The Babar I remember from childhood was a jolly elephant who goes on adventures. Somehow that’s all I took with me into adulthood from early readings of The Story of Babar by Jean de Brunhoff (and his wife Cécile, who first told their children the story at bedtime), a children’s classic that spurred an immensely successful series of books. But it’s comforting to have retained so little, because it means I’m unlikely to scar my children with the SUPREMELY FUCKED UP tale of violent parental loss, shopping, poison, and incest.
The Story of Babar begins with Babar as a baby elephant who loves his mother. His mother loves him. He is carefree and plays with the other elephants and gets elephant-back rides. Then you turn the page, and …
BLAMMO! Mama gets straight-up murdered before you’ve even settled into your chair. Bambi’s mom had a long and rich life by comparison. Credit the de Brunhoffs for tapping into one of the very few issues of 1931 that are relevant in 2018. Honestly, the entire list is probably: elephant poaching, fascism, and, like, the Yankees.
Not that I’m trying to shield my children from the reality of death, mind you. My daughter, age 3, relies on books to relate to the world around her, and this sledgehammer of a plot point provides an inconvenient but worthwhile impetus to talk about how everything that lives eventually dies, and that death is part of life. When we finish the book, she’ll often turn back to the page where Babar’s mother dies and absorb the scene, eyes darting over the details with concern.
Her: Why is he crying?
Me: Because he’s sad.
Why is he sad?
Because his mother died.
Why did she die?
Because the hunter killed her.
Why did he kill her?
Well, some hunters kill animals for food. But the hunters that kill elephants think that they’re trophies.
But they’re not.
No, I don’t think so.
Do I LIKE having that conversation with my daughter? I do not. I just want to tickle her and sing songs from Moana while the world around us burns. But our dog is gonna die. Grandma and Grandpa are gonna die, and Mom and Dad too, eventually. I’d rather my kids have a familiarity with death—intellectually, at least, if not emotionally—when it inevitably makes its introduction to our family.
Besides, Jean de Brunhoff was in World War I and died of tuberculosis at age 37. I’m willing to cut the guy some slack on the subject of premature death.
ANYWAY, Babar flees the hunter and runs for days until he gets to a city. You’re thinking: He must be hungry, and terrified of this bustling new world he’s seeing for the first time, and still emotionally distraught over the death of his mother. Nope! He sees some fancy men and wants to get some nice clothes for himself.
A rich old lady, who is named Old Lady because women didn’t have names in the 1930s, sees Babar and “understands right away that he is longing for a fine suit,” so she gives Babar her purse.
Look, it’s a children’s book. I’ve suspended disbelief. I’m all in on this talking elephant child. But why is the Old Lady just handing over her purse to an elephant she doesn’t know? Even if her “elephant wanting clothes” sixth sense is correct, he’s new here! He doesn’t know where to shop! Go with him to the store! You’re an old rich lady, it’s not like you’re busy. Accompany him to the tailor, buy him some clothes, and then you can go home without having to buy a new pocketbook. Christ.
So Babar goes shopping by himself at a big store.
After riding the elevator several times, he buys a smart suit and gets his photo taken. Then, because Babar enjoys free shit and is morally flexible, he moves in with the Old Lady.
I’m not usually one for subtext, but I’m getting some extremely zoophilic vibes from a certain wealthy female benefactor who shall remain nameless. That’s right, Babar, I bet you need that bath. Dirty little elephant.
The Old Lady gives Babar her car to drive around in and bankrolls his education, which makes him a hit at the Old Lady’s bourgeois parties. Unfortunately for the Old-bar ‘shippers out there, Babar is joined in the city by his two young cousins, Arthur and Celeste, who have run away from the forest and remind him of the life he left behind. (Even though Arthur and Celeste are clearly much younger than Babar, he remembers them from when he was a baby elephant in the forest, and they instantly recognize him even though he is grown and wearing clothes. Sure. Why not? What’s an editor?)
But first: CLOTHES. Gotta get some clothes on those elephants.
This desire to clothe elephants is a good reminder that there are entire libraries of liberal Babar criticism that object to its geopolitical undertones. Adam Gopnick summarized the case against de Brunhoff’s work in a 2008 article for the New Yorker:
Babar, such interpreters have insisted, is an allegory of French colonization, as seen by the complacent colonizers: the naked African natives, represented by the “good” elephants, are brought to the imperial capital, acculturated, and then sent back to their homeland on a civilizing mission. The elephants that have assimilated to the ways of the metropolis dominate those which have not. The true condition of the animals—to be naked, on all fours, in the jungle—is made shameful to them, while to become an imitation human, dressed and upright, is to be given the right to rule.
And, like, yeah, but I think my 3-year-old daughter just wants to eat the pastries that the elephants are eating. If she starts using Elsa to conquer the trolls from Frozen and mine their land for resources, though, I promise to intervene. NO MORE IMPERIALIST LITERATURE FOR YOU, YOUNG LADY.
Arthur’s and Celeste’s mothers come to the city to retrieve their children, and Babar decides to go back with them. He drives his cousins in the Old Lady’s car, while the adult elephants are left to run behind them, raising their trunks to lessen the effect of eating Babar’s dust.
Meanwhile, back in the forest, a job opens up for Babar.
Intentionally or not, de Brunhoff reveals the real truth of monarchy here: Royals are useless idiots who can’t be left alone for 10 minutes without inadvertently ingesting something deadly.
So you see where this is going: Babar is going to become the new king. Except you don’t see where this is going, because Babar wants to marry his cousin. WHAT?!?
Let’s be clear about what happened on the trip from the city back to the forest: Babar put the moves on his younger cousin while her brother sat in the car with them AND while Celeste’s mother ran behind the car. The audacity of his perversion is terrifying. Babar is a sex criminal.
Granted, he also witnessed his mother’s murder, fled for his life, and shopped for clothes in lieu of grieving. He found a new maternal figure who lavished him with gifts, then left her before she could die as well. Babar has issues, man. He needs years of therapy. Instead, he gets a crown.
Babar once again demands fine new clothes, this time for his wedding. The whole forest comes to the celebration, and everyone dances late into the night. Babar and his cousin leave for their honeymoon in a hot air balloon.
Celeste never says a word.
Matt Ufford is a freelance writer and video host. Hire him and/or follow him on Twitter.