Snazzy suits and colonialism: Understanding Babar the Elephant

PUBLISHED: 09:31 01 March 2017 | UPDATED: 09:31 01 March 2017

Babar the Elephant | The New European

Babar the Elephant | The New European

Archant

The world’s most famous Frenchman, a racist hangover of colonialism, the anti-Peter Pan, or simply a very dapper, fun-loving elephant?

Babar’s Guide to Paris, out this month, takes an amiable stroll through the main sites and little cafes of the great city for the benefit of our hero’s youngest daughter, visiting it for the first time.

This is the 45th picture book featuring the talking elephant once described by a former French Cultural Minister as the most famous Frenchman in the world and by an approving General de Gaulle as providing “a certain idea of France”.

The artwork by Laurent de Brunhoff in style and subject matter follows closely in the footsteps of his father Jean, who died in 1937, aged only 37.

The text for the six titles he illustrated before his death were supplied by his wife Cécile, who refused to take any credit for tales originally told to her three children at bed-time. Today, Laurent’s second wife Phyllis Rose also provides the stories for her husband’s delicate water colour illustrations, whose characters are as always securely enclosed within black ink outlines.

Ever since Babar left his jungle home for city life and donned human clothes he has remained a favourite with children. His pleasures are multiple, including going up and down on his first trip in a lift so often that he has to be warned by a shop employee that this is not a toy. Later on he marries fellow elephant Celeste and returns to rule his country as its new and benevolent king.

What could be more charming and innocent than these serene stories, with their idealised settings either in town, or in a remote country in Africa? Well, depending on who you ask, plenty. The Chilean Marxist sociologist Ariel Dorfman, for instance, had quite a different view.

His much-quoted book, The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds accuses the whole Babar oeuvre as acting as an apologia for French colonialism.

In this scenario, Babar is first softened up in Western ways while abroad and then sent back home in order to take control as chief consul for the French imperial powers who could then operate through him via indirect rule. The animals that resist this process are roundly defeated. Babar henceforth comes over as a superior being securely assimilated to French urban values while spurning the essentially playful and generally unworldly nature of his original culture.

Laurent, still going strong aged 91 and a long-time resident in New York, now has some sympathy with this criticism. When his father’s The Travels of Babar was re-issued in 1991 he edited out the original bug-eyed, fat-lipped “ferocious cannibals” enountered by Babar and Celeste after they crash-land their balloon on an island.

He also subsequently withdrew his own second book, Babar’s Picnic, feeling that his 1949 illustrations of spear-carrying black natives, based on his father’s drawings, also came over as uncomfortably racist.

Other critics of Babar meanwhile have taken offence at the sexism they insist is in his stories and also their unthinking worship of money and all it can buy.

But there is also a more benign interpretation of these stories on hand. This focuses on the psychological significance of Babar’s perceived journey from childhood to maturity.

Children know that they have to grow up, and generally look forward to the process. But for most of them this will also mean increasing separation 
from home comforts and parental support. This separation is forced on Babar early on when his mother is shot dead by “a cruel hunter” on the fourth page of his first adventure.

Running away to town he soon finds compensation in the form of a rich old lady who provides him with money to buy a snazzy new green suit, spats, bowler hat and a red sports car. All that remains for Babar to explore are his new powers of sexual fulfilment, duly met, we assume, by the charming Celeste after they set out for their honeymoon “in a glorious yellow balloon”.

Babar is in this sense the exact opposite of J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan. While Peter wants always to stay young, Babar relishes adulthood with its new freedoms and opportunities.

So while young readers may be picking up some false notes based on past colonialist ideas, particularly from earlier editions, they are also provided with a refreshingly positive picture about growing up. Babar’s penchant for style and his enthusiasm for the pleasures of everyday living remain as cheerfully contagious as ever. With so much lightness and gaiety on offer, one product perhaps of the extremely happy domestic life enjoyed by the de Brunhoff family before Jean’s tragically early death, it is small wonder that Babar’s adventures still prove so popular.

Nicholas Tucker taught Children’s Literature at the University of Sussex and is the author of The Rough Guide to Children’s Books

Support The New European's vital role as a voice for the 48%

The New European is proud of its journalism and we hope you are proud of it too. We believe our voice is important - both in representing the pro-EU perspective and also to help rebalance the right wing extremes of much of the UK national press. If you value what we are doing, you can help us by making a contribution to the cost of our journalism.

  • Become a Friend of The New European for a contribution of £48. You will qualify for a mention in our newspaper (should you wish).
  • Become a Patron of The New European for a contribution of £480. You or your company will be mentioned in the newspaper each week (should you wish) and you and a guest will be invited to join the editor at a special lunch in London this June to discuss the anniversary of Brexit.


Supporter Options



Latest articles

We will keep marching for the UK’s future in the EU

Why Saturday’s protest needs to be a display of unity for all our sakes

Just how reliant is our economy on workers born overseas?

It is not just construction, technology and retail that relies heavily on overseas workers. Brexit could impact industries across the economy.

Never has the truth about Brexit been more needed

George Osborne is not the only big newspaper appointment to make waves. Our editor-at-large Alastair Campbell explains why he’s joined The New European

Nicola Sturgeon on Scottish independence: If not now, when?

Theresa May is right that now is not the time for a referendum on Scottish independence. But if she disagrees with our timeframe, she must set out her own alternative

London attacks: how do you protect people from terrorism through urban design?

Westminster attack raises spectre of new ‘rings of steel’ to boost security in urban centres

Alastair Campbell joins The New European as editor-at-large

The New European has announced that Alastair Campbell is joining its editorial board as Editor-at-Large.

Bonnie Greer: With Brexit we have turned our back on the world – and our values

Not everyone who voted leave is a racist or a xenophobe but the campaign and its aftermath has attracted some dubious supporters

Brexit timeline: What happens next once Article 50 is triggered?

When Article 50 is triggered on March 29 there is a two-year deadline for Britain and the EU to complete the hugely complex negotiations

Downing Street tussles with Brussels over £50bn divorce bill as PM names date for Article 50

Article 50: The Government and Brussels have squared up after the PM signalled a date to trigger the formal process to quit the EU

Tory MP’s Hard Brexit warning

Tory MP issues a warning to party colleagues of the dangers of Hard Brexit, as he launches a new initiative to build bridges with Europe

Don’t send Ireland back to division

A family story of the close family bonds between Ireland and the UK, and what Brexit might mean for Ireland.

Dear Mr Gove, we appreciate how our values could be deeply irritating to you

For the avoidance of doubt, Michael, we hold you in contempt.

Indy Ref 2 is coming: the UK is no longer fit for purpose

Scottish nationalist Hardeep Singh Kohli is feeling confident about the prospect of independence for his beloved country

Jack Monroe on trolls, mental breakdown and that libel victory over Katie Hopkins

EXCLUSIVE: A libel victory over Katie Hopkins, a suicide attempt and the hope that we might all finally learn to be a little kinder to one another online

No green Brexit: why the implications look sinister for wildlife

The sinister implications of Brexit for wildlife have rather gone under the radar thus far. But it is likely that we will all see the impact soon enough

How spa culture is taking over Europe (and the 5 best places to join in)

There are few ways to relax that are more European than a trip to a spa. But there are also few things more fraught with potential embarrassment. Here, we provide a guide to the etiquette expected

Why we need a second Brexit vote: First law of politics is people can change their minds

People can, and regularly do, change their minds. The public should be given that option once the Brexit deal is done.

Higher education reforms and Brexit have become inextricably linked

The Brexit Bill is not the only one to have suffered a rough ride in the Lords in recent months.

Trending

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter