Tag Archives: Robert Lawson

Hating Ferdinand

What did Spanish fascist leader General Franco and American tough-guy writer Ernest Hemingway have in common? Loving bullfights and hating Ferdinand.

More than eighty years ago a gentle story for children, still popular today, first appeared. Soon afterwards Franco imposed a ban on it. Why? The year of its publication was also the year when the Spanish Civil War erupted, and this whimsical little book could be interpreted as satirising the belligerent attitudes of those in authority. It features a bull with a peaceful temperament.

The Story of Ferdinand (1936), written by Munro Leaf, wonderfully illustrated by Robert Lawson and long acknowledged as a classic of children’s literature, continues to be widely read and frequently reissued. It also goes on attracting film-makers: a new animated Ferdinand movie is due for release tomorrow, but having watched a brief trailer I don’t think this latest screen version will measure up to the one that Walt Disney produced in 1938, let alone to the quality of the original publication. Yesterday I saw a reprint edition in the window of my local bookshop, and it triggered a few thoughts.

You probably know the story, and remember its opening sentences:

Once upon a time in Spain there was a little bull and his name was Ferdinand. All the other little bulls he lived with would run and jump and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand. He liked to sit just quietly and smell the flowers.

This quiet peace-loving bull infuriated Ernest Hemingway. In reaction to it, he wrote a story called The Faithful Bull (1951), which begins like this:

One time there was a bull and his name was not Ferdinand and he cared nothing for flowers. He loved to fight and he fought with all the other bulls of his own age, or any age, and he was a champion.

It’s immediately obvious – if and only if we know Munro Leaf’s prior text – that Hemingway is attempting from the outset to transform the genre of sentimental, anthropomorphic fables into something more tough-minded. We can already anticipate that this tale of The Faithful Bull will turn out in a similarly unsentimental way. Here is what a Year 11 student wrote about it for an assignment on children’s books – an eloquent passage, which I’ve previously quoted elsewhere:

A strong focus for any reader’s expectations about any story is the way it ends. When we are still quite young we develop set ideas about how stories should work, and this depends a lot on how they conclude. The ‘happy ever after’ convention is almost invariable in books for young readers because writers feel that their readers need reassurance that things will turn out well… The Story of Ferdinand is basically the same in this respect. He goes ‘home’ at the end and is ‘sitting there still’ very contentedly, having survived the dangers of the bullring just by being himself. Conversely, The Faithful Bull overturns our expectations of a happy outcome in a way that would be shocking to a young reader. In fact, just as right from the first sentence it is an anti-Ferdinand book, so its breaking of the conventional ending makes it an anti-children’s book. This matter of expectations and conventions is therefore closely linked with the matter of audience.

Parody depends entirely on a reader’s memory of what is being parodied. If we cannot recognise it, cannot ‘hear’ the remembered language of a prior text, the parodic effect is lost. This point has implications for something I’ve discussed in an earlier blog post: the need for teachers and parents to encourage learning by heart.

Franco and Hemingway had their reasons for hating Ferdinand. Many young readers have responded in the opposite way: absolutely loving Ferdinand. I won’t ever forget an experience I had a long time ago as relief teacher of an infant class, where I encountered in its purest form a reader’s emotional identification with a fictional character. With all the expressiveness at my command, I read The Story of Ferdinand aloud to my wide-eyed young pupils, and when I closed the book there was a chorus of sighs around the room. Then they turned quietly to some little task I’d set – except for one small shy six-year-old, who sidled up to my desk and whispered confidentially, ‘When I grow up I’m going to be a bull.’