Before Viral Animal Videos: Andrew Lang’s Animal Story Book (1896)

Any old family vacation house by the sea should have a neglected cache of old books somewhere and I discovered one in the  second story bedroom, where  I picked out The Animal Story Book edited by Andrew Lang because it looks exactly like one of his Colour Fairy Books.  H. J. Ford, the main illustrator of the set, decorated this volume as well.  His design of a huge lion roaring at the moon on the dark blue binding is still imposing even though the cloth is shabby and the gilt faded.

Lang’s avuncular introduction has not aged very well: “We now present you (in return for a coin or two) a book about the friends of children and of fairies—the beasts. The stories are all true, more or less, but it is possible that Monsieur Dumas and Monsieur Theophile Gautier rather improved upon their tales….There ought to be a moral; if so, it probably is that we should be kind to all sorts of animals, and, above all, knock trout on the head when they are caught, and don’t let the poor things jump about till they die.”  The portrayal of Indigenous peoples, South Asians, and Blacks in word and image leave something to be desired by today’s standards.  But at least Lang graciously credits contributions by others, including his indefatigable wife Leonora, who provided “all the rest.”

There were fewer selections about animals famous in Classical literature like Alexander the Great’s horse Bucephalus or Androcles’ lion  than I was expecting.  Travelers’ tall tales about blasting off the heads of gigantic pythons or the predations of blood-thirsty packs of wolves are carefully balanced by ones about animal loyalty and sagacity.  One about a friendship between man and beast, another about an unlikely bond between species, and a third about a perfidious bird and obedient dog are worth sharing.

Here is a delightful anecdote about Sadi, the Indian elephant in  the 6th Duke of Devonshire’s menagerie of exotic animals:

 This lucky captive had a roomy house of its own built expressly for it in the park, a field to walk about in, and a keeper to look after it, and to do a little light gardening besides.  This man treated the elephant (a female) with great kindness, and they soon became the best of friends.  The moment he called out she stopped and at his bidding would take a broom in her trunk and sweep the dead leaves off the grass; after which she would carefully carry after him a large pail of water for him to re-fill his watering pot—for in those days the garden-hose was not invented.  When the tidying up was all done, the elephant was given a carrot and some of the water, but very often the keeper would amuse himself with handing her a soda-water bottle tightly corked, telling her to empty it.  This she did by placing the bottle in an inclined position on the ground and holding it at the proper angle with her foot, while she twisted the cork out with her trunk.  This accomplished, she would empty all the water into her trunk without spilling a drop and then hand the battle back to her keeper.

Sadi died in 1829 and is supposed to have been buried at Chiswick, although the site of her grave has not been found.

“A Strange Tiger,” the biography of a famous tiger sent as a gift to George III in 1790 and resident of the Tower Menagerie, comes from the Rev. William Bingley’s Animal Biography in three volumes, first published in 1803 and reissued multiple times in the 1800s.

Unlike most of its tribe, the little tiger soon made itself at home on board ship, and as it was too small to do much harm, it was allowed to about loose and played with anybody who had time for a game.  It generally like to sleep with the sailors in their hammocks, and they would often pretend to use it for a pillow, as it lay at full length on the deck.  Partly out of fun, and partly because it was its nature so to do, the tiger would every now and then steal a piece of meat, if it found one handy.  One day it was caught red-handed by the carpenter, who took the beef right out of its mouth, and gave it a good beating, but instead of the man getting bitten for his pains, as he might have expected, the tiger took his punishment quite meekly, and bore the carpenter no grudge after.  One of its favourite tricks was to run out to the very end of the bowsprit, and stand there looking over the sea, and there was no place in the whole ship to which it would not climb when the fancy took it.  But on the whole, the little tiger preferred to have company in its gambols, and was especially fond of dogs, of which there were several on board.  They would chase each other and roll over together just like two puppies, and during the ten month or so that the voyage from China lasted, they had time enough to become fast friends.  When the vessel reached London, the tiger was at once taken to the Tower, which was the Zoological Gardens of those days.  The little fellow did not mind, for he was always ready to take what came and make the best of it, and all the keepers grew as fond of him as the sailors had been.

This sounds quite unbelievable, but historians of the wild animal trade during this time have established it was normal to give the animals their freedom on board ship unless circumstances warranted otherwise…

“Signora and Lori,” which Leonora Lang translated from the 10th number of Deutsche Blaetter (1867) is a variation on those fables in which one clever but unscrupulous animal takes advantage of  a more amiable one.

A German gentleman owned a handsome parrot who was a great talker and a poodle Signora Patti named after the great soprano.  He trained the dog to fetch a basket at the command, “Go to the baker.”  When she dropped it in front of him and patted the floor with her paw, he would drop money into it, which was the sign for her to run to the shop and return with cakes.   Sometimes her master sent her without any money, saying “On the tick.”  The baker would fill the order and put it on account.  Either way, the Signora was rewarded with cake.   The clever parrot quickly learned the commands and turned the situation to its advantage.

But it was not only for pastime that Lori exercised his gift; the cunning bird used it for the benefit of his greedy beak.  It began to happen often to the master to find that his private account-book, carefully kept in the smallest details, did not agree well with that of his neighbor the baker.  The Signora, declared the baker, had become most accomplished in the art of running up a long bill, and always, of course, at her master’s orders.  Only the master, when he looked over the reckoning, growled to himself: “My neighbor is a rogue; he chalks up the amount double.”

How very much was he astonished, then, and how quickly were his suspicions turned into laughter, when he beheld, through a half-open door, the following absurd scene.

It was one fine morning, and Lori sat upon the top of his cage, calling out in his shrillest tones: ”Signora, Signora!” The poodle hastened to present herself before him, wagging her tail, and Lori continued, “go to the Baker.”  The Signora fetched the little basket from the place, and put it before her tyrant, scratching her paw on the floor to ask for money.

“On tick!” was Lori’s prompt and brief remark: the Signora seized the basket, and rushed out of the door.  Before long she returned, laid the basket, full of the little cakes before the parrot, and looked with a beseeching air for the reward of her toil.

But the wicked Lori received her with a sharp, ”Get out,” putting her to” flight, and proceeded to enjoy his ill-gotten gains in solitude.

The situation surely demanded that Lori be punished.   If it is any consolation, the anecdote is  more good-humored than La Fontaine’s well-known verse fable, “The Monkey and the Cat,” because the duped animal isn’t hurt (the cat who pulls the roasting chesnuts out of the fire for the monkey is badly burned).

It’s a subject for another time to explore when the appetite for stories like these about animals became so beguiling to readers and how they came to cross media in our time.

Crocodiles Star in Picture Books

The number of crocodiles and alligators in picture books have proliferated over the last few decades for no obvious reason.  Increasing the representation of reptiles might be a good thing if we think their stories should be told alongside those of creatures with fur and feathers.  They aren’t the usual friendly beasts in children’s  books.  Just watch a crocodile bring down a wildebeest on a BBC Earth or a YouTube video of a gigantic alligator marching across a Florida golf course.

F. D. Bedford’s illustration of Captain Hook’s demise from J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy (1911).

Famous literary crocodile characters tend to be wily predators, like the ticking one waiting for its chance to nab the rest of Captain Hook or the soft-spoken “large-pattern leather ulster” that grabs the Elephant Child’s nose to drown him for dinner.  After its fifteen-minutes of fame in Paris as the Egyptian sensation, the reptile in Fred Marcellino’s I, Crocodile (1999) eludes Napoleon’s cook by slithering down a manhole into the sewer, where it can pick off unwary merveilleuses for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.Hippos can take on crocodiles in nature, a situation playfully recreated in Catherine Rayner’s Solomon and Mortimer (2016), where two bored male juveniles find themselves at the receiving end of their own practical joke.  Humans fare less well. Thomas in Patricia McKissack’s A Million Fish…More or Less (1992) illustrated by Dena Schutzer doesn’t stand a chance against Old Atoo, the grand-pere of the Bayou Clapateaux’s alligators, when he claims share of the enormous catch.Girls seem better at eluding crocodile incursions than boys. In Sylviane Donnio’s I’d Really Like to Eat a Child (2007) illustrated by Dorothee de Monfried, a girl so effortlessly repels scrawny Achilles’ attack that he realizes that he will have to consume mountains of bananas to grows big enough to catch tasty young humans. Poling through the bayou in her flat boat, the girl in Candace Fleming’s Who Invited You? (2001) illustrated by cartoonist George Booth has to let a heap of bold animals cadge rides. The low-riding boat catches the attention of “a-smilin’, a-slinkin’, a-blinky-blanky-winkin’” old gator who tries to clamber in too.  When the original nine freeloaders tell him there’s no more space, he just grins as wide as he can, “That’s all right…’cause I have room for YOU.” The girl escapes without a scratch. The heroine of author-illustrator Sophie Gilmore’s Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast (2019) runs a jungle clinic catering to sick crocodiles. One day Big Mean, the largest and surliest of them all, turns up at the door and isn’t especially uncooperative.  While the monster takes a cat nap, the little doctor finally succeeds in prying open her jaws.  By falling accidentally into Big Mean’s mouth, she finds the real patients, little hatchlings that need untangling from plastic waste.  For freeing them without a second thought about ng her own safety, Big Mean pronounces the little doctor  a “fearless beast…who could not rest until she had helped her fellow creature.”Of all the scene-stealing reptiles, the one in Laura Amy Schlitz’s Princess Cora and the Crocodile (2017) takes the prize.  The princess begs her fairy godmother for a dog and receives a crocodile instead, who has been charged with rescuing the princess from her overly fastidious nanny and slave-driving royal parents.  The crocodile will impersonate the princess and refrain from biting or eating anyone so she can have a day off to do exactly what she pleases.  During her absence, he stays more or less within parameters, but uses deliberately inappropriate methods of sensitizing the nanny, queen, and king to her discontents.  But they do set the stage for Princess Cora to calmly renegotiate the terms of her daily routine, which earns him in perpetuity a place in the royal lily pond and all the chocolate and vanilla cream puffs he can gobble up.

The gaping jaws need never be opened to make a wonderful picture book starring crocodiles, as the last two featured titles demonstrate. The quiet crocodile Fossil, created by Natacha Andriamirado and Delphine Renon, cheerfully plays along with his small herd of animal friends who clamber onto his back to form and reform into living sculptures until commanded to roar and send them flying.Instead of imagining a friendly crocodile at play, Giovanna Zoboli and Mariachiara di Giorgio celebrate the daily routine of a contented working reptile in their wordless Professional Crocodile (2017).  If you want to know his place of employment, you’ll have to read the book!With apologies to Bernard Waber and Maurice Sendak for not having room for Lyle, Lyle Crocodile and No Fighting, No Biting!