fact, the book starts out by revealing that little clay cylinders found in a cave near Celesteville prove that elephants invented yoga. This find was authenticated at the National Library, where elephants, together with human yoga experts, "discovered that all of the poses depicted on the seals are still practiced today." Spreads feature instructional text on one side, with Babar illustrating the poses on the other. After intro ducing yoga to Celesteville, Babar and Celeste go on a worldwide jaunt where they practice their favorite yoga positions in front of famous landmarks. The Proud Warrior is demonstrated in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Bridge is practiced in front of the Half Dome in Yosemite, and, because "the traffic in Times Square is terrible," the Lotus position returns Babar's and Celeste's minds to Celesteville. While the art style is reminiscent of the original books, the colors are far more subdued. A note at the end reminds chil-dren that "this book is intended for elephants interested in yoga," and that "humans and other animals should consult books written specifically with them in mind." The book includes a large, removable poster. Babar's Yoga would be useful for larger collections needing information on the subject.
Publishers Weekly (review date 21 July 2003)
SOURCE: Review of Babar's Museum of Art, by Laurent de Brunhoff. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 29 (21 July 2003): 193.
In this whimsical, wry caper, [Babar's Museum of Art, ] Celeste and Babar decide to transform the abandoned Celesteville train station into a museum displaying the objets d'art they've collected on their travels. Preparing the building is a collaborative effort—the town's energetic elephants help rebuild the station, transport the paintings to the new gallery and bang them on the walls. But the piece de resistance is the museum's opening day, when Babar's family and friends feast their eyes on a witty recasting of almost three dozen classic paintings and sculptures in which pachyderms take the place of human figures. Almost-touching elephant trunks replace fingers in a reimagining of Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam and an elephant with golden tresses springs from the half-shell in a rendition of Botticelli's Birth of Venus. The museum-goers share their thoughts on what they like about the works of art and the ways in which they identify with the subjects (young Arthur chooses a Van Gogh self-portrait: "I like this picture because it's red"). With his gentle artistic makeovers and by predominantly keeping the focus on the younger elephants' questions, de Brunhoff skillfully allows young readers an entree to the world of, fine art. Babar offers some wise words when Alexander and Flora ask him if paintings in a museum have to be old or pretty: "It doesn't have to be or mean anything…. There are no rules to tell tis what art is." Adding to the value of this impressive volume is a large, handsomely reproduced pull-out poster featuring nine of the "masterpieces" from the book, framed in gold leaf. A visual treat all around. All ages.
Mary Elam (review date November 2003)
SOURCE: Elam, Mary. Review of Babar's Museum of Art, by Laurent de Brunhoff. School Library Journal 49, no. 11 (November 2003): 91.
K-Gr. 3—With the help of an architect and friends, Babar and Celeste decide to establish a museum in the old Celesteville train station and donate their extensive art collection [in Babar's Museum of Art ]. Readers follow along as de Brunhoff's lighthearted offering touches on how such institutions might be created, how to behave in a museum, and art appreciation. Celeste's most valuable instructions for small children: "look, don't touch, and tell me what you see" precedes Babar's timely reminder, "there are no rules to tell us what art is." The Celesteville museum exhibits echo noted artworks from Rubens to Cézanne, Whistler to Pollock, as more than 30 major works (imitated with pachyderma subjects) fill the pages. Consider this an introduction to museums for the youngest readers, especially for Babar fans. Older students will find entertaining comparisons to classic art collections. For a closer pairing with masterworks, share Jacqueline Weitzman's You Can't Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum (Dial, 1998). A fine choice for all libraries.
Be Astengo (review date January 2006)
SOURCE: Astengo, Be. Review of Babar's World Tour, by Laurent de Brunhoff. School Library Journal 52, no. 1 (January 2006): 94, 96.
K-Gr. 3-Babar and Queen Celeste decide to embark on a world tour with the children [in Babar's World Tour ]. They head to the airport and board "Elephant One," equipped with a library and language CDs. The first stop is Italy, followed by Germany, Spain, and Russia, where they learn to say hello and a simple phrase in the host language. They move on to India, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, and across the Pacific to the Anasazi eaves of the American Southwest, Machu Picchu in Peru, then across the Atlantic to Egypt. Here the story begins to feel like one of those 14 countries in 14 days package deals and readers, along with Babar's children, will get jet lagged. But they cannot forego Paris or Antarctica so they make two more stops before flying home. In contrast to the wild and unpredictable adventures in Jean de Brunhoff's The Travels of Babar (Random, 2002), this is a tame journey, with the elephants traveling in style and with a well-organized itinerary. Unfortunately, the adventure is lacking, and readers are dizzied by the pace of travel and will forget the foreign phrases. The illustrations are charming, classic Babar. Devoted fans might enjoy the continuation of the king's story. Stick with the originals.
Hürlimann, Bettina. "Jean de Brunhoff and the Benevolent Monarchy of King Babar." In Three Centuries of Children's Books in Europe, translated and edited by Brian W. Alderson, pp. 195-200. Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing Company, 1968.
Offers a critical introduction to the "Babar" series and the various works of Jean and Laurent de Brunhoff.
Imholtz, Jr., August A. "Sanskrit Verses in a Babar Book." Children's Literature in Education 12, no. 4 (December 1981): 207-08.
Suggests that certain Sanskrit texts may function as source material for a song from Babar the King.
Leach, Edmund. "Babar's Civilization Analysed." In Only Connect: Readings on Children's Literature, Second Edition, edited by Sheila Egoff, G. T. Stubbs, and L. F. Ashley, pp. 176-82. Toronto, Canada: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Examines the tiers of social classes that exist among the animal species within Babar's literary universe.
Pierpoint, Katherine. "Laurent de Brunhoff: King of the Elephants." Teaching PreK-8 35, no. 4 (January 2005): 48-50.
Presents an overview of Laurent de Brunhoff's life and career, emphasizing his loyalty to his father's creation, Babar.
Additional coverage of the de Brunhoffs' lives and careers is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Children's Literature Review, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76, 118, 137; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 45, 129; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Something about the Author, Vols. 24, 71, 150; Twayne's World Authors; and Writers for Children.