The Children's Book Garden

Reading and weeding through the best and worst of children's literature

The Happy Lion & Other French Colonial Fantasies November 25, 2009

the happy lion book coverThe Happy Lion reads so obviously as an allegory of cultural and species dominance, it’s hard to believe it’s really meant to be solely a children’s book. Written in 1954 by Louise Fatio, the story features a lion whose home

… was not the hot and dangerous plains of Africa

where hunters lie in wait with their guns,

it was a lovely French town with brown tile roofs and gray shutters.

The happy lion had a house in the town zoo, all for himself,

with a large rock garden surrounded by a moat…

So right away the opposing virtues of the “dangerous” plains – read, wild, uncivilized – Africa vs. the “lovely” French town – read civilized, under control – are established. The lion has been removed from his home, out of the nature, into society, and he may be alone and enclosed, but he is safe, which is to be prized over freedom, over one’s own nature.

And while the lion remains corralled, the people who visit him from a safe distance are friendly, and he thinks of them as friends – which is why he is so shocked and dismayed when, after his keeper leaves the latch undone and the lion goes to visit his “friends” in their houses (read zoo), they faint and run from him in terror.

“I supposed,” he said, “this must be the way people behave when they are not at the zoo.”

Of course, the lion does not realize that people consider him dangerous. He doesn’t understand that the fire engine that shows up is meant for him; just in time, a little boy comes and kindly walks the lion back to his cage, which he never desires to leave again. His ignorance of how he is perceived by his “friends” – as a predator, a threat – speaks of something beyond the consciousness of a lion.

In contrast to the adults in the story, when the lion first leaves his enclosure, he is greeted by other animals, squirrels and birds, who take no notice that he is “loose,” but greet him with a familiar friendliness.

The story shows how the dichotomies of nature vs. society, animal vs. human, wildness vs. civilization, freedom vs. control – and Western/white culture vs. African/black culture – not only determine how the adults interact, but completely structure the lion’s thinking as well. He never longs to roam free; he is happy to be walled in; he is happy with politeness and civility. That he so innocently does not understand that he is trapped by society not only makes his enjoyment of his domination poignant, but mirrors the plight of the humans in the story, too. The houses and walls and structures of control are so easily dismissed, by an unlocked latch – and then their ability to behave politely, to treat the lion with their usual regard and civility, goes right out the window. It’s the adults who act out of terror, who scream wildly, who seem lost without the lion’s barriers in place – society’s controlling mechanisms are somewhat flimsy, easily dismantled, and the effect is, to me, truly chilling.

I have no idea if Fatio intended her little story to be quite so pointed in its message about the weaknesses implicit in humanity’s attempts to subjugate the wild forces of nature, both within and without ourselves. It’s hard to imagine, though, that any writing in the 1950s and 60s that includes the landscapes of France and Africa – and we have to mention the Babar series, here, as well – can be read without the context of the historical colonial situations taking place in those decades. The French hold on countries like Algeria started to collapse – in 1954, the same year as the publication of The Happy Lion. Interesting coincidence, no?

BabarThe European imagination that underscored its attempts to “civilize” so many parts of Africa plays out in the Babar books even more explicitly. The elephants start wearing human clothing and using human weapons to war with other animals; they adopt human systems of organization in the form of royal hierarchies, and this is AFTER a human hunter kills Babar’s mother while hunting – right in front of him.

As one blogger writes in the British Times Online,

The Story of Babar and Babar the King are, as several critics have already pointed out, potentially dangerous and racist tracts. Cute as he may appear, Babar is worse than an unwitting and unreconstructed colonialist: his blacks are all silly “savages”, targets of ridicule with no positive valuation at all; and his apparently utopian foundation of Celesteville is riven by class and gender discrimination, not to mention bearing a passing resemblance to Leopold’s Leopoldville.

Both Babar and the Happy Lion come to accept and value being dominated for the sake of safety and being civilized, despite the trauma inflicted upon them by their oppressors – a common white fantasy about the slaves/peoples they have oppressed.

Curious George imageAnd then there’s Curious George (who first appeared in 1941). The creepily nameless Man with the Yellow Hat captures the monkey and treats him like crap – in Curious George Gets a Job, the Man seems to have abandoned George at some point, and only comes to get him so that he can exploit him for a movie deal. The parallels between George and the audience for which his character has been written – curious toddlers and preschoolers – underline the message of the natural/wild/animal instincts within the child that must be tamed, mastered, battened down so that the child can become an accepted member of society.

I’m not the first person to ever have some questions about the underlying messages of these books. In fact, as I’ve poked around the internet, many commentators make fun of this kind of analysis:

Earnest literary types have interpreted the first book as a barely disguised slave narrative. Have you considered that the man’s weird outfit could be a send-up of a colonial officer’s uniform? Or that George is brown and lacks a tail? (Lots of monkeys are brown and most species have visible tails.) Or that he is abducted against his will from Africa and brought across the sea to a foreign land where he engages in high jinks when the master is away?

This interpretation–surely the subject of many half-baked teacher-college lectures--was not on the mind of the Reys as they fled from the Nazis. Perhaps it is helpful to remember something that Margret once said of her books: “I don’t like messages. . . . These are just stories.

To which I say: Of course, they are “just stories.” All stories are “just” stories. At the same time, all stories use the material of the universe out of which they are created, and if we ignore that universe, we aren’t reading the whole story.

I don’t believe in banning books. In fact, I’m imagining that these stories will afford me the opportunity to ask some pretty hefty questions of my children as they get older, as well as to start some family research projects about the worlds that these stories describe. Where do these lions, elephants, and monkeys come from? Why do they want to live “here” and not in their homelands?

Am I worried that reading these stories to my children now will imprint them with colonial fantasies? That their ideologies of civilization – and their place within it –  will be structured by a value system that girds hegemonic practices?

Yes and no. As I read these books, I become more and more convinced that they aren’t stable narratives – meaning, the subtexts woven in these stories destablilize the seeming ‘message.’ Is the Happy Lion really happy – and could he be happy if he were free? Is the lion free? Is Babar really happy? George? I’m not so sure. And I think teaching my children, even at young ages, to sense those cracks in the wall of a story is more valuable than only providing them with a politically correct version of reality. Teaching them to read critically is key to teaching them to be individuals in a society that pumps out a lot of politically and culturally skewed messages.

And I want them, metaphorically speaking, to be like the kid who doesn’t flip out when the lion has left his moated cage. I want them to face the lions roaming on the street with the kind of kindness and civility that bounds across social and cultural divisions, that isn’t afraid of nature – and that isn’t afraid of themselves.


One Response to “The Happy Lion & Other French Colonial Fantasies”

  1. […] views of colonialism are Babar and Curious George.  Of course, I’m hardly the first person to write about these two, but it’s generally done to impress upon the reader how embedded in our psyche Western colonial […]

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