Monday, March 22, 2010

Fantastic PR, Fox

I don't think I'd ever read Fantastic Mr Fox, though I knew it backwards from an audio version released on tape in the early 1980s. It's another lively, exciting adventure full of simple yet vivid descriptions. Good manners and pluck help our heroes get revenge on the horrid villains.

The hero is Mr Fox, a cravat-wearing fop who calls people “Darling” and who might be related to Basil Brush. (The recent BBC Four documentary Sidekick Stories pointed out the gag of making a fox part of the landed (i.e. hunting) gentry.)

Mr Fox has been thieving his meals from the stores of three local farmers, Messrs Boggis, Bunce and Bean. The farmers take revenge by shooting off Mr Fox's tail then attacking his home with diggers. Mr Fox and his family dig for their lives, but the countryside is covered in the farmers' men, waiting to kill anything that moves. Soon the Foxes are starving. Until Mr Fox has a rather splendid idea...

The short book – 82 pages with a lot of illustrations – is largely a great long list of all the things Mr Fox then provides for his family to eat. That's especially evocative after all the stuff about them starving.
“The table was covered with chickens and ducks and geese and hams and bacon, and everyone was tucking into the lovely food.”

Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr Fox, p. 75.

There are also carrots for the Rabbits to eat. It might strike us as odd that Fox has invited Rabbits to the feast, and as guests rather than as main course. It's also odd that these wild animals are such fans of roast dinner. But there are a whole lot of things going on in the story which struck me as propaganda.

All the humans are horrible. All the humans we see carry weapons – guns and sticks and, in the case of Mr Bean's maid, Mabel, a rolling pin. When the farmers eat and drink the produce of their farms it is greasy, greedy, smelly and ick. When Mr Fox does the same, it is a lovely feast. The farmers are rude and disgusting. Mr Fox belching is such a good joke he does it again.

(The only good humans are the children in the first chapter who have a rhyme about the farmers being “horrible crooks”. Having dispensed this authoritative verdict, they are not seen again.)

Almost all the other animals love Mr Fox. They don't blame him for the trouble he's got them all in. Mrs Fox never blames him for risking their sons' lives. Badger and Rabbit don't point out that this argument is nothing to do with him.

The one animal who doesn't love Mr Fox is Rat, who is drunk on Mr Bean's cider. Badger remarks,
“All rats have bad manners. I've never met a polite rat.”

Ibid., p. 72.

Which is not what he says in the Wind in the Willows.

The animals on the menu are not given voices. The chickens do not have characters. Mr Fox is also careful about killing them – selectively, quickly, humanely. That's really not what foxes do (as my mum, who keeps chickens, has to lament all too often).

Mr Fox not only endangers his children, he also encourages them to drink cider.
“You must understand this was not the ordinary weak fizzy cider one buys in a store. It was the real stuff, a home-brewed fiery liquor that burned in your throat and boiled in your stomach.

'Ah-h-h-h-h-h-!' gasped the Smallest Fox. 'This is some cider!'”

Ibid., p. 64.

For all Mr Fox is a daring rebel, the depiction of women is a little old skool. Mrs Fox is left behind to cook dinner while her husband and son have adventures. Mrs Badger is likewise too weak to do anything but turn up at the end. Mrs Bean and her maid Mabel stay at home while the farmers are out hunting, their only job to provide supplies.

And there's an odd attempt to square the circle in chapter 14, “Badger Has Doubts”. He's a more sensible, reasonable fellow than the hot-headed Fox, and tries to articulate his disquiet about what they're up to.
“Suddenly Badger said, 'Doesn't this worry you just a tiny bit, Foxy?'

'Worry me?' said Mr Fox. 'What?'

'All this... this stealing.'

Mr Fox stopped digging and stared at Badger as though he had gone completely dotty. 'My dear old furry frump,' he said, 'do you know anyone in the whole world who wouldn't swipe a few chickens if his children were starving to death?'”

Ibid., p. 58.

Fox goes on to argue that, unlike the humans, the animals are not planning to kill their foes, merely to take food they won't even miss. But it's Mr Fox's stealing that has started this whole mess. His actions have endangered his own family and also his friends and his neighbours. There's no suggestion of their anger at him, let alone their considering handing him over to the farmers.

His brilliant wheeze of building a community underground, with shops and schools, is a cause for celebration. But it struck me that the animals are condemned to spend the rest of their lives in a bunker. And surely the farmers won't wait for ever...

A fun and richly told adventure, but I can't help wondering what happened next and feeling we were only told half of the story. I know it's a kids' book but I'd argue that makes worrying about this stuff all the more important.


Brackers said...

I suspect I had the very same audio tape. All those tales of cider drinking obviously had a profound effect on me during my formative years...

Piers said...

I want a glass of cider, now.