The Deep Dark Wood: Overthinking ‘The Gruffalo’

Despite being Italian, my family has always, thanks to one Tanta Johanna, celebrated the day of Saint Nicolas on the 6th of December as done in Germany. When I was young, this was the day that advent calendars, Christmas decorations and chocolate were delivered, a kind of pre-Christmas warmup for the big day itself.

This is a tradition I am maintaining now that I have children of my own, but they are so young that I didn’t want edible treats to be the focus. Instead, I bought them a new book each and, while my seven-month old has been slapping her way through ‘That’s Not My Fox’, for my nearly three-year-old son, I bought a copy of Julia Donaldson’s ‘The Gruffalo’.

I don’t think there can be many people in the UK who haven’t heard of the Gruffalo but, I confess, I had never read the story and knew nothing about it. So it was with real interest that I sat with my children to listen to my husband reading it for the first time. And, as a literature student, there were a number of things about it that really struck me.

The story follows a mouse through a wood, where he encounters three animals – a fox, an owl and a snake. In western folklore and fairytale, each of these creatures has traditional significances: in its size and demeanour, the mouse represents a kind of innocence and weakness which also, in the story, allows it to become a kind of Everyman. Young readers identify with a creature that is little and might encounter danger, which this mouse does.

Mouse’s foes here are traditional figures of the cunning and ruthless (embodied by fox), the otherworldly (in the owl, long an emblem of omen as well as wisdom) and the duplicitous (in the snake). Indeed, the ‘deep, dark wood’ itself has Dantean resonance, recalling the poet’s wandering in despair, and migh also, if we put on the hat of Freudian theory, be emblematic of the dark world of the subconscious and unconscious. In which case, could fox, owl and snake be allegorical symbols for sins or unspoken desires?

You might think this is getting a bit heavy, but don’t worry; Donaldson’s remedy to what could actually be quite frightening is inventive rhyming that skilfully mixes the key ingredients of balladic, oral, tradition – repetition, a strong rhyme scheme, alliteration, especially in emphatic positions, such as ‘scrambled snake’ – with vocabulary that undercuts frightening elements by contrasting the fairytale set up with quotidian elements like ‘ice cream’. These tangible, everyday items, named by the mouse, help a child feel like the protagonist is safe and in control, and make any threat in the story manageable.

Mouse himself showcases a very western virtue; in the same vein as Homer’s wily Odysseus, Mouse averts becoming dinner for any of the larger, threatening creatures through use of his wit. Readers delight in this, and the wit is compounded by Donaldson’s verse, which always gives the metrical and linguistic punchlines to Mouse, while the villains are contained by repetition. Mouse frightens the creatures away with talk of a Gruffalo, which he knows does not exist.

Except, of course, that it does – exactly as he has described it. So Mouse uses his wit again, explaining to the hungry Gruffalo that as he (Mouse) is the most frightening thing in the forest (as evidenced when fox, snake and owl flee from him), Gruffalo should leave him alone. Gruffalo duly does so, leaving mouse to enjoy his nut in peace.

As well as the oral elements that I mentioned earlier, Donaldson employs a triadic structure in the three encounters, conforming to rhetorical and narrative traditions, and frames the poem in a kind of ‘there and back’ frame, which not only heightens predictability and enjoyability for children but also allows for a strong resolution when Mouse escapes the cycle and gets his reward. Indeed, the final page uses a fraction of the lines used in every other verse, giving us a powerful sense of Mouse’s victory.

Overthinking it? Totally. But there is no reason why children’s literature should not be analysed in as much detail as any other. Good storytelling, after all, begins in the nursery; it is there that our imaginations are awakened.

‘The Gruffalo’ is just such storytelling: it allows little ones to approach some genuinely frightening ideas in a controlled situation, making it safe enough to explore intellectually, and thus perhaps better arming them for some of the trials of real life. Very Bettelheim. At the same time, Donaldson’s verse is skilfully wrought to introduce some of the most cherished tools in a literary workbench. And, of course, ‘The Gruffalo’ is gorgeously illustrated, too.

Hats off to Donaldson and Scheffler; this story genuinely deserves its accolades!

Like my writing? Check out my sister site www.annathayer.wordpress.com to learn about my award-winning fantasy trilogy, ‘The Knight of Eldaran‘, and my work on Tolkien and Lewis. Yes, you got me: I’m a geek.

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