Babar: An Enduring Classic or Controversial Elephant?
The Babar books have been enjoyed by children and adult readers alike for more than 80 years. 2011 marked the 80th anniversary of the creation of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff. The Story of Babar was the first in the series (published in 1931) and the idea came from Cecile the (pianist) wife of de Brunhoff who told the story to her children at bedtime. Jean de Brunhoff wrote and illustrated six more titles before his untimely death at the age of 37 in 1937. His son Laurent de Brunhoff has carried on writing and illustrating the Babar stories to present day.
The Babar adventures are mainly anthropomorphic stories; elephants who behave like humans. However Babar originates from the natural animal environment of the jungle but makes the transition to a city life after his mother is shot by a hunter. In the metropolis, Babar find shops, cars, big buildings and all the commodities and paraphernalia that a big city can offer. This is different from other classic children's books where we see either animals behaving like humans in their own natural environment (e.g. Winnie de Pooh) or all dressed up and acting like humans right from the start (e.g. The Wind in the Willows).
Babar is essentially very French and the epitome of French culture. Nevertheless, so much has been said and written about the Babar books and not always in their favour. They have been criticised for portraying an imperialistic, colonialist, racist and sexiest view of the world. Furthermore, it has been suggested that Babar embraced the upper classes, infuriating some critics accusing Babar of being too elitist.
The world of the 1930s was a very different one to that of today; the perception of society through politics, the media and literature would have reflected this so it is important to remember when criticising the Babar books that they need to be placed within a historical context.
More recently, in an article published in the Daily Express (25.04.2012) under the title: Shelved. Children's 'Offensive' Favourites, Babar is one of the books from a group of children's classic to come under attack and one of a series of books listed to be removed from libraries' shelves: 'One title said to have caused particular criticism was Babar's Travels, a 1930s publication by French author Jean de Brunhoff. In it, a cartoon elephant flies off in a hot-air balloon and encounters some 'savage cannibals', a description which led to allegations of racially stereotyping black Africans. The book was subsequently removed from a library in East Sussex'.
In my view, it seems unfair and unnecessary to expose these stories to such rigorous scrutiny and criticism. What needs to be recognised is that, beside all this condemnation from a very selective group, the stories have stood the test of time and are just as popular today as they were years ago. Contemporary readers, particularly children, appreciate the stories for what they are, without judging any hidden or controversial ideological message in them.
With particular reference to Babar's Travels children often don't make the connection between the fictional tribe and any real people; it is the adult perception that is the problem. Children are often quite capable of interpreting the story for themselves and know that characters are purely fictional in a fictional story.
Even though Babar and Celeste enjoy all the luxury of this world they are often reminded that, in essence, they are not humans but just animals. For example, when the captain of the ship in Babar's Travels, gives them away to an animal circus tamer, he sees them as elephants and nothing else. Although later on, what really saved the couple is their royalty and class status. Quickly the readers are prompted by the fact that Babar and Celeste are not just ordinary elephants but King and Queen and as such deserve better treatment. This can be interpreted as elitist by pedantic critics, but we forget that this is a children's book and Kings and Queens are a very popular subject in juvenile literature and as such have been featured in countless tales and loved by nearly everyone in both traditional and contemporary stories.
On the other hand, values in the Babar books have universal appeal and they are not necessarily associated with a particular class. Babar's offspring misbehave like any other children. In Babar at Home, we can appreciate the good and sensitive nature of Babar. We witness him caring for his pregnant wife, getting excited at the news of being a father for the first time and to triplets! Later on we see him playing in the nursery with Pom, Flora and Alexander. These are surely all emotions and behaviour that is not defined by a particular social class system.
The world continuously evolves and changes and in this respect Laurent de Brunhoff has maintained a more contemporary outlook in terms of both artwork and narrative content of the Babar stories in order to satisfy the taste and demand of contemporary readers. Some of these books, besides entertaining the audience with original stories, also have educational purposes. Recently there has been a Babar counting book and a colouring book, both of which are to be found on the Outside In World website.
The Babar stories have been translated into many languages and enjoyed the transition from the printed page to television and the spoken word. Such is the popularity of these books, that a huge amount of merchandise is produced globally to satisfy public demand.
Babar has endured well beyond any ideology or prejudice; the good qualities of the characters featured in the Babar books override the negativity that has been associated with them. Babar is now part of our culture and as such we should appreciate and value him. It is now time to stop attacking Babar!
Edgardo Zaghini, 2012
Outside In World