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Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Beatrix Potter Crime Scene

A Wig & Pen Parental Advisory: Use discretion when reading Beatrix Potter to your children. In almost every Potter tale, her main characters—everyone from Peter Rabbit to Jemima Puddle Duck—flirt with mortal danger. Big whoop, you protest; classic Fairy Tales derive much of their energy and their charm from ill-intentioned miscreants like ogres and witches; giants and goblins.

Still, the marketing of Peter Rabbit and other Potter quadripeds with bipedal aspirations revs the engine of deception: The branding of Peter, Jemima, Ginger, Pickles, and the rest of the gang exudes preciousness that can blind you to Potter’s substantial dark side. You’ll find Potter’s cutesy characters on bibs and bedding, tea sets and toys, even on a line of organic fruit snacks. The cuteness drip will disarm you—you’ll scurry to read her tales to your future grade schooler.

 Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but every distribution of tailed-animal tales has, statistically speaking, tails of its own. Therein lies the danger zone. And in Potter’s body of work, no story lives more dangerously than The Tale of Mr. Tod.

The Tale of Mr. Tod. Potter kicks off the story with the following warning label:

I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and  Mr. Tod.

Both are nifty role models for your children: Mr. Todd (a fox) and Tommy Brock (a badger) combine tooth, claw, and guile to abduct and eat smaller animals in Potter’s magic kingdom. Mr. Todd has half a dozen houses. When he’s in one house, Tommy Brock uses one of the vacant ones as a combination abattoir-diner’s club.

The story begins when Tommy pays a social visit to Mr. Benjamin Bouncer, who is minding the infant brood of his son, Benjamin Bunny. After much conviviality and exposure to cabbage leaf cigar smoke (we all know that cabbage leaves are soporific), Benjamin Bouncer nods off and the badger absconds with the babies in a sack. When Benjamin Bunny and his better half, Flopsy, return to discover the appalling news, Benjamin sets out in a panic to save his infants. On the trail, he teams up with his brother, Peter Rabbit. Eventually, they track down the badger, who is holed up in one of Mr. Todd’s vacant houses, on a hilltop.

The Silence of the Lambs has nothing on Potter’s description of the house and yard:

The house was something between a cave, a prison, and a tumbledown pigsty. There was a strong door, which was shut and locked. [In the yard] there were many unpleasant things lying about that had much better have been buried: rabbit bones and skulls, and chickens’ legs and other horrors. It was a shocking place and very dark.
 Peeking through a window, Benjamin and Peter discovered that Tommy Brock had retired for the night after stashing the brood—still alive and kicking--in an oven for safekeeping and for his next meal. Potter’s description of the kitchen is mouthwatering:

But there were preparations upon the kitchen table which made him [Benjamin] shudder. There was an immense empty pie dish of blue willow pattern, and a large carving knife and fork, and a chopper.

To the reader’s great good fortune, the story ends happily, comically. Mr. Tod discovers Tommy Brock in his house and his bed; the two combatants roll down the hill in a whirl of flying fur; and Benjamin and Peter get away with the next generation in tow.

After reading The Tale of Mr. Tod, Graham Greene speculated that Potter was suffering from some sort of emotional disturbance when writing the tale. Not so, she retorted, it was mererly the after-effects of the flu.

In the Confessional and Beyond. As long as the Man don’t catch you, confession is good for the soul. When my son was five or six, I marched through Beatrix Potter: The Complete Book of Tales from beginning to end. When I got to Mr. Tod, I knew that I was immersing my son in the ruckus, but I was too enthralled to skip to the next tale or even to bowdlerize. Since then (13 years ago), I’ve kept sharp objects and duct tape out of reach. And I’m happy to note that the father-son bonding that began with Beatrix Potter and her serial killers is alive and well. We don’t read Beatrix or, for that matter, Harry, these days, but more than a few years ago our transition to the CSI family of TV shows was seamless.

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sitting still said...

I had a big problem with the story "Boney Legs." My son Joseph told me recently that he would have nightmares about the witch character. She would wait on the edge of the woods for children and would entice them into her house where she would eat them. He told me that I was the witch in his dreams and he worried that I would one day eat him. I'm glad he finally got the courage to tell me. I hope I don't do the same to my grandchildren.
Readers to children beware!

Ray said...

Lou, this was another brilliant piece. Pam and I used to notice the edge in those stories, but you really hit the nail on the head.

Daniel Lieberman said...

Beatrix Potter had a countrywoman's and naturalist's feeling for the casual cruelty of life. Definitely needs to be softened for our sensibilities.

amanda judd said...

Watching CSI is scary. My daughter was into that for a bit, she watched with her friends not much at home. Though once I caught a glimpse of some glass coffin and some guy buried alive. YUCK.

I'm glad my readings of Potter have not steered ME in that direction.

Wig & Pen said...


If my blog posting keeps you from inadvertently stumbling into harm's way, I willone day retire to beekeeping in Sussex with a clearer conscience.


Anonymous said...

Am I right that "tod" is the German word for death?
Ranger Hank